A Christmas Message from the Royal Commission
It was fortuitous, perhaps even providential, that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published its Final Report just days before Christmas, for its many volumes contain one very simple and powerful message: we must all take responsibility for placing the child at the centre of our thinking and acting and, above all, for protecting the child from harm
For Australian Catholics it has been painful to read what the Commission has said of our church:
It is remarkable that in so many cases the perpetrator of abuse was a member of an organisation that professed to care for children. Just as remarkable was the failure of the leaders of that institution to respond with compassion to the survivor. Many institutions did not have a culture where the best interests of children were the priority. Some leaders did not take responsibility for their institution’s failure to protect children. Some leaders felt their primary responsibility was to protect the institution’s reputation, and the accused person. Many did not recognise the impact this had on children.
Many children have been sexually abused in religious institutions [and] the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions.
The failure to understand that the sexual abuse of a child was a crime with profound impacts for the victims, and not a mere moral failure capable of correction by contrition and penance (a view expressed in the past by a number of religious leaders) is almost incomprehensible. It can only be explained by acknowledging that the culture of some religious institutions prioritised alleged perpetrators and institutional reputations over the safety of children. In past generations, the trust placed by some parents and the broader community in institutions and their members meant that abusers were enabled and children’s interests were compromised. The prevailing culture that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ resonated throughout residential care, religious institutions, schools and some family homes. Their complaints of abuse ignored and rejected, many children lost faith in adults and society’s institutions.
The Commission was clearly dismayed at how Catholic bishops, priests and religious had strayed so far from what Jesus and the gospels had taught about children. It had begun its work assuming that these ministers were imbued with those teachings. It had assumed that they were aware of the messages in the Christmas story: of how every child is a precious gift of God – recall the extraordinary conception of John the Baptist to the elderly and barren Elizabeth; of how much joy the birth of a child brings not only to parents, but to family, friends and neighbours and, with the birth of Jesus, to strangers and the whole world – recall the wise men and the angel’s message to the shepherds; of how parents must be warned of the presence of predators in their midst – recall the warnings to Joseph and the wise men; and of how parents have a profound fear for the safety of their vulnerable and innocent children – recall the 3-day anxiety of Mary and Joseph when Jesus went missing on the journey home from Jerusalem.
At the outset, the Commission had assumed that these ministers were aware of how Jesus had placed children at the centre of the Kingdom of God – recall when the disciples had tried to turn some little children away and Jesus had said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
The Commission had assumed that they were aware that we must all become like children – recall the disciples asking Jesus “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and Jesus calling a little child to himself, setting the child in front of them and saying: “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven ... and the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”
The Commission had assumed that, of all people, bishops, priests and religious were aware of the awful fate that will befall anyone who harms a child – recall Jesus’ most fearful warning: “Anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck. Alas for the world that there should be such obstacles! Obstacles indeed there must be, but alas for the man who provides them! ... See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.”
The Commission was right to assume what it did. Yet, in the end, it found that so many bishops, priests and religious had taken little or no notice of the gospel teachings. They had failed to comprehend how precious is a child, how much joy a child brings, how vulnerable a child is, how much it needs to be protected, how much parents fear for the safety of their child, how parents are entitled to be warned of the danger of predators, and how gravely families and communities suffer when a child is harmed.
At the first Christmas, the angel announced a “joy to be shared by the whole people”. At Christmas 2017, the Royal Commission has announced a shame to be shared by all Australians.
The Commission has made a very practical recommendation to Australia’s Catholic bishops: conduct a national review of the Church’s diocesan and parish governance and management structures, and ensure that they include accountability and transparency, and consultative processes that include all the faithful.
And for all of us, the Commission has this most important message that we dare not neglect or forget:
It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are vulnerable to abuse. We must each resolve that we will do what we can to protect them. The tragic impact of abuse for individuals, and through them our entire society, demands nothing less.
Despite the shame that we must bear this Christmas, Catholics for Renewal prays that the Joy which is inherent in the birth of the Christ child will break through our present sadness and fill our hearts with love and faith and, above all, the firm hope that our church will become again that sign of the Kingdom that it is meant to be.