Saturday, February 02, 2013

The truth about sex abuse

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TTlzoZtV108/TVUKL7bjszI/AAAAAAAAAbg/Hal42rcNzHs/s1600/clerical+abuse.jpgCARDINAL Bernard Law of Boston was the first, and so far only, archbishop to resign over public revulsion at his handling of child sex abuse by his clergy.

Named in hundreds of lawsuits, subject of dramatic public protests, and publicly rejected by 58 of his priests, Law resigned in December 2002.

Pope John Paul II's response, widely seen as a gesture of blatant contempt for Boston's faithful, was to appoint Law archpriest of one of Rome's four great basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore.

The message to the disgraced cardinal was clear: ''You are one of us, and we will look after you.'' To many inside and outside the church, protecting the church and its clerics has always been the Vatican's priority - and, they say, it still is.

John Paul II also protected and promoted notorious abusers such as Marcial Maciel, founder the of Legionaries of Christ movement. Indeed, the Pope's first response to the expanding American crisis was to blame a ''hostile'' media, and his fallback position was to claim clergy abuse was purely an anglophone issue.

The current Pope, Benedict XVI, was accused of obstructing justice after it emerged that in 2001 as John Paul's right-hand man he wrote to every bishop requiring them to report every abuse case to his department and to keep it secret.

Australia now has two important inquiries into the sexual abuse of children by clergy and others, and how the churches responded: a well-established Victorian parliamentary investigation and a royal commission, which has yet to begin hearings. 

The Catholic Church has promised full co-operation with both, but critics - including many who have given evidence to the Victorian inquiry - are sceptical.

The church is always full of good promises, but its record - as police in Victoria and New South Wales have complained - is one of obstruction, obfuscation, and concealment. 

Just this month, the Catholic Church in Germany cancelled an independent inquiry into child abuse by clergy, designed to restore its tarnished credibility, after the investigators demanded to see the church's abuse files.

Last September, Robert Finn of Kansas City became the world's first bishop convicted of concealing child abuse. He was sentenced to two years' probation, which was then suspended. Victim advocates had hoped the Vatican would show it took the abuse crisis seriously by disciplining him, but Rome simply ignored it. Bishop Finn continues to head the diocese.

In Poland, the old game of blaming and intimidating victims, concealing crimes and moving predatory priests from parish to parish continues, according to a revealing report last year by the authoritative US journal National Catholic Reporter

The church said that not only did bishops have no obligation to compensate victims, in fact the church itself was the victim.

This history is why witnesses to the Victorian inquiry are sceptical about church co-operation. Although bishops claim they have local autonomy, in fact the Vatican keeps a tight rein and ranks canon (church) law above state law, the witnesses said.

Former priest Phil O'Donnell told the inquiry last week that key documents had likely been shredded or moved, as has happened elsewhere. ''Good luck [trying to get them] if they are at the Vatican,'' he said.

A succession of witnesses has told the Victorian inquiry that only structural change at the Vatican will accomplish more than window dressing within the Australian church. And, they say, if the Vatican won't do it, then the state must.

Inquiry chairwoman Georgie Crozier seems to agree. When the inquiry resumed for 2013 last Wednesday, she said the committee already had enough evidence to start forming views on what their report would cover and the kind of recommendations it would make.

The inquiry is due to report on April 30, and, although it will almost certainly need an extension, the members are believed to be eager to allow the government time to consider legislative changes this year.

The inquiry has already proved fruitful, airing many of the issues in a public forum, giving victims confidence to tell their stories, and producing a series of explosive headlines and damaging testimony. 

All this helped bring the long-sought Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, announced in December and due to start hearings in the next few months.

Although the royal commission has broad terms of reference that will doubtless uncover appalling systemic abuse in state orphanages and other places, no one doubts that the main focus will be the Catholic Church.

Patrick Parkinson, an expert in child protection at Sydney University, told the inquiry that Catholic priests abused children at six times the rate of all other churches put together, while RMIT's Desmond Cahill said that one in 15 Catholic priests in Melbourne was a child abuser.

Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton told the inquiry the church deliberately hindered and obstructed police investigations of paedophile priests, even when the police had search warrants, and had not reported a single incident to police. 

This is despite the church admitting that it had upheld 618 cases of child abuse in Victoria in the past 16 years, though most happened much earlier. Several witnesses suggested it was improper that the church should investigate criminal abuse itself.

Cynicism over the church's willingness to surrender documents was fuelled by the embarrassment over Father ''F'', when Sydney Archbishop George Pell claimed that the abuser had not explicitly admitted his behaviour in a 1992 meeting with three senior priests.

The church files contained no record of these admissions, but - embarrassingly for Cardinal Pell - court papers did. The priests had not reported him to police, as required.

Peter Johnstone, president of progressive group Catholics for Renewal, was one of many witnesses to suggest the church could not be reformed from within. He said the church was governed by an ancient and anachronistic system vesting power in men who were celibate, often socially isolated, usually old, unable to communicate with the faithful, and under the supreme control of a papal monarch who demanded blind obedience.

He found it significant that although many church leaders have apologised for sexual abuse by clergy, there has never been an apology for the church's ''own betrayals of trust. [The Pope] regrets the deeds of clergy and damage to the church, but he does not mention or apologise for the many self-protective and immoral decisions in concealing those deeds.''

The royal commission has important advantages, especially in cross-examining witnesses and testing evidence. 

But, according to anti-abuse campaigner Anthony Foster, the state inquiry might be even more important for Victorian victims because most of the laws that he says must be changed are state laws.

''Much of what the Catholic Church has done has been terrible, but some of it has been done within the framework of the laws of our society, and it's the state laws that need to be changed to ensure they can't act in such an immoral way in the future.''

Foster says one urgent change is to the Property Trust Act, which the church has used to claim it does not exist as a body that can be sued. ''How many successful cases have there been against the Catholic Church in Victoria? Zero. And that beggars belief when you look at WorkCover or the road traffic situation. Their victims are able to access compensation, and these cases often lead to institutional changes.''

He also cites the difference between church and companies, whereby company CEOs are responsible at law for what their predecessors have done, but bishops are not. Another vital change, he says, is the need for outside scrutiny of the church's internal processes. The ombudsman, auditor-general and freedom-of-information laws provide checks on the state government, but there are none for the church. ''These things could be changed very quickly if the government took a mind to it.''

Lawyer and advocate Judy Courtin is completing a PhD about the church's own internal processes, Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response. She says both are problematic because they cause secondary abuse and trauma for the victims, compensation is ''paltry'' compared with that awarded by the courts, and the criminal matters they investigate should be dealt with by police.

As Fairfax reported on Wednesday, the Victorian inquiry committee is likely to suggest a mandatory reporting requirement - but to police, rather than the Department of Human Services, the authority to which other professionals report suspicions.

The church has already accepted in its submission to the inquiry that some form of mandatory reporting is inevitable, and proposes a form in which the victim's identity can be kept secret if the victim wishes it. 

The committee is also likely to recommend extending the statute of limitations because it often takes decades before sex-abuse victims can admit what happened to them.

It is likely to consider vicarious liability to halt the church argument that a priest is not an employee, and to introduce - as in NSW - a specific law making it a crime to conceal sex abuse.

Meanwhile, the church is in a difficult position as accusations fly and it has not yet been able to reply at the state inquiry. It has appointed a Truth, Justice and Healing Council led by laypeople to co-ordinate its response to the royal commission, but that is separate from the Victorian inquiry.

CEO Francis Sullivan is blunt that the church mismanaged the issue until the Towards Healing protocol, introduced in 1996, improved and systematised its procedure, but even now it must recognise it still has much to improve. He promises that the church will ''embrace'' the commission, and will make all documents available.

He has had no contact, let alone instructions, from the Vatican.

According to a senior priest who did not want to be named, ''the fundamental dilemma in these sexual abuse cases is the assumption that silence equals a cover-up. A cover-up is destroying documents, telling lies. I'm confident our bishops didn't do that. Mostly the complaints were vague and they were faced with a denial and a victim who explicitly didn't want to go to the police.''

According to Jesuit priest Michael Kelly, this will be a difficult year for the Australian church, ''maybe the worst in its history''; yet he also thinks the two inquiries may be the circuit-breaker that triggers many of the changes for which so many Catholics long. 

''It will put a nail in the coffin of clericalism, that 'them and us' culture that fosters an elitism which is the very opposite of Christian discipleship,'' Kelly wrote in the online journal Eureka Street earlier this month.

''This period will reveal what the Church is and isn't. It isn't a command and control army or a football team doing what the captain and coach tell it to do. It is a community of faith at the service of the world.''

Francis Sullivan agrees. ''It's important for everyone to realise that the processes that bring out the truth are painful, but out of the ashes grow hope.''

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