More than rules, Church needs a change of heart



Trigger warning: sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse.

The National Catholic Safeguarding Standards launched today are the outcome of the work of Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, a body that has insisted it is 'functionally independent' from the institutional Australian Church. Questions have been asked about that independence, and will continue to be asked.

Holy Hell by Patricia FeenanBut other, more important, questions will be asked by many who read the Standards, or simply read that such standards have been issued in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

These questions will not arise out of a vacuum. They, just like the Standards themselves, have arisen out of a tragic context. The sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and church personnel, and the cover-ups and denial that allowed it to continue, have become defining characteristics of the Church in our society.

The Standards must be implemented, immediately and in full. However they are not, in and of themselves, enough. The Church, after all, has no shortage of standards: from the Ten Commandments, to the catechism, to canon law and beyond.

Then there is Towards Healing, the Australian Catholic Bishops document outlining 'principles and procedures in responding to complaints of abuse against personnel of the Catholic Church in Australia'. It was first published in 1996, and revised in 2000 and 2010.

There are guidelines, standards, rules and laws galore. None of these stopped clergy and church personnel abusing children, or necessarily led those in authority to act.

The Australian community could therefore be forgiven a certain scepticism. Legislative changes, stronger governance and mission statements mean little without metanoia — a change of heart.


"Individuals who make the effort to complain about any matter will be reassured only when they find that complaints management is effective and based on gospel values, rather than corporate box-ticking."


Few people would want the Standards to be upheld more than Patricia Feenan of Morpeth, NSW. Patricia's son, Daniel, was abused by now deceased priest, James Fletcher. Fletcher was convicted on nine counts of sexual abuse in December 2004. He died well before his sentence was completed.

'Standards needed to be created because of the woefully inadequate way child sexual abuse has been handled by the Catholic Church historically,' Patricia says. It is, however, the way such standards are implemented that counts, as well as addressing 'the clericalism that led to abusers getting away with their crimes'.

Individuals who make the effort to complain about any matter will be reassured only when they find that complaints management is effective and based on gospel values, rather than corporate box-ticking.

They will be inspired when they see a clear connection between the word of God preached to them and the life of the preacher. They will gain confidence when their encounters with clergy and religious, and the institutional structures that support them, are open, transparent and supportive.

Individuals whose encounters with clergy and religious, and the institutional structures that support them, are less than open, transparent and effective, will feel let down. It was ever thus.

In the experience of Patricia Feenan and her family, Towards Healing was significantly breached. Patricia wrote a book about the case, Holy Hell (2012), and has continued to advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse. While her faith in God remains strong, her faith in the institutional church is changed forever.

Yet asked about the potential impact of National Catholic Safeguarding Standards, Patricia is open to the possibility of metanoia, despite all.

'I want the church community to be open in acknowledging the sad truth that led to the need for these national standards,' she says. 'Much of our pain arose from the way the Catholic community — our community — responded to us. There are still those who don't believe it all happened.'

Let the Catholic Church live up to the National Standards, fully and immediately. But more importantly, let the Catholic Church live up to the uncompromising demands of the gospel. If that happens, children will be safe, and our society will be richer in kindness, justice, peace and truth.


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Tracey EdsteinTracey Edstein is a freelance writer and former editor of Aurora, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

Topic tags: Tracey Edstein, clergy sexual abuse, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

As much as we need to look back we need to also look at the now, to observe and support the religious who continue to offer pastoral care and concern. The culture is changing, and we go nowhere if we stand still and say nothing us different.

Rosemary Sheehan | 30 May 2019  

I will never understand how this has been allowed to happen. Yet I lived through it perhaps in the spirit of "hear no ... See no ...speak no ... Specially if clergy were involved. Many of us trusted that someone was doing something about it and really, it was none of our business. But that time has gone and it is time for public confession and reparation. Thanks Tracey. It"'s good to read your thoughts.

Margaret McDonald | 30 May 2019  

Thanks,Tracey. Your call to metanoia is timely. In perusing the standards today I have been impressed by Robert Fitzgerald's video clip interview with Geraldine Doogue maintaining that a child-safe institution calls for a change of heart from boardroom to basement: All need to ask whether the decisions we are making and the actions we are taking in the best interests of the child. What a reversal!

Vivien | 30 May 2019  

The child sexual abuse crisis in the church is a symptom of its dysfunctional governance. I hope and pray that Australia's 2020 Plenary Council will bring urgently-needed reform.

Grant Allen | 30 May 2019  

It is difficult to know where to locate the subject of clergy sexual abuse in the list of challenges facing the Catholic Church. My experiences of education in Catholic secondary & tertiary has led me to conclude that Catholic teachers, especially those in the clerical or religious state, have great difficulty in talking about pleasure. Most were pretty coherent when talking about the soul with its faculties of intellect and will, but of human instincts and desires - nix. Unless one was fortunate enough to have a Classics teacher who explained the culture of the Greeks & the Romans who had a whole theology dedicated to the deification of human passions, desires, emotions & instincts. Nearly every serious emotional problem among men & women could be seen replicated in the behaviour of the various deities. The metanoia I would like to see is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church make an honest appraisal of the advances made in Psychology, Psychiatry & Neurology regarding human sexuality. Examine it with an open mind and be prepared to modify current church dogma. Sexual activity is a multi-functional part of human potential, in which the intention is only one among a number of valid intentions, such as pleasure, or the deepening of an intimate relationship not necessarily involving physical intercourse.

Uncle Pat | 30 May 2019  

It seems that the hierarchy has had no change of heart when it comes to hard-ball defence in court. See < > I find it hard to reconcile this behaviour with the setting up of the Professional Standards group.

Ginger Meggs | 30 May 2019  

To Grant Allen: Grant, I am not confident that 2020 Plenary Council will be successful. At the plenary meeting I attended, 20 parishioners (out of about 8500) were given ten minutes to write their thoughts on a 'post-it note'.

John Casey | 30 May 2019  

Correction to my previous comment. My last sentence ought to have read - ... the intention to reproduce is one among a number of valid intentions, such as pleasure, ...

Uncle Pat | 31 May 2019  

Hi Tracy, Like Margaret, I will never understand how these terrible abuses were allowed to happen, let alone the massive coverups that keep them from our attention. Sadly, I was educated by a number of them -unknowingly, although rumours were rife among my classmates (in the 1960's) . I recently discovered that I had been teaching with some of them-I was shocked and sickened ! Sadly those in charge then , are still in charge today. We need a cleaning out of these people with new blood in church leadership, although I doubt there will be any takers! Few perpetrators have been jailed, let alone defrocked. All the rules, regulations and audits in the world will not prevent abuse unless the perpetrators are brought to justice and made an example of with long jail sentences and removal from ministry for life. While I attended the Archdiocesan Plenary Council sessions and wrote a response to the organizers, like John I am not confident that the Council's deliberations will result in any useful changes to the Church functionality. In the end the conservative, reactionary Roman Curia will torpedo any modernization of the Church.

Gavin O'Brien | 31 May 2019  

Thank you Tracey. I have just watched ‘The Keepers’ and have just read James Carroll on ‘Abolish the Priesthood.’ Both confronting pieces of work and both worthy of engagement in this discussion. There is something deeply wrong.

Fiona Winn | 01 June 2019  

While my son and our family take nothing away from the horror those who have experienced sexual abuse have been through, it is not just sexual abuse that has been hidden and the perpetrators rewarded. My son was physically abused by his Catholic primary school principal. More than once. As were others in the school. Openly, in front of students and teachers, and others at assembly, in front of parents and the whole school community. My son, and many of these others, have diagnosed mental issues such as ADHD. The upshot was an investigation “upheld my allegations”. We in the end left the school, at which I had been school captain myself as a child, and the principal was promoted out of there, to a higher grade but, I was assured, a non-teaching position. My son was officially told he must “learn to take responsibility for his own actions”. Betrayed and let down by the school community, the Church, the local Catholic policeman, I still feel it all brought back in listening to these stories of other victims. Maybe not as traumatic as sexual abuse, but even so a life-long wound on all of us, with no recognition of such.

Pauline | 02 June 2019  

The problem is that church-people (clerical and lay) are trained to be lenient. There seems to be an inculcated impression hardened over the centuries that leniency is integral to forgiveness. Any organisation that is in the habit of confessionally remitting the guilt of mortal sin by placing on a sinner the immense (not) burden of saying a formulaic prayer or two is never going to be able to deal proportionately with the hardened sinners in its employ. While we can’t expect the Church to imitate the effective deterrent of a Bolshevik or Maoist of using bullets to make an example of egregious sin (a bit of a pity, actually), an internal organisational habit of speaking Israel- Folau-brimstone truth to power might have done better in outing pedophiles and avoiding a lot of hurt. Pedophiles should have been shamed and dumped (that’s what ‘let them be anathema’ is) but Christians just aren’t tough enough – for now.

roy chen yee | 03 June 2019  

The issues discussed by Tracey Edstein, are part of a broader problem in the Catholic Church – east and west. Over a very long time Catholic clergy have appropriated power extending well beyond the scope of their competency and legitimate role - custody of Church property, management of community services, finances, public relations, etc. After a long slumber, Catholic lay people need to wake up and take back their Church. We can be sure that the clergy will resist. Those with power don’t give it up easily. The required culture, mechanisms, organisations and institutions will take time to develop, but it must be done. Adam J Deville, discusses this in detail in his book: ‘Everything Hidden shall be revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.’

Michael Taouk | 03 June 2019  

Thank you Tracey. So well articulated. I recall my earlier comments that perpetrators, cover-uppers and justice-deniers were/are ordained men, ostensibly with a Vocation to love the poor, protect the vulnerable, and be the voice of the voiceless. If this higher Calling was not enough for them to behave with simple human decency, we are right to question whether a new code of conduct will do the job, especially when it is a reaction to something outside the tent (Royal Commission). Everyone should be on board with Child Protection as a very expression of our Faith, and our leaders now (or always) committed to it must be supported with effective mechanisms in place to deal with issues justly and compassionately. Policies and standards do not solve problems on their own: In my old corporate life, I once sought advice from HR on behalf of a colleague who was being "stood over" by another employee. Our HR "advocate" simply informed me, "That isn't happening here. We have strong codes against it."

Kevin Wilson | 04 June 2019  

Grant Allen. If the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is due solely to dysfunctional governance, in light of the fact that some 90% of child abuse occurs within a child's family, the fundamental structural unit on which civilised human society depends, I reckon the Church's problem simply reflects the progressive erosion and loss of Judeo-Christian Western Civilisation.

john frawley | 04 June 2019  

Past and recent survivors stories demonstrated that the Church may have policies on child and vulnerable adult protection, but their application cannot be taken for granted.

P.Boylan | 14 June 2019  

P. Boylan, what institution is there in society whose policies and protections can be taken for granted? Credit where credit is due: the efforts of the Catholic Church in Australia to prevent child abuse - particularly in education - deserve recognition rather than a facile and generic scepticism.

John RD | 17 June 2019  

The Australian Royal Commission into Institution Child Sex Abuse (Volume 16) found that the pontifical secret is still applied where there are no applicable civil reporting laws & recommended its abolition. There has been discussion to remove it but Pope Frances hasn’t abolished the Pontifical Secret. Has ACBC provided a new ‘interpretation’ of canon law’s Pontifical Secret? If Bishops and religious follow the National Catholic Safeguarding Standard 6.4, there should be no concealment and coverup of clerical child sex abuse in Australia (except Queensland). However, the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards don’t have the force of canon law from the Vatican. NB Queensland is the only state where there is no mandatory child sex abuse reporting law for clergy who manage 1/3 of schools.)

P.Boylan | 21 June 2019  

If Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge was serious about the protection of children from clerical sex abuse, he might just start with lobbying publically to require mandatory child abuse reporting laws for clergy in Queensland. A parliamentary bill on mandatory reporting for clergy was raised by former Member for Cairns, Robert Pyne. There was a deafening silence from the Brisbane Archbishop but not the church lawyer. If the bishop and religious owned religious charity, Catholic Professional Standards Limited is serious about safeguarding children, their marketing budget would be better spent on supporting national child protection legislation. It’s time for laity to call for uniform mandatory child abuse reporting laws in Australia.

P.Boylan | 21 June 2019  

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