Healing Be Damned
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 12, 2013
The next pope will need to come to grips with the generations of systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic church. But in Australia, the spotlight is now on the credibility of protocols set up by the church to handle such claims.
Even before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse starts, Australia’s Catholic bishops know they have a problem.
Of all the matters the royal commission is expected to delve into over the coming years, the church’s own protocols for handling allegations of abuse will be one of the most important.
The Catholic church in Australia has two separate abuse protocols: Towards Healing, covering most Australian dioceses was introduced in 1997. The Melbourne Archdiocese is covered by what has come to be known as the Melbourne Response, introduced by Archbishop George Pell (now Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney) around the same time.
The problem for the bishops now is that huge holes have already been blown through the credibility of both Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response, in the course of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse, which is due to report at the end of April.
Victoria Police accuses the church of attempting to dissuade victims of sexual crime from reporting to the police, alerting suspects that they were under police investigation, removing files, moving or protecting offenders, and obtaining injunctions and imposing legal professional privilege to prevent the release of evidence — all since the church’s abuse protocols were introduced.
Noting that the Archdiocese of Melbourne had admitted on its website to making compensation payments to about 300 victims in the previous 14 years and identified 86 offenders, of whom 60 were priests, Victoria Police says the archdiocese never referred a single complainant to police.
“It is evident in the mandate of Towards Healing as well as the Melbourne Responses that their focus is not on bringing offenders to justice,” the submission says.
Appearing before the parliamentary inquiry on October 19 last year to give evidence that one MP later described as “chilling in its detail and its analysis of a culture”, Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton described the church’s existing protocols as “fundamentally flawed”, and said they were focused more on internal issues, such as legal liability and public relations, than on the long-term interests of victims.
He told the inquiry that the church’s current protocols “lack transparency, government oversight, public interest and a rehabilitative focus’’.
“These protocols continue to drive underreporting and adult victim impacts,” Ashton said.
“The Catholic church’s lack of co-operation with Victoria Police will continue to impede investigations, prevent the identification of other victims of child sexual abuse during the course of investigations of alleged offenders and decrease the organisation’s ability to understand the complexities of child sexual abuse and long-term impacts,” he said.
Victoria Police has been especially critical of Peter O’Callaghan, QC, the independent commissioner employed by the church to run internal investigations under the Melbourne Response. The police question whether he really can be regarded as independent when he is employed by the church under canon law. They also accuse him of a conflict of interest because he provided “authoritative advice” to a victim that a criminal case against a member of the church would be unlikely to succeed in court. In another case, police say the independent commissioner informed a suspect that he was being investigated by police, giving him the opportunity to destroy files. O’Callaghan has since issued a statement calling the police submission “seriously misconceived and plainly wrong”.
Professor Parkinson was asked by the Catholic church’s national professional standards committee to conduct an independent review of Towards Healing in 1999, and again in 2008. Both times Towards Healing was revised as a result of his recommendations. He told the Victorian inquiry that it was important to give the church a great deal of credit. The church had taken “a very genuine step” to try and make amends for the suffering of victims with Towards Healing, he said, and victims were strongly encouraged to go the police. “At its best it is a pastoral approach which works very well. It has also got lots of weaknesses,” he said.
But Parkinson told the inquiry that he had now withdrawn his support for Towards Healing, because “I have seen first-hand the efforts the church has made to cover up its failures and wrongdoing in the very recent past. The national committee, which is meant to be in the vanguard of providing a just response to the problem of sexual abuse within the church, was largely responsible for the cover-up to which I refer.”
Parkinson says that in 2010 the church’s standards committee suppressed a report he wrote that was highly critical of one of the church’s largest and most powerful male religious orders, the Salesians of Don Bosco. The cover-up involved strenuous efforts by the national and international leadership of the Salesians to block the extradition of three of its priests wanted in Australia over allegations of sexual abuse. Two had been shunted off to Samoa, where the local archbishop was left totally in the dark as to the accusations that had been made against them, and the third was working in the Vatican.
“The Salesians have been described by one of America’s leading experts as the most unrepentant and defiant order he has ever come across,’’ Parkinson told the inquiry.
“Indeed, on the issue of sexual abuse I would absolutely endorse that. I would say they are not only unrepentant and defiant, they are untruthful. The lies which were told, the cover-ups, the attempts made to suppress my report, were breathtaking.’’
The submissions by Victoria Police and Parkinson are by no means the only criticisms that have been levelled at the church’s abuse protocols. Since 1997, many victims have complained about being required to sign confidentiality agreements, which they understood as the church paying them for their silence.
The Melbourne archdiocese and Peter O’Callaghan are scheduled to appear at the Victorian inquiry before it wraps up in April. O’Callaghan has already indicated that there is much in the Victoria Police submission that he is keen to refute.
On November 12 last year, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement welcoming the national royal commission. In that statement the bishops also defended the church’s recent record.
“Much of the public discussion is about how the church dealt with cases 20 or more years ago,” they wrote. “Critics talk as though earlier failures are still present. Major procedural changes in dealing with these matters have been implemented by the Church since then. ... It is unacceptable, because it is untrue, to claim that the Catholic church does not have proper procedures, and to claim that Church authorities refuse to co-operate with the police.”
But there are signs that Australian bishops are beginning to think Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response are a lost cause. When the bishops conference discussed the future of both protocols at its most recent meeting, late last November, the mood behind closed doors is said to have been in marked contrast to their vigorous defence of the church’s procedures just two weeks earlier. One senior insider told The Global Mail this week that there was “a growing realisation” among the bishops that “this is a disaster ... Towards Healing has never really worked and it’s time to go back to square one.”
The Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, appears to be one of the bishops who feels this way. He has already signalled that, rather than continuing to fine-tune Towards Healing, “we may be moving now into a post-Towards Healing phase”. And he has suggested the royal commission could help the bishops with what that new phase might look like.
Former secretary general of the Australian Medical Association Francis Sullivan was recently appointed chief executive of the Catholic church’s new Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Like Patrick Parkinson he is careful to give credit where it is due, and says there is “no question that if measures like Towards Healing had been in place in previous decades, a lot of these atrocities would not have occurred”. Sullivan says he has not yet been privy to discussions at the level of the Australian bishops. “But there is no doubt our Truth, Justice and Healing Council will be rigorously reviewing the effectiveness of Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response in the light of international best practice.”
But raising international best practice is beside the point. It is precisely the fact that the Catholic church and many of its religious orders are international in their structure that is undermining the integrity of its Australian abuse protocols, and that’s what is making this such an ongoing PR disaster for the Australian Church. The problem for the Catholic church is essentially structural. The Vatican, and the leadership of orders like the Salesians, are beyond the reach of Australian law. This is a major issue that the national royal commission will need to come to grips with, given that it was set up to look at how to “eliminate or reduce impediments that currently exist for responding appropriately to child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts.”
Meanwhile, Francis Sullivan says the new Truth, Justice and Healing Council is awaiting authorisation by the bishops of its own terms of reference. “I anticipate that part of our brief will be to examine Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response,” he says. “It’s not a question of waiting around for the royal commission. We need to get on with it.”
Former Irish President Mary McAleese recently spoke to Stephen Crittenden about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and her latest book Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law.