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Neerkol Orphanage Findings and the Place of Compassion

By Frank Brennan
Eureka Street
April 21, 2016

http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=47242#.Vxv5xPmLS01

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has now published its Case Study 26 on the Neerkol Orphanage in Rockhampton.

The Commission finds that the response by the bishop and by the Sisters of Mercy to victims making complaints prior to 1996 was often inadequate and lacking in compassion. It also makes a damning finding that the bishop was dishonest in a letter he sent to the diocese.

I still have a problem with this commission making findings on issues like the want of compassion. When it reported on the Ellis Case, I said the royal commission (being appointed by the state rather than the church) had no business finding that Cardinal Pell 'did not act fairly from a Christian point of view'. I thought they should simply have found that the Cardinal did not act fairly. Similarly I wonder about the competence, utility and power of a royal commission to make findings on compassion. Sure, the Christian churches espouse compassion as a Christian virtue, but I don't see that it is something usefully to be assessed or mandated by a royal commission. To find how compelling the commissioners' findings on compassion were, I would first want to know how compassionate each of them is, and that's basically none of my business. They are royal commissioners performing a legal task for the state. Would the commission make findings that other institutions (like Swimming Australia or the State Department of Child Welfare) did not act compassionately?

The word 'compassion' or 'compassionate' appears 21 times in this case study report. I have no problem with church people or other individuals adversely judging church leaders for a lack of compassion. There may even be a case for politicians doing it, and then arguing the toss on whether they are more compassionate than the people they are criticising. But I don't think it's the job of a royal commission. If it is the job of the royal commission, why do they stop at compassion? Why not also offer judgments about whether the responses are loving, merciful and self-sacrificing? I think by over-reaching itself in this way, the commission actually blunts its findings about the adequacy of responses, including compliance with protocols and sensitivity to the needs of victims. The issue is not whether church leaders measured up to the ideals of the Christian virtue of compassion but whether they measured up to the standards properly expected by the Australian community, regardless of people's religious commitments and views. You would hope that church leaders would do more to assist victims than merely to comply with community standards. To date, the commission has unearthed countless instances where the church leaders have not even complied with those community standards. But I am uneasy about a royal commission making assessments about virtue which go beyond the laws and protocols which might be set down for all institutions and for all individuals.

One of the most impressive witnesses at the Neerkol hearing was Ms Rowan (who was once a Sister of Mercy in a leadership position). She told the commission:

'I felt there were two possible responses open to the Sisters of Mercy. The legal response essentially what we could do to defeat any claim in a court of law and the compassionate response essentially what the sisters of Mercy wanted to do for former residents. I was of the view that it was not appropriate or morally justifiable to take the legal response where a compassionate response could be sustained.'

But there is no way a royal commission will be able to make recommendations about compassion which will then be legislated by parliaments and imposed by courts. So where is the royal commission heading with all this? Are they going to make formal recommendations in the end that the churches be more compassionate, or that all institutions be more compassionate towards victims? Instead of making findings about lack of compassion, I think the commission would be able to produce better outcomes if it confined itself to making formal findings about where there were institutional failures to deal promptly, transparently and fairly with complaints of abuse.

Moral judgments about individual lack of compassion are not the business of a royal commission, even though we would all hope that all children who are victims of abuse would be treated compassionately by everybody.

Here are some examples from the report (including the Executive summary, so there is some repetition):

'We conclude that, in failing to contact AYC directly and acknowledge her allegations or offer her pastoral support, Sister Loch's and Bishop Heenan's responses were inadequate and lacked compassion.'

'We are satisfied that Bishop Heenan failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYB's complaint of child sexual abuse in 1993 because he did not respond in a timely way to AYB's letters, phone calls or request to meet with him.'

'We are satisfied the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to Mr Owen by not contacting him and acknowledging his complaint in a timely manner.'

'We are satisfied that, in failing to provide a compassionate and adequate response, the Diocese and the Sisters exacerbated Mr Owen's pain and suffering.'

'We are satisfied that before 1997 the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYQ's complaint of child sexual abuse by not contacting him to acknowledge his complaint and in not offering him any pastoral support.'

'We conclude that, before February 1997, Sister Loch failed to provide a compassionate response to AYP by not contacting AYP directly to acknowledge the allegations and by not offering AYP pastoral support.'

'The church parties submit that Bishop Heenan's and Sister Loch's responses were adequate and did not lack compassion. We conclude that, in failing to contact AYC directly and acknowledge her allegations or offer her pastoral support, the responses by both Sister Loch and Bishop Heenan were inadequate and lacked compassion.'

'While the church parties accept that Bishop Heenan's response was inadequate, they submit that Bishop Heenan did respond in a compassionate way to AYB.'

'We are satisfied that Bishop Heenan failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYB's complaint of child sexual abuse in 1993 because he did not respond in a timely way to AYB's letters, phone calls or request to meet with him.'

'Sister Loch accepted that, in failing to contact Mr Owen and acknowledge his allegations, she did not provide a compassionate response to him.'

'We are satisfied the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to Mr Owen by not contacting him and acknowledging his complaint in a timely manner.'

'We are satisfied that before 1997 the Diocese and the Sisters failed to provide an adequate or compassionate response to AYQ's complaint of child sexual abuse by not contacting him to acknowledge his complaint and in not offering him any pastoral support.'

'We conclude that before February 1997 Sister Loch failed to provide a compassionate response to AYP by not contacting AYP directly to acknowledge the allegations and by not offering AYP pastoral support.'

Make no mistake. I am all for compassion. But I don't think it's the domain of a royal commission.

The commission has produced reports on a number of other institutions without any religious affiliation. Those reports include inquiries into the Scouts, Parramatta Girls Home, an independent Perth School, and Bethcar Childrens Home. Guess what. The word 'compassion' does not appear even once in any of those reports. Now, the commissioners may have found all individuals in those institutions to be exemplars of compassion. But then again, may be they just thought it was none of their business to be expressing views about the morality and the virtue of the persons in those institutions. Maybe they just stuck to their last, proposing ways in which the state can make institutions safer for children, regardless of the virtue and religious sensibility of the managers.

 

 

 

 

 




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