Response of Australian bishops and religious leaders is more dithering
On 31 August 2018,
the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious
Australia (CRA) released their official Response
to 80 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to
Child Sexual Abuse [LINK]. It came 259 days after the Royal Commission’s
Final Report, and 123 days after the
Truth, Justice and Healing Council (TJHC) advised them on what to do [LINK] .
Catholics for Renewal acknowledges the positive reforms that have been introduced to make children safer in Australia. But it has concerns about the Response which contains more promises than actions. It claims that 98 per cent of the Royal Commission’s recommendations have been “accepted or accepted in principle or supported”; that is less than honest, for it is based on the point blank rejection of only one recommendation regarding the ‘confessional seal’ (Rec. 7.4), one which merited at least a more thoughtful and nuanced response given that canon law (c.980) allows for absolution to be granted, refused or deferred. The Response, in fact, refers many recommendations ‘for further consideration’, including twelve (15% of the 80) marked as ‘Noted: ACBC has informed the Holy See’.
The Response adopts a far too timid approach to resolving the
culture of secrecy and clericalism enshrined in structures, attitudes and canon
law; over forty of the ‘accepted, accepted in principle, or supported’
decisions must await the future development of standards by Catholic
Professional Standards Limited (CPSL), which could take years; and the TJHC
advice that the critical review of governance and management structures of
dioceses and parishes (Rec. 16.7) “should be completed by mid-2019” is
effectively ignored; the only action there is to have the Implementation
Advisory Group (IAG) advise on the kind of review to be conducted and an
‘achievable timeline’. Many Catholics,
who were hoping for a robust and action-oriented response, will feel
The Royal Commission conducted its investigations over 5 years, listening to the stories of 7,981 survivors of abuse, 2,489 of them abused in Catholic institutions. Most were aged 10-14 years when they began to be abused. Their abusers included Catholic priests, religious brothers and sisters and laypersons. Many church leaders, including Catholic bishops, knew about the abuse yet failed to take effective action. Some ignored allegations, some treated alleged perpetrators leniently and failed to address the obvious risks they posed for children, and some concealed the abuse and shielded perpetrators from accountability. Institutional reputations and individual perpetrators were prioritized over victims and their families (Final Report, Preface and Executive Summary, 43-44) [LINK]. It called the sexual abuse of so many Australian children within many of the nation’s most trusted institutions over generations a ‘national tragedy’.
As a result of their initial response, Catholic bishops and other church leaders have lost the trust and respect, not just of the fast diminishing Catholic community, but of the wider Australian community. They failed to give witness to the message of Jesus who told his disciples: “Do not stop the little children from coming to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt. 19:13-15). Today, they have little credibility.
Australia’s bishops were not alone in failing to understand the sacred nature of children, their paramount place in God’s Kingdom, and how precious they are to parents and family; bishops across the world failed to understand. In today’s argot, they just ‘didn’t get it’; and many still don’t.
This failure was most evident in Amoris Laetitia, the document drafted by hundred of bishops at their 2014-2015 Synod on the Family intended to provide support and pastoral care to families everywhere. It had just 29 words to offer to the tens of thousands of families whose children had been sexually abused in Catholic institutions:
The sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions (n. 45) [LINK].
Until 20 August 2018, when Pope Francis issued his Letter to the People of God offering the first credible appraisal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Amoris Laetitia was where the bishops of the world were situated. It failed to utter the words which Francis has now so belatedly spoken:
I acknowledge the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of [Catholic] clerics and consecrated persons. [They were] crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members. [LINK].
Belated also are the words of the just-issued Response:
We thank especially the survivors of abuse who showed such courage in coming forward to bear witness to their suffering. To them and their families we offer our sincere and unreserved apology, and we commit anew to doing whatever we can to heal the wounds of abuse and to make the Church a truly safe place for all. We renew to all our expression of profound sorrow that children and young people were abused by clergy, religious and lay workers of the Catholic Church, and that many bishops and religious leaders failed to act to prevent abuse and to report offenders to police.
Catholics for Renewal has, over many years, called for major reform in the Church to address the systemic issues which allowed the abuse to occur and the cover-up to be facilitated. It has insisted that abuse and cover-up will only be erased when there is good governance. This means having the best possible processes for making and implementing decisions, having the highest levels of accountability from those exercising authority and leadership, having transparency in how and why decisions are made, having inclusiveness of members regardless of gender or other diversity, and having proper consultation policies and practices.
If the Catholic Church in Australia is to become a truly synodal church, its bishops must immediately put in place all that is necessary to enable it: diocesan and parish pastoral councils, diocesan synods, pastoral plans and annual reporting. The culture of clericalism has to be eradicated, priestly formation remodelled, and a meaningful role given to the laity in the selection of bishops. All these reforms were recommended by the Royal Commission. They have to start NOW.
The Response announces an official commitment to reform and renewal. Like Pope Francis, it promises that “no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, and able to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.” It pledges to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults and to do what is required to ensure justice and compassion for those abused. However, it says little about what will be done immediately to ensure justice and compassion.
TJHC member Prof. Greg Craven, writes: “I am deeply concerned for the future of victims with life-long mental health issues, which cannot be addressed simply through the once-off award of damages or redress”. Fellow TJHC member Dr Marian Sullivan, states: “The damage to the credibility of the Church can only be undone by continuing to focus on care for victims both in terms of supporting the redress scheme and pastoral care”.
Catholics for Renewal believes that the Church must immediately guarantee the survivors of sexual abuse, whose lives have been irreparably damaged, that they will be given ongoing and life-long counselling, pastoral care and support, which responds to the individual impact on their human dignity. Only such a guarantee will match the pledge of justice and compassion. The recent Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry Conference, held in Melbourne on 27-29 August 2018, heard that churches are still failing to respond adequately to the ongoing care needs of victims, their families and the communities who have been harmed [LINK].
Also conspicuous in the way the Response was prepared, was the lack of trust placed in the sensus fidei fidelium – the sense of faith of the Australian faithful – a fundamental Church teaching. Australia’s bishops have shown little desire for a truly synodal or ‘listening’ church, and scant respect for the advice of Pope Francis that:
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all members of God’s people. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.
Without genuine synodality, there will be a latent suspicion that real action and cultural change are going to fall far short of what needs to happen if our ailing and youth-poor Church in Australia is to be re-energized and be a credible sign of the Kingdom of God.
While Catholics for Renewal wants to think the best of the Response and give credence to its promises, it also wants to see immediate concrete actions. These appear to be a long way off and still being ‘kicked down the road’.
In March 2017, Catholics for Renewal addressed an Open Letter to the Bishops of Australia signed by thousands of Australian Catholics. It called on the bishops to ‘Act now’. The Response, while creditable, puts far too many decisions and actions on the ‘long finger’, clearly deferring many urgent decisions until the 2020/2021 Plenary Council. This dithering has to stop. The urgent decisions and actions cannot wait that long. Some fundamental reforms, especially in governance, can be implemented immediately. Bishops can put them in place today.
As Australian Catholics prepare for the still distant Plenary Council in
2020/2021, now is the time to demand real accountability, transparency and
inclusion from the bishops. Catholics
for Renewal would suggest that Catholics in every diocese respectfully demand
of their local diocesan bishop that he immediately establish a gender-balanced
diocesan pastoral council, mandate gender-balanced parish pastoral councils,
develop a 5-year diocesan pastoral plan via a diocesan synod – the “instrument par excellence for assisting the bishop
to order his diocese” (Directory for
Bishops, n. 67 [LINK])
-, and publish a comprehensive diocesan report for the year 2018 and all future
Image: Dither - hesitate, falter, vacillate,