Sin & Crime: The Church Inquiry

A slightly edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age

In early February this year, Catholic Church leaders met in Rome for a four-day symposium on sexual abuse. Called “Toward Healing and Renewal”, the event was intended to help the church prevent further abuses, to “find the best ways to help victims, protect children” and ultimately “eliminate” abuse from the priesthood.

There lies the rub. The Church and the State—in any country you care to name—have different ideas about the “best way” to prevent and report abuse. While February’s symposium repeated the Vatican’s guidelines from last year on co-operation with civil law, the 2011 suggestions were not binding in church law.

The year before, in 2010, the Vatican artificially tweaked its internal laws as they pertained to punishing abusive priests. But in a document codifying this, the gesture was hopelessly marred by listing the ordainment of women as comparably offensive as child abuse. Sceptics are right to doubt the efficacy of internal processes in an organisation that rates the extension of equal opportunity alongside the rape of children.

A week before the Catholic symposium in Rome this year, retired Supreme Court Judge Philip Cummins submitted his year-long review on the protection of Victoria’s vulnerable children. A segment of the report deals with religious organisations. It speaks of the tension between church process and civil law and recommended that the Government launch an inquiry into how churches have handled complaints and prevention.

That was weeks before this paper revealed—through leaked police documents—a horrific cluster of suicides by victims of church pederasty in Victoria.

Well, this Tuesday Premier Baillieu announced that there would be a parliamentary inquiry into the Catholic Church and other religious organisations. Consistent with Cummins’ recommendation, the year-long inquiry will have the power to compel witnesses to provide evidence.

Contrary to some, this is not an attack on the church. It will practically and powerfully demonstrate that the church is not above civil law, while providing the church an opportunity to clean its house—or demonstrate that it’s already clean—and mend its relationship with the community.

As repulsive as these abuses are—compounded by the negligent, often corrupt concealment of them in Europe and the United States—this issue is so emotionally charged that it risks melting the complexity of the Catholic Church—the variety of churches and opinions which reside in it—down to a simple, abhorrent symbol of hypocrisy and vileness. This would be divisive, unfair and intellectually dishonest.

On the other hand, the fact that Cummins’ recommendation for an inquiry has been adopted, the report runs the risk of being melted down to a fait accompli—a suspicious and myopic attack on the church, rather than the nuanced and thoughtful document that it is.

The Catholic Church is not disproportionately diseased by paedophiles. Children run the same or greater risk of being abused at home, in the homes of relatives, or in secular schools. The profile of the paedophile is disturbingly varied—predators are as likely to be professionally successful and publically esteemed as they are to be isolated failures. Paedophiles come in a multitude of guises.

But there’s incidence and then there’s response.

We rightly have enlarged expectations of a church’s propriety, expectations that are unserved by the church’s reliance upon internal, publically unseen procedures. This deepens a crisis of confidence, a crisis as much in the church’s interest to resolve as it is in the public’s.

What’s more, religious organisations are disproportionately exempt from statutory measures designed to protect children, while the Catholic Church is unusually hierarchical and authoritarian in design, a structure—wittingly or not—likely to discourage whistleblowing.

In 1996 the Melbourne Archdiocese introduced its own internal process for abuse victims. Called “The Melbourne Response”, it’s overseen by an independent commissioner and provides investigation, counselling and compensation to victims. It’s overseen more than 300 cases. We do not know how many of these have been referred to police.

This raises the question: when should the State intervene in church process? When a crime has been committed. There’s a sacred word for child abuse. It’s “sin”. There’s also a secular one, “crime” and there’s a very powerful line in the Cummins report that speaks to this: “Crime is a public, not a private, matter”. The report continues to say that however well meaning private Church responses may be, they conspire to make public matters private.

This means that the State must compel individuals in churches to report their suspicions of abuse. Practically, this means amending the Victorian Crimes Act 1958 and extending it to include those who hold office in religious organisations, with a exception for information wrought from confession. This is Recommendation 47 of the Cummins report.

Recommendation 48 has already been enacted by the Premier—establishing an inquiry—and the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, says the church has nothing to hide. Good. Then this shouldn’t hurt a bit. In Australia it’s important that the church reflects, and is responsive to, our secular sense of human dignity—and our institutions that embody it. Responsibility, accountability and equal measure before civil law.

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