Five of Australia’s most senior Catholic figures fronted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, all of whom condemned the Church’s failure to protect vulnerable children.
The archbishops of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth were questioned about how the Church had allowed the sexual abuse of at least 4,444 children between 1980 and 2015.
The Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, suggested the Church’s failure to respond to endemic child sexual abuse amounted to “criminal negligence” , admitting the problem was “staring us in the face.”
“… I think there were people that were just like rabbits in the headlights, they just had no idea what to do, and their performance was appalling,” he told the public hearing.
Above the law
The Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, gave a damning assessment of the way allegations of sexual abuse had been handled by the Church.
He acknowledged there had been a “catastrophic failure” to properly deal with claims, describing the Church’s response as “hopelessly inadequate” and “scandalously insufficient”, adding that the perceived immunity of the Church leadership had enabled members to go unchecked for decades.
He criticised Church leaders for viewing themselves as “so special, so unique and so important” that they were “untouchable… a law unto themselves.”
“That can then trickle down to the priests in the parish. I would see that as one of the major causes of this inability to deal with this terrible crisis”, he remarked.
Archbishop Fisher was asked by barrister Gail Furness SC about why the Church went to great lengths to protect individuals who were committing abuse.
“There was a lack of empathy,” he replied. “You didn’t want scandal; you didn’t want causes for people to think less of the clergy or the bishops or the institutions. Things were staring us in the face but … people wouldn’t see it.”
Fisher conceded that members of the Church recognised sexual abuse of children as evil, adding “I think they didn’t appreciate the long-term damage that this was doing to people.”
He claimed there is now more empathy and compassion towards those who have been abused, and a better understanding of the long-term damage it causes.
The Royal Commission has conducted 15 public hearings into the conduct of Catholic Church authorities and related institutions.
The Church has paid $276 million in compensation to victims to date, and there is likely to be many more claims.
A 2015 report by former Federal Court judge Donnell Ryan QC into the Church’s compensation scheme for victims, set up by then archbishop of Melbourne George Pell, has been suppressed by the Church for more than a year. The basis for the suppression, according to the Church, is that the report examines complaints against Church processes and caps on payment to victims.
It has also been reported that the the Christian Brothers underpaid sexual abuse victims by millions of dollars as they were fearful of being “… taken to the cleaners.” This is the same organisation that spent $1.53 million on legal fees defending one of the nation’s most notorious paedophiles, Charles Robert Best, prompting a judge to declare, “it just blows me away”.
Archbishop Fisher says he has repeatedly apologised to victims and their families, and believes there has been institutional reform. “No excuses, no cover-ups, no paedophiles ever again near our churches and schools,” he vowed.
The statements by the archbishops are promising. However, as commission chair Justice Peter McClellan noted, the Catholic Church has had procedures for dealing with child abuse since the 4th century. He questioned how, in that context, the Church could enable the endemic sexual abuse of children throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
History demonstrates that leaving powerful institutions to their own devices is a recipe for disaster. It is hoped the Commission’s final recommendations will lead to the better protection of children in the future.