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Neerkol orphanage findings and the place of compassion



The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has now published its Case Study 26 on the Neerkol Orphanage in Rockhampton.

The Commission finds that the response by the bishop and by the Sisters of Mercy to victims making complaints prior to 1996 was often inadequate and lacking in compassion. It also makes a damning finding that the bishop was dishonest in a letter he sent to the diocese.

I still have a problem with this commission making findings on issues like the want of compassion. When it reported on the Ellis Case, I said the royal commission (being appointed by the state rather than the church) had no business finding that Cardinal Pell 'did not act fairly from a Christian point of view'. I thought they should simply have found that the Cardinal did not act fairly. Similarly I wonder about the competence, utility and power of a royal commission to make findings on compassion. Sure, the Christian churches espouse compassion as a Christian virtue, but I don't see that it is something usefully to be assessed or mandated by a royal commission. To find how compelling the commissioners' findings on compassion were, I would first want to know how compassionate each of them is, and that's basically none of my business. They are royal commissioners performing a legal task for the state. Would the commission make findings that other institutions (like Swimming Australia or the State Department of Child Welfare) did not act compassionately?

The word 'compassion' or 'compassionate' appears 21 times in this case study report. I have no problem with church people or other individuals adversely judging church leaders for a lack of compassion. There may even be a case for politicians doing it, and then arguing the toss on whether they are more compassionate than the people they are criticising. But I don't think it's the job of a royal commission. If it is the job of the royal commission, why do they stop at compassion? Why not also offer judgments about whether the responses are loving, merciful and self-sacrificing? I think by over-reaching itself in this way, the commission actually blunts its findings about the adequacy of responses, including compliance with protocols and sensitivity to the needs of victims. The issue is not whether church leaders measured up to the ideals of the Christian virtue of compassion but whether they measured up to the standards properly expected by the Australian community, regardless of people's religious commitments and views. You would hope that church leaders would do more to assist victims than merely to comply with community standards. To date, the commission has unearthed countless instances where the church leaders have not even complied with those community standards. But I am uneasy about a royal commission making assessments about virtue which go beyond the laws and protocols which might be set down for all institutions and for all individuals.

One of the most impressive witnesses at the Neerkol hearing was Ms Rowan (who was once a Sister of Mercy in a leadership position). She told the commission:

'I felt there were two possible responses open to the Sisters of Mercy. The legal response — essentially what we could do to defeat any claim in a court of law — and the compassionate response — essentially what the sisters of Mercy wanted to do for former residents. I was of the view that it was not appropriate or morally justifiable to take the legal response where a compassionate response could be sustained.'

But there is no way a royal commission will be able to make recommendations about compassion which will then be legislated by parliaments and imposed by courts. So where is the royal commission heading with all this? Are they going to make formal recommendations in the end that the churches be more compassionate, or that all institutions be more compassionate towards victims? Instead of making findings about lack of compassion, I think the commission would be able to produce better outcomes if it confined itself to making formal findings about where there were institutional failures to deal promptly, transparently and fairly with complaints of abuse.

Moral judgments about individual lack of compassion are not the business of a royal commission, even though we would all hope that all children who are victims of abuse would be treated compassionately by everybody. 

Here are some examples from the report (including the Executive summary, so there is some repetition):

'We conclude that, in failing to contact AYC directly and acknowledge her allegations or offer her pastoral support, Sister Loch's and Bishop Heenan's responses were inadequate and lacked compassion.'

'We are satisfied that Bishop Heenan failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYB's complaint of child sexual abuse in 1993 because he did not respond in a timely way to AYB's letters, phone calls or request to meet with him.'

'We are satisfied the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to Mr Owen by not contacting him and acknowledging his complaint in a timely manner.'

'We are satisfied that, in failing to provide a compassionate and adequate response, the Diocese and the Sisters exacerbated Mr Owen's pain and suffering.'

'We are satisfied that before 1997 the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYQ's complaint of child sexual abuse by not contacting him to acknowledge his complaint and in not offering him any pastoral support.'

'We conclude that, before February 1997, Sister Loch failed to provide a compassionate response to AYP by not contacting AYP directly to acknowledge the allegations and by not offering AYP pastoral support.'

'The church parties submit that Bishop Heenan's and Sister Loch's responses were adequate and did not lack compassion. We conclude that, in failing to contact AYC directly and acknowledge her allegations or offer her pastoral support, the responses by both Sister Loch and Bishop Heenan were inadequate and lacked compassion.'

'While the church parties accept that Bishop Heenan's response was inadequate, they submit that Bishop Heenan did respond in a compassionate way to AYB.'

'We are satisfied that Bishop Heenan failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYB's complaint of child sexual abuse in 1993 because he did not respond in a timely way to AYB's letters, phone calls or request to meet with him.'

'Sister Loch accepted that, in failing to contact Mr Owen and acknowledge his allegations, she did not provide a compassionate response to him.'

'We are satisfied the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to Mr Owen by not contacting him and acknowledging his complaint in a timely manner.'

'We are satisfied that before 1997 the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYQ's complaint of child sexual abuse by not contacting him to acknowledge his complaint and in not offering him any pastoral support.'

'We conclude that before February 1997 Sister Loch failed to provide a compassionate response to AYP by not contacting AYP directly to acknowledge the allegations and by not offering AYP pastoral support.'

Make no mistake. I am all for compassion. But I don't think it's the domain of a royal commission.

The commission has produced reports on a number of other institutions without any religious affiliation. Those reports include inquiries into the Scouts, Parramatta Girls Home, an independent Perth School, and Bethcar Childrens Home. Guess what. The word 'compassion' does not appear even once in any of those reports. Now, the commissioners may have found all individuals in those institutions to be exemplars of compassion. But then again, may be they just thought it was none of their business to be expressing views about the morality and the virtue of the persons in those institutions. Maybe they just stuck to their last, proposing ways in which the state can make institutions safer for children, regardless of the virtue and religious sensibility of the managers.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse, Neerkol, Rockhampton



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Existing comments

I, as a witness, was rather disappointed about the Commissioners Report on Case Study 26. Point taken on the overuse of the word COMPASSION. For me it wasn't about the lack of "Compassion" it was about the breaches of the "Human Rights of a Child", of Statutue Legislation, the Criminal actions of Sexual Abuse of a minor as well as the barbaric treatment/actions of all associated (priests, nuns, State, guardians, employees ect) with this institution. Our Fundamental Rights were non existing and are still barriers in the Court of Law re "The Statutue of Limitations" our disadvantages re affordability, interest of Lawyers and our abilities that were stunted by our treatment, effects, education and so on. Ms Rowan's (formally SOM) response may have been a Compassionate one at the time considering we didn't have a legal leg to stand on, instead, we had a "Take it or Leave it Offer" from the Class Action Lawyer appointed by the NASG. Where is there mentioned in this report about the Childhood Lost, the Injustice Done, and the Duty of Care that these State/Church Institutions legally had? The SOM have done far more for survivors than the Church whose clergy preyed on children!!!!!!

Mary Adams | 22 April 2016  

A case study is not a reliable way of coming to the truth about anything. A limiting ideology is being applied. as a means of selecting material facts.Two cases were tried in the Federal Court alleging i stances of supposed stealing of children.No evidence os "stealing" was found and I think I recollect that in one case the Judge found as a fact that al actions were proper and proportionate. Yet the HRC Report is still pretended to represent the true facts. The Federal Government cannot get far with aiding Aborigines if rubbish is treated as fact. I am old enough to remember what orphanage looked like Thin,starved looking and craving for affection. A parental threat was to send you to the Orphanage. On the other hand I feel now that nuns did much with virtually nothing, The moral and ideological state of those in authority must be most concerning,

David Nelson | 22 April 2016  

You complain about the word compassion being included in Royal Commission 20 odd times Perhaps if true compassion had been showed to the vulnerable children in Neerkol Orphanage there would be no need for that Orphanage's horrific treatment of Qld state wards ! Yesterday I spoke to David Owen he has given me permission to speak on his behalf He is in his 70's still is emotional talking about what occured in that warehouse for Poor children He told me a story about 14 yrs ago One Christmas he lined up to get his present took the christmas wrapped box unwrapped it - the box was empty he went up to a nun said Sister the box is empty Her reply to young David Empty boxes for empty heads ! Where was the Sisters of Mercy's compassion ? So thank you Royal Commission for putting in the C word in St Joseph's Orphanage Neerkol Leonie Sheedy CLAN

Leonie Sheedy | 22 April 2016  

Father Brennan SJ (or is Frank Brennan, Professor of Law, confusing his identity?) declares himself “uneasy about a royal commission making assessments about virtue which go beyond the laws and protocols which might be set down for all institutions and for all individuals”. Lest we be mistaken, he adds, “I am all for compassion. But I don't think it's the domain of a royal commission.” Why not? Father/Professor Brennan’s answer implies that abusive clergy and Catholic leaders must not be judged according to the Christian standards they themselves preach. It is enough, he says, to assess “whether they measured up to the standards properly expected by the Australian community, regardless of people's religious commitments and views”. The royal commissioners are merely “performing a legal task for the state”. If only life were so simple: black/white; true/untrue; good/bad; safe/unsafe; legal/moral. Frank Brennan obviously can’t smell the stench of hypocrisy in the air. It is at its most odious around the church which exhorts its followers to live a life of compassion while turning a blind eye to its preachers who commit the most foul and immoral acts on society’s most vulnerable. I would be profoundly disappointed if the royal commission did not express views about the morality and the virtue of persons employed by church institutions who abused the trust of children and families by taking advantage of their robes of morality and virtue.

Frank Golding | 22 April 2016  

I am all for compassion. I just don't think assessing compassion or love or forgiveness is within the bailiwick of a state sponsored royal commission, and that's because I don't want to live in a nanny state nor a theocratic state. I am also concerned that royal commission findings about compassion risk dulling its effectiveness in making findings which might actually make a difference to victims by ensuring law or policy changes. A directive from a royal commission, a parliament or a court that churches or anyone else should be more compassionate, loving or forgiving will be seen to be what they are - mere words which will change nothing.

Frank Brennan SJ | 23 April 2016  

I doubt if the RC would consider such an absurdity as to legislate compassion into the actions of the caring institutions (Or love or mercy).But above the expectation of common decency there is an expectation of the application of Christian values as professed by clergy as Frank Golding points out. It would remiss if the RC did not report such apparent failures as suggested by the facts (ie not proven by judicial process) But they could legislate for zero tolerance of the exploitation of parishioners by clergy in positions of trust and power and they could leglislate for mandatory reporting to Police of child abuse. Priests would soon learn what was what as they saw their colleagues disgraced defrocked and child abusers in goal. Instead they are forgiven! And go on abusing. The question among others that many are hoping the RC will discover is how could such a monumental failure of duty of care be permitted ;let alone moral failure dare I say lack of compassion for the innocent and the vulnerable. John M

John murphy | 25 April 2016  

This case study of the royal commission covered the church and the Queensland government. Most of the report focuses on the church. The report relates to an orphanage where most of the the children were the ultimate responsibility of the state which was their legal guardian. The state entrusted the running of the orphanage to the church. The orphanage closed in 1978. Most of the report is taken up with analysing what the authorities did between 1993 when complaints of abuse were first published in a book and 1997 when government inquiries were instituted. The report details criticisms of church personnel lacking compassion between 1993 and 1997. It has very little detailed criticism of government personnel during that time basically because they did nothing at all. The commission does report:

‘We are satisfied that the Queensland Government failed to adequately supervise and protect from harm the children for whom it was guardian in the orphanage by: not ensuring adequately trained staff were employed as department inspectors; and not ensuring that it provided adequate scrutiny over the circumstances in which the children were living. ‘

‘We are satisfied it is likely there were no departmental policies or procedures issued by the Queensland Government for how institutions such as the orphanage should carry out their obligations to report abuse.’

There is no assessment offered of the Queensland government’s compassion. When claims for compensation were made, ‘The Queensland Government made it plain it would rely on the statute of limitations and was not involved in any settlement of the civil litigation.’

On the other hand this is the commission’s description of the church response:

‘By June 1999, the Sisters and the Diocese had settled with 72 claimants regarding the abuse that they suffered at the orphanage. The total amount paid to the former residents at that time was $790,910.

‘Ultimately, in excess of $1,000,000 was paid to members of the NASG. The Sisters and the Diocese made equal contributions to the payments.

‘The Sisters funded the continued operation of the PSO and the payment of compensation to former residents through the sale of the whole of the Neerkol property on December 2000. The Sisters initially took a loan against the conference centre and property at Neerkol and eventually sold the whole of the Neerkol property in December 2000 to repay the loan.

‘The Sisters and the Diocese subsequently settled two other civil claims by former residents of the orphanage – AYR and AYP. These claims were separate from those brought by the NASG.

‘We are satisfied the Diocese and the Sisters settled compensation claims with former residents despite legal advice they were in a strong position to defeat the claims because of the age of the claims. The Diocese and the Sisters contributed equally to the monetary amounts.’

Frank Brennan | 26 April 2016  

With all due respect, Frank Brennan SJ again misses the point. He reiterates that he is all for compassion…but hasn’t the stomach for the royal commission ‘assessing’ it or the related emotions of love and forgiveness. His reasoning is now extended to his dislike of ‘nanny states’ and ‘theocratic states’ - neither of which he defines and neither of which is at all relevant to the commission. He rails against the remote chance that the commission will issue a directive that churches should be more compassionate. Professor Brennan knows full well that the royal commission has no powers to do that. The royal commission is not about Father Brennan’s feelings and wishes. It’s about the way institutions, including the Catholic church, responded to child sexual abuse. And if the commissioners are struck by the lack of compassion shown by church leaders when they were alerted to crimes against children surely that is a relevant consideration to be reported. The lack of compassion must surely have been uppermost in the minds of victims and survivors who asked for help and got none? If Brennan dismisses compassion as irrelevant, what would he feel obliged to consider in assessing the appalling mishandling of reported child sexual abuse cases? Why did so many church leaders place the interests of criminals within the church above the needs of their traumatised victims? Were church leaders criminally predisposed to cover-up? Were they simply profoundly ignorant of the law? Did they not care…? And on Sundays, what was on their minds when they told their flock they should have compassion, love and forgiveness?

Frank Golding | 26 April 2016  

Could I ask Frank Golding: what did you think of the way the royal commission dealt with the State of Queensland's abject failures to do anything at all between 1993 and 1997, and the State of Queensland's decision to invoke the Statute of Limitations thereby telling the victims to get lost and look elsewhere, namely to the Church? After all it did purport to be a case study on the responses by the Church and by the State.

Frank Brennan SJ | 26 April 2016  

I am so confused about the whole commission, and about the ex residence's coming out into telling there story and hoping someone would believe them, compassion is this was none, no Christmas present or birthdays, where was the compassion back in the orphanage when we abandon and deserted as babies and left in the hands of the nuns and priest, I am no idea when this will end, my doctor asked me what would make me whole and I said no one can give me a childhood and a family like I have with my daughter has shown me. Love and hugs and kisses weren't given to me and other's I have told the truth and its all still about the church not about us.

Samilya Muller | 26 April 2016  

Frank Brennan SJ answers my questions with one of his own – an old debating ploy – but I’m happy to answer it. The commission sums up the legal position thus: “The Queensland Government authority was the legal guardian of the children at the orphanage apart from those children who were privately admitted. The governing authority of the orphanage was designated by the state government to be the Sisters, and the Mother Superior of the Sisters was the approved ‘carer’.” The royal commission is scathing about the failure of the Queensland government to exercise its responsibilities under the law from 1911 through to 1965 – and that failure established the conditions under which abuse could occur without check. The State routinely failed to inspect the Home as it was required to do to see that the children were being cared for and not mistreated. The State failed to employ adequately trained staff as department inspectors and failed therefore to ensure that it provided adequate scrutiny over the circumstances in which the children were living. Further, the state set out no policies or procedures for the reporting of physical or sexual abuse of children up and until it closed in 1978. Under these circumstances the commission concludes that no reports of sexual abuse were made to the Department because it had delegated all control of the place to the Sisters and victims had no way of making their complaints known to the State. The State effectively farmed out its state wards to the Sisters and made no efforts to supervise what happened. The commission satisfied itself “that the departmental officers did not provide a system of supervision for the delivery of care to children in the orphanage which would properly guard against the children being mistreated and thereby suffering harm” (p.10). That’s a damning condemnation if ever I heard one. The events between 1993 and 1996 have to be read against that background. The church attempted to handle public disclosures of sexual abuse in-house. When victims began to go public and involved the police matters heated up. From 1996 the government referred all allegations to the police and issued an official statement – only to be met by a pastoral letter issued by Bishop Heenan. As for the State reliance on statute of limitations, I can only say that is reprehensible. It shared culpability because of the manner in which it divested itself of a supervisory role which was properly owned. Two other State inquiries – the Children’s Commissioner (1998) and the Forde inquiry (1999) led to a State redress scheme in 2007. The commission further excuses itself from elaborating on the issue because it has already forwarded to government in September 2015 a comprehensive position on redress and civil action. At the end of the day, Neerkol is a stain on both church and state.

Frank Golding | 27 April 2016  

As a victim of child abuse albeit from the Salvation Army I find it quite appalling that Frank Brennan along with other church leaders has no problem with being an apologist for crimes that were committed in the name of God. Compassion, care and respect for the dignity of humans are traits that the Catholic Church says are part Christian virtues. In applying the notion of compassion the Catholic Church has accused various governments of not showing compassion to asylum seekers but does not want to be judged by its own standards. Perhaps Frank Brennan would have preferred the words, culpable, criminal, sadistic, cruel and inhuman for these rightly describe the actions of priests who abused innocent children and the Sisters of Mercy who showed none. If the Catholic Church had displayed Christian virtues then perhaps they wouldn't have lied, deceived, moved pedophiles all around the country and excused their behaviour by sending so many overseas. Other organisations that Brennan cites aren't necessarily Christian organisations so Christian virtues may not be ascribed to them. The church is supposed to show compassion, care and love. It failed miserably and no excuses can justify its abhorrent,wicked and evil behaviour.

James Luthy | 27 April 2016  

Thanks Frank. James, I am no apologist for those church personnel who committed sexual abuse on children. Their behaviour is appalling, criminal and sinful. I think you and I may be at cross purposes. The major focus of the royal commission’s case study was not on the abuse perpetrated at the orphanage before its closure in 1978. The major focus of the case study was on the response of the church and state government to the complaints of abuse first aired in 1993 and prior to the institution of a state sponsored set of inquiries beginning in 1997. I have been to Rockhampton twice since the royal commission conducted this hearing. I have met with and spoken to some of the key church personnel who were involved with the victims between 1993 and 1997 and beyond. Someone like Dianne Rowan has done an extraordinary job in building trust with the victims and assisting them with the rebuilding of their lives. Many of those victims cheered Dianne on when she gave her evidence to the royal commission. There is not a word of praise for her, as far as I can see, in the royal commission case study. If the case studies are about learning lessons from the past, I would have thought we could all take a few leaves from the book of someone like Dianne Rowan. If the commission and its lawyers were so keen to highlight responses which were ‘inadequate and lacking in compassion’, why didn’t they at least once highlight responses which displayed compassion in abundance while individuals were floundering around seeking the best way forward for everyone, especially victims? I assure you James that I am no ‘apologist for crimes that were committed in the name of God’. The fact that you think I am shows just how fraught this who royal commission exercise is. How are we going to build trust, bring closure, and move forward to arrangements which are more transparent, safe and just for all? I agree that ‘no excuses can justify … abhorrent, wicked and evil behaviour’. But people like Dianne Rowan did not engage in any such behaviour. People are left with the impression that all the church personnel involved responded inadequately and without compassion. This would have been a much better case study if the report contained at least one word of praise of someone like Dianne Rowan.

Frank Brennan SJ | 28 April 2016  

Now let's be honest. If the Catholic Church, the Anglicans, Salvation Army, Uniting and the rest of the churches initially showded care and compassion instead of resorting to legal threats and bullying then perhaps the Royal Commission would not have eventuated. The whole idea of valuing money and reputation at the expense of those who suffered horribly is quite abhorrent, yet this is what the churches did. It seems amazing that none of them discovered the notions of compassion until they were forced to by the civil courts. Hiding abusive clergy shows compassion, nor did the churches seem to develop a conscience until they had no choice and their actions were indefensible. It seems that the churches seem to have forgotten the words and example of Jesus who showed mercy and compassion to all he came into contact with. These were traits of the church and the Christian faith. If the Catholic Church, Salvos, Anglicans and the rest who preach these traits as basic tenets of their faith abided by their own beliefs then perhaps they would not be judged, and found wanting. The churches did not show compassion, they showed cruelty. The truth is finally being told.

James Luthy | 04 May 2016  

I hope it's OK for an unbeliever to comment. I've only recently come across Fr Brennan's thoughtful and humane comments on a variety of topics and usually find myself in agreement, On the 'compassion' issue though, I respectfully disagree. I think the Royal Commission was quite right to comment on the lack of compassion since in these cases, people had fallen short of one of the dominant characteristics the church claims for itself (often with justification, even this heathen has to admit!) If this had been a case of a judge showing partiality or a doctor who had been negligent of hygiene, for example, then these gross failures to live up to the standards of their professions should be noted and criticised. Similarly, if members of a church that has compassion at its heart betray those standards, then they need to be censured,

Anna | 19 May 2016  

In light of the many exchanges between myself and Frank Golding on this site, I find it extraordinary that he is able to tweet today: '[Brennan] wouldn't print my response to his assertions. Brennan has opposed the Royal Commission from day 1 .' As Mr Golding well knows, his assertions have been given a very good run on this Jesuit site and I have been happy to engage with him. As he also well knows, I have not been opposed to the royal commission from day 1. Only last month, I was saying, 'This week, Justice McClellan, Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse told the public: "The current breakdown of institutions in which survivors in private sessions state that they have been abused is as follows. 62 per cent of attendees reported abuse in a faith-based institution. Around 27 per cent reported abuse at government- run institutions. Abuse in Catholic institutions was reported by 40 per cent of all private session attendees, abuse in Anglican institutions by 8 per cent of attendees and abuse in Salvation Army institutions by 4 per cent of attendees." 'I am one of those Catholics who has welcomed the assistance of the state to put our house in order. The repeated evidence before the royal commission has convinced me that my church has been in serious disrepair, putting at risk many victims who could have been spared lives of living hell if only appropriate safeguards had been in place.' Let's have some truthful dialogue Mr Golding.

Frank Brennan SJ | 05 October 2016  

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