Long history of abuse defies a short inquiry
25th September 2012
Updated 26th September 2012
Australian clergy's sex crimes require a national response.
AT ONE level, the Catholic Church's disclosure that it has upheld 618 cases of criminal sexual abuse in Victoria just confirms what we knew: there was an epidemic of abuse. At another level, the number of cases upheld in the past 16 years - all but 13 were before 1990 - is news because the church has never before been so open about this. What changed? The church must answer to an external inquiry.
Victoria's four Catholic dioceses lodged a submission, Facing the Truth, to the state parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse by religious and non-government bodies. Public hearings begin next month. The four bishops say they will co-operate fully and will waive any confidentiality provisions that victims and families had feared might limit their input. Church spokesman Father Shane Mackinlay went to the heart of why an open inquiry is long overdue. ''There are 1.5 million Catholics in Victoria and they all have a stake, they are all affected and many know victims,'' he said. ''The message I hear consistently is that hiding behind closed doors makes the problem worse.''
The Age welcomes the implicit admission of past failures to face a truth that was overlooked, denied or covered up. Sexual abuse is not just an issue for Catholics, but some priests were egregious offenders. The church failed to understand that the inadequacy of its responses eroded public trust and the faith of followers. The life's work and decency of the vast majority of priests, nuns, teachers and church workers does not save them from the collective suspicion that will linger as long as the church resists a full and public accounting for its role in a national tragedy.
The 618 confirmed cases - 45 more are under investigation - do not give the full picture of generations of abuse around Australia and the continuing suffering this has caused. These cases were handled under the Melbourne Response of the Melbourne Archdiocese and the national Towards Healing response, covering the dioceses of Ballarat, Sale and Sandhurst (Bendigo) and religious orders. The real number of victims is much higher. The Law Reform Commission estimates only one in 10 victims reports abuse. The church ''responses'' did not include victims who died early or who went straight to police.
The church must explain an institutional mindset and processes that kept criminal allegations in house. How many ''upheld'' cases did it refer to police? Offending clergy were often transferred from parish to parish, diocese to diocese and state to state, leaving them free to reoffend. The dioceses' submission details church structures and lines of responsibility. The leaders of each archdiocese, diocese or religious order are held to be not responsible for what happened outside their ambit, so why a joint submission?
A scandal of such dimensions cannot be resolved by a limited state inquiry, which must cover a host of religious and non-government bodies and report in seven months. In addition to hundreds of submissions, the inquiry cannot hope to properly review the church's vast archive on abuse cases. Only a national inquiry with the powers of a royal commission will do.
The path followed by Australia's most senior Catholic, George Pell, illustrates the point. His life in the church began in Ballarat, where he stood by priest Gerard Ridsdale at Ridsdale's first court appearance in 1993. Ridsdale and another Ballarat priest, Robert Best, have been linked to at least 35 suicides. Cardinal Pell surely regrets having unwittingly supported a notorious paedophile that day. Yet as archbishop of Melbourne and now Sydney, he apparently never saw it as his role to cleanse the church by establishing the full extent of wrongdoing and being seen to atone publicly. Until all abusers and their protectors are identified and held accountable, their victims will be denied the comfort of justice, and faith in the church will not be restored.