[Opinion] Abuse inquiry: we all know the outcome

By Matthew Epsom
Gisborne Herald
January 10, 2021

Matthew Epsom

We must already know what the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care will reveal about the Catholic Church in New Zealand. That's because it has been said before, time and time again, across the globe, by many other inquiries into the exact same issue.

Independent inquiries worldwide have already looked into what happened to children, young people and adults at risk in the care of the Catholic Church over past decades. Australia's Royal Commission, England and Wales' IICSA Report, the McCarrick Report and Pennsylvania Report in the USA, Ireland's Murphy Report, and the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child, among others, have all reached the same conclusions — that thousands of cases of clerical and religious child sexual abuse, dating back to the 1950s, were routinely buried by bishops and congregational leaders of the Catholic Church across the globe.

With so many commissions and inquiries, and countless damning news reports and research documents revealing a total inability for the Catholic Church to manage its own affairs with transparency and integrity, why would New Zealand be any different? What happened in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere in Oceania would have happened here too because the Catholic Church is a transnational geo-political organisation with its own structures, policies and legal system operating around the world.

So again, what could possibly be different here? In fact, based on the commission's interim report, New Zealand's situation could be much worse, numbers-wise.

In its final report, New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse will bring forth a series of devastating allegations against New Zealand's Catholic Church. It will reveal the same sordid details that every other report worldwide has revealed, that the Roman Catholic Church in Aotearoa systematically failed to protect children from clergy who were sexually abusing them; that it prioritised its own reputation ahead of the welfare of children and adults at risk under its care; and that its mission and moral purpose were betrayed over decades by those who perpetrated the crimes and by those who enabled them.

Then New Zealand will feign shocked outrage from pulpit, parishioners and public. And we'll all just move on.

But on another level, there is a difference, and a rather perilous one. New Zealand has the ability to present well at face value with policies and protocols, and this is apparently true of its Catholic Church as well.

While it is important for every institution to adopt strict protocols to combat child sexual abuse, New Zealand's Catholic Church appears to now be hiding their abuse behind the window-dressing of formalised policies. Worse, when those policies are not followed, this causes further abuse which layers the cycle of trauma against the victim and even extends it into the larger community.

Catholic bishops and congregational leaders have already told the public how they are “participating in the processes of the inquiry” and “acknowledging those who have been wounded in our care”.

While the first part of this claim is true, the second part is pure rhetoric because survivors are consistently having complaints rejected without apology or recompense by the very church office, the National Office for Professional Standards, which is processing those complaints. The unfortunate upshot is that Te Rōpū Tautoko, the in-house church group concocted to co-ordinate engagement with the Royal Commission, has become the centre of attention, rather than the victims.

Since when has a Church committee worked so closely with an independent national inquiry until now? Call it what you want — protectionism, subjectivism, favouritism, reputation preservation, institutional collusion — it is fraud!

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission will continue to look into what happened in New Zealand between 1950 and 1999. But will it discover where the abuse is still occurring today, and make the necessary recommendations to stop it? Will it unearth the fact that the agencies set up by the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand to address the handling of abuse complaints, instead further bury complaints? Will it demonstrate how the Church's internal structures and doctrines have enabled the abuse? And will it recommend the changes necessary to dismantle those structures?

From a Catholic survivor's viewpoint, that means the Crimes Act would need to be amended so that behaviour such as being secretive about sexually abusing children is deemed to be an obstruction of justice and a crime in its own right. If such does not come to pass, then the commission will have ticked all the boxes and Church leaders will say sorry, again, and we'll all just move on.

But the fact would remain that the Catholic Church, one of the world's greatest claimants to moral authority, will have failed to resolve one of the most morally straightforward problems of our time. In fact, it would remain that problem.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.