Friday, November 16, 2012

Hope royal commission will end abuse shame

THE Catholic Church has much of which to be proud. 

Across the world men and women, priests, brothers and nuns sacrifice a lot to bring education and health care to communities often abandoned or forgotten by those in power. 
The Catholic Church also has much of which to be ashamed. And its greatest shame is not just that a percentage of its cohort betrayed the trust of people of faith by abusing children.

Its shame is also that for decade after decade the church denied, hid, obfuscated, connived, ignored or, using compensation and confidentiality clauses, bought the silence of victims.

They did this with the arrogance of a powerful institution which claims to show the way and the truth.

Now it has come to this - Australia will have a royal commission examining institutional abuse across the board. 

But the fact, as Monash University lawyer and researcher Judy Courtin said recently, is that much of the reported abuse will have happened in Catholic institutions.

Courtin is conducting research into sexual assault and the Catholic Church. She has been highly critical of the church's response in Victoria and has been one of the toughest advocates for a nationwide inquiry.

But she is not the only one.

In NSW just last week, senior police investigator Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox publicly challenged NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell to launch a royal commission into child sex abuse by clergy.

In an open letter to the premier, Det Insp Fox said: "I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church."

When people such as Courtin and Det Insp Fox plead for action because they have witnessed pain and the ongoing damage of inaction, they are fissures through which society's frustration erupts.

They have no apparent vested interest - just professional observation.

Ten years ago when Catholic Archbishop George Pell was himself accused of sex abuse, by someone whose accusations were later found to be baseless, there were not many voices like Det Insp Fox's and Courtin's heard in the public discourse.

That is not to say that there were no voices, because media coverage around the issue was extensive and debate fierce at the time.

In 2002, however, the debate was particularly fierce because the Pell controversy followed allegations that former Anglican archbishop of Brisbane and then Governor-General Peter Hollingworth had failed to aptly deal with sex abuse complaints made against a church teacher at Toowoomba Prep School.

What sticks in the mind from that period is how Hollingworth in an ABC TV interview appeared to lay the blame with the victim - a teenage student at the school. Hollingworth later resigned as Governor-General.

That was momentous at the time, as was Pell's decision to step aside from his duties while the complaint against him was dealt with by an independent inquiry headed by non-Catholic, retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell QC.

The independent inquiry was a first by the Catholic Church which up until then, and since, has handled these complaints internally in an agonisingly slow process.

It is no wonder then that a decade ago hope was in the air that finally a seismic cultural shift was happening. Institutions would realise they had often failed abysmally in their duty of care and it was now time to listen and make amends to people whose lives had been ruined by that failure.

No such luck. You do not change centuries of attitude and habit just because the media spotlight shines briefly in your dark corner.

In the past 10 years in NSW and Victoria especially, but not exclusively, hundreds of sexual abuse allegations against Catholic clergy have been investigated.

Det Insp Fox in his open letter alleges that there are so many NSW sex abuse cases that he's actually lost count.

Meanwhile, last week, AAP reported that Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart told the state parliamentary inquiry 620 cases of sex crime allegations over eight decades had been upheld by the church in Victoria.

The same inquiry heard from Victoria's deputy police commissioner Graham Ashton that of those 620 cases of abuse none had been reported to police.

At the inquiry, Ashton accused the church of wrapping a special process around clergy accused of sexual abuse.

Law professor Patrick Parkinson, who has advised churches on sex abuse cases, told the inquiry: "The church cannot recover from this crisis unless there is a clean slate."

Parkinson also said the church's 148-page submission to the inquiry, entitled Facing the Truth, "has no information whatsoever about what happened to the offenders".

A royal commission may compel the church and the rest of us to finally face the truth because it can oblige witness attendance, demand documents and issue search warrants.

But if what happened in Ireland is anything to go on it will not be plain sailing and it could be years before we know exactly what happened and how institutions were enabled to behave as they did.

It was in 2002 that the Irish government passed the bill establishing a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA).

It, like the Commission here now, was charged at looking at child sex abuse in all institutions.

CICA was initially envisaged as an independent statutory body for former inmates of church- and state-run institutions to record their experiences. A separate body to redress complaints and handle compensation was set up later.

Things did not go smoothly. 

Various church bodies were not co-operative particularly around production of documents.

In 2003, senior barrister Sean Ryan was appointed CICA chairman, when the original appointee resigned.

The Irish commission's report was published in May 2009.

The findings absolutely horrified and shamed the country. Sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions.

Perpetrators of abuse were able to operate undetected for long periods at the core of these institutions.

The safety of children in general was just not a consideration.

Ryan told the ABC the first important thing was giving the survivors of abuse a voice.

"They look for recognition, they look for acknowledgment, they look for acceptance."

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