Francis Sullivan CEO Truth Justice and Healing Council
Tuesday 20 October 2015
Over the past two and a half years the child sex abuse Royal Commission has had a very close look at the way in which institutions, both public and private, have responded to claims of child sexual abuse.
It has looked at schools - public and private - including some of the country’s most prestigious.
It has looked at religious organisations including the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, the Jewish community, Australian Christian Churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, the Catholic Church.
It has examined public institutions including state-run children’s homes and orphanages, hospitals and health care organisations and homes for aboriginal children.
It has looked at other high profile organisations including the YMCA, Scouts and Swimming Australia.
It has investigated the way police and our public prosecutors have responded to the claims of survivors of child sexual abuse – how Government community services departments have dealt with abuse claims, and how public and private out-of-home care has operated.
The public examinations have been far reaching.
So far 33 public hearings have been held with maybe up to another 20 to come.
While the public hearings have been going on, the Royal Commission has also held some 4,100 private sessions where individual child abuse survivors have told their story to Royal Commissioners over a couple of hours with supporters alongside.
From the Royal Commission’s data it is clear that around one in every three institutions identified in these private sessions is Catholic.
The Royal Commission has handled 26,000 calls, received 14,000 letters and emails and referred 767 people to police and other authorities. Its work has been thorough and comprehensive. It has looked into most corners of the community and it has revealed appalling behaviour in many of our most respected organisations.
Later this year and early next year the Catholic Church will again be the focus of public hearings, one in Melbourne the other in Ballarat.
We expect the final hearing involving the Catholic Church to take place in early 2017.
By then the Commission will have held some 50 public hearings with around a third of them examining Catholic schools, dioceses, parishes, homes and other organisations. And by the end of its five-year life the Catholic Church will be the single most examined institution.
So what have we learnt during the past two and half years about our own institutions and about other organisations?
In almost every one of the public hearings looking at Catholic Church institutions we have seen how rigid, closed, defensive and combative the institutional Church can be when it is threatened.
It has been ready to use all its might, resources and social position to prevail over abuse survivors looking for justice.
The first instinct of most Church officials was to protect the reputation of the Church, regardless of the cost to the survivor and their family – and as it has ultimately turned out, at a far greater cost to the Church in so many different ways.
When demands of survivors were too confronting for Church officials, threats of legal defences or protracted bureaucratic processes were consistently used to contain the issue or manage them away
Survivors have often said that they struggled to get close to Church leaders.
Church processes kept bishops and congregational leaders at a distance from the real discussions and certainly from meeting face to face with the victims.
Everything was done behind closed doors; there was no transparency and little, if any, accountability.
Discussions, according to some survivors, seemed to pay lip service to the redress processes established by the Church.
Decisions were weighted in favour of the institution, often determined without any of the consistency or rigour that might be expected from one of Australia’s biggest and most structured organisations.
While some survivors have been treated with great consideration and kindness, many have reported that they were not believed by Church officials and even worse, when they engaged in the Church’s redress processes, they felt re-traumatised.
They felt they were nothing more than a ‘problem’ that the Church needed to deal with so as to cause the least possible exposure, contention or expense.
In many cases it was clear that the way they were treated and the redress made available was dependent on the whim of the bishop or congregational leader dealing with the claim.
Survivors approaching the Church say they felt they were not believed and Church officials spent a good deal of time trying to find evidence to discredit their story.
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Francis Sullivan - 22 October 2015