Royal commission: The abused are many, and so are the dead, but do Church leaders really get it?
By Tom Keneally
December 16, 2017
|Supporters of those sexually abused stand silent witness outside the royal commission in Perth in 2014.|
In politics, it is rare that a mechanism for unqualified good is put in place.
A body called by the highly provisional title, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, might have proved to have been a squib if not given appropriate powers and if not well-led.
But it was given such powers, and like others, I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister refer to the completed hearings as "an outstanding exercise of love".
Now the Federal Government, the states and the institutions have to apply themselves to its recommendations with similar exercises of generosity of spirit.
I have been asked to record here a sense of the impact of the royal commission at a personal level. In fact, the commission has also been a revelation even to those of us who had earlier heard the subterranean reverberations of a national crisis, but had no idea of the scope of it.
The scale of the abuse, even the numbers of abusers, were greater than was ever suspected.
But then, at least as shocking, the fact that behind each abuser was a corps of friendly agents, people in authority, moderators of the public conscience who yet showed no conscience over misuse of children.
They ignored, minimised, sheltered those against whom there was firm evidence, and moved them to prey in new arenas.
In other words, what is astounding is not only that the problem so profoundly systemic, but that the system was the same across cultural and religious barriers.
It was as if they were all working according to the same manual, the guidebook of invincible evasion.
The cruel denial was consistent
No heroes of reform have emerged from any church or institutional leadership.
From the most privileged private schools to the most obscure parochial ones, from Salvation Army to the more exalted ramparts of Anglicanism, even amongst ultra-orthodox Jewish, the cruel denial was consistent.
Along with Catholic hierarchies everywhere in the English-speaking world, they all shared the same instincts and the same corporate-like callousness.
Even those who claimed sanction over the souls of humankind, who believed they possessed a divine mandate to administer compassion and love, were all found to suffer precisely the same myopia.
The punishment or ignoring of whistle-blowers was similarly consistent across the spectrum.
Diverse from each other in beliefs, the institutions and churches were all carriers of the same DNA of self-interest and chosen blindness. All of which, in carefully phrased and abashed ways, they repented of and regretted only when brought before the commission.
Where was the Church?
A priest friend of mine, Father Pat Connor, Australian exile in the United States, told me in the late 1990s that if the Church would not face the issue, civil society would make it do so. And so it has happened.
I am as shocked as Francis Sullivan, head of the Truth, Justice and Healing Commission, that no leader of the Catholic Church attended the final session of the hearing.
It seemed to serve as the ultimate sign of their desire to minimise the matter.
It would have been a fraught appearance for them, and they would have been mobbed by media. But weren't they up to that?
And could they not have fruitfully signalled that the Catholic Church had now undertaken reform. They were not, sadly, neither Archbishops Fisher nor Hart, as reticent when it came to telling us not to vote for marriage equality.
Did they not owe it to their scandalised but faithful tribes to be at the commission on the last day?
Bewildered and disoriented
I know from Catholic relatives and friends that the community is bewildered and disoriented by what has come from the royal commission.
Some still seek comfort in the idea that the Church is not the only cab on the rank. But it is the only cab company which claimed final authority over faith and morals.
People who attend Mass tell me that they frequently hear parish priests express their own shock and sorrow over what has happened.
I have myself heard the same regrets expressed by honest priests at the masses to do with family matters, from funerals to first communion.
Do the leaders really get it?
For the 'few bad apples' scenario on which the hierarchy previously depended has become untenable now. The commission has shown that what is wrong pervades the whole orchard.
Some of the hierarchy will now probably fall back on the proposition that there was a problem, but it has now been fixed.
Again, the leader of the commission, Peter McClellan, has warned against assuming any such thing, and the appearance of Church leaders on the last day would have shown they too had abandoned such delusions.
To be fair, by Friday afternoon, both archbishops were addressing the recommendations of the royal commission as positively as could be expected.
But even now, we are left asking: do the leaders of the Church really get it? The abused are many, and so are the dead.
Attending the last session were the mother, for example, of a 13-year-old Marist Brothers student who took his own life after abuse. The grandmother of the tragic Foster girls, one dead, the other an invalid, both victims of a priest, was there.
Where is the mourning for the dead innocents who, it is simple truth to say, cast their shadow at the door of every Australian cathedral and of many Australian churches?
Will the hierarchy acknowledge these facts, in humility and penitence? That the elders have sacrificed the young? That the dead and maimed are not merely to be cited with historical regret, and consigned to some roll of vanished misdeeds?
The new reality for the church
Thus we wait to see how thoroughly the Church takes on the new reality, the authentic responsibility.
Its culture of autocracy — of which the most vocal critics are quite often ordinary priests and nuns in moments of frankness — has been its least attractive and most disabling aspect.
In its urging of the Catholic Church to better policy, the commission could have potentially world-wide impact on the Church.
I think that for a start, it would be a matter of celebration if it has early impact here in Australia.