The Catholic church will not go quietly. True, the archbishops of both Melbourne and Sydney have welcomed the Victorian report into clerical sex abuse. But they signalled at the same time that despite everything the church is still fighting to defend its patch.
Tears and ovations greeted the tabling of the report in the Legislative Council on Wednesday. “The words from the politicians just rang in my heart,” Chrissie Foster told Guardian Australia.
“There they were saying what I’d wanted to say for so long and they have the power to change things. It was astounding.”“There they were saying what I’d wanted to say for so long and they have the power to change things. It was astounding.”
The Fosters’ two daughters were raped by their parish priest. One killed herself. The other is now permanently disabled. The implacable dignity and determination of the Fosters is one reason we were all in the council chamber on Wednesday morning: victims, advocates and journalists in the galleries above. Politicians below.
“We need to have the government behind us,” said Foster, “because we have been at the mercy of another power, the Catholic church which has been heartless and relentless. Suddenly there is another power that is fighting for us. It was wonderful.”
Six parliamentarians of the Liberal, Labor and National parties spent 18 months examining the handling of child abuse by other faiths and other churches. But most of the complaints they heard and submissions they received were about the strategies and failings of the Catholic church in Victoria.
Their 678-page report, Betrayal of Trust, paints a picture of a powerful institution riddled with abuse and determined to handle both abusers and victims as far as possible without interference from the state. Nothing like it has been published before in this country.
Its conclusions are plain and devastating: “No representative of the Catholic church directly reported the criminal conduct of its members to the police. The committee found that there is simply no justification for this position.”
The church is condemned in the report for sidelining the courts as well as the police. The committee expressed “great concern” at the church’s use of highly technical legal strategies to prevent victims taking their cases to court.
The committee questioned the “real commitment to ensuring justice for victims of criminal child abuse” displayed by an institution willing to go to such lengths to prevent litigation. “Indeed, the Committee saw this lack of commitment as part of the reason that government intervention has become necessary.”
Unable to litigate, most victims have had little choice but to seek help from the church’s own tribunals: the Melbourne Response in Melbourne and Towards Healing in the rest of Australia.
The committee declared them to be “conceptually flawed” private church mechanisms that offer victims amounts of compensation “difficult to reconcile with the church’s recognition of the level of damage suffered by victims”.
The report is not an account of the failings of the past for which the church has made so many eloquent apologies. This is not history. The underlying message of Betrayal of Trust is that it’s time for the state to take charge. That means jail for paedophiles and fair damages for victims.
“Criminal child abuse cannot be treated as a private matter to be resolved between the perpetrator or organisation involved and the victim,” concluded the committee.
“Society has a strong interest in maintaining and vindicating the values and laws of our community and in preventing extremely serious antisocial and criminal behaviour and the damage that it causes.”
So the six parliamentarians made two key sets of recommendations. The first brings the police back into the picture by making it a crime to groom children for sex, a crime not to remove children from the reach of paedophiles and a crime not to report child abuse to the police.
These recommendations are, apart from worries about the sanctity of the confessional, accepted by the archbishops. Their backing appears wholehearted. The Victorian government will “commence immediately” drafting the necessary legislation said the premier, Denis Napthine. He expects parliament to be dealing with these reforms early in the new year.
But the archbishops have signaled battles ahead over the second key recommendation: that the Catholic church open itself to the civil courts by ending its phantom legal existence in Australia.
Though it is the oldest institution on Earth, one of the biggest employers and biggest property owners in this country, the Catholic church has no corporate existence here. It can’t be sued as a church. Victims of child abuse are left, most of the time, with no one to sue but their penniless abuser.
“There is no doubt,” said the committee, “that the unincorporated structure of the Catholic church has not only prevented victims from bringing legal claims against the Catholic church as an entity. It has also been exploited by the Catholic church to avoid financial liability.”
The committee proposes the same deal here that makes incorporation of churches commonplace in America: if you receive tax exemptions or public funding you have to incorporate, insure and allow yourself to be sued.
Nothing in the committee’s report is as remotely radical as this proposal. Victoria can not do this alone. Canberra will have to drive the bargain. Such a national arrangement would strip the church of a great financial and political privilege.
Some hours after the emotional scenes in the baroque Legislative Council, Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart called the press to an underground room behind St Patrick’s Cathedral to deliver his verdict. “I respect the integrity of the inquiry,” he said. “And I respect the integrity of the report.”
At first he gave the impression that he supported all the recommendations of the committee. But asked by Guardian Australia if he was prepared to corporatise the church in Victoria, the archbishop replied: “I think that these are matters that will have to be resolved. They are complex legal matters. I think we need to engage with government to bring the best outcome for all parties concerned.”
In Sydney a little later that afternoon, Cardinal George Pell also enthusiastically accepted all but one of the committee’s recommendations. He baulked where Hart had: on agreeing to make the church accountable to the courts through corporatisation.
The committee’s recommendations on civil litigation and incorporation he declared merely “interesting to read”. These are, he said, “complex matters to which we have already given some thought. We look forward to seeing how they are developed, to discussing them with governments in due course.”
That’s how a prince of the church says get ready for the fight of your life.
Source: The Guardian