Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Catholic Church diplomatic relations with Australia under question

FEDERAL Greens have backed calls for Australia to reconsider its diplomatic relationship with the Vatican after the Catholic Church refused to supply documents to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Greens MPs Rachel Siewert and Scott Ludlum will question the Turnbull Government this week about what it has done, if anything, in response to the refusal, and after Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone said calls for Australia to break its diplomatic ties with the Vatican were “right on the money”.

“I have no hesitation in arguing the royal commission should say to the government that if the Catholic Church will not cooperate in making major changes – and the Australian church can’t change without the global church changing - then the government should say to the Catholic Church it will reconsider its diplomatic recognition of the Holy See,” Mr Johnstone said after giving evidence on February 8 at the 16th, and final, hearing into the church.

Australia’s diplomatic recognition of the Catholic Church had “handicapped” the commission, he said.

Ms Siewert, who chaired the “Forgotten Children” Senate inquiry into children brought to Australia and sent to church orphanages where there were high levels of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, said she was yet to be convinced the church culture had changed from thinking it was above the law.

Its response to the royal commission request for all documents on child sex abuse cases sent to the Vatican, to see how the church had disciplined offender priests, showed a church that still demonstrated that attitude.

“Culture is about how the church sees itself. When the church talks about being a sovereign state because it has diplomatic relations with Australia and other countries, it sees itself as a nation that can set its own laws,” Ms Siewert said.

“That culture won’t change unless we take some action. I would encourage the Australian Government to be proactive in looking at this issue and how Australia should respond. I’d say there’d be a lot of community support in considering this issue and making it clear to the church that there was an expectation the church would cooperate with the royal commission.”

The Federal Government needed to openly discuss how the community felt about senior Catholic churchmen in Australia having diplomatic immunity because Australia announced in 1973 that it had a diplomatic relationship with the Vatican, Ms Siewert said. 

The announcement was made by the then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.

“There’s been such a strong response to the royal commission. People have been horrified by what’s been exposed,” she said.

The community was not happy when Cardinal George Pell did not return to Australia to give evidence at the royal commission, after solemnly pledging to commission chair Justice Peter McClellan that he would, Ms Siewert said.

In 2011 the Vatican recalled its ambassador to Ireland after the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, launched an unprecedented and blistering attack on the church in parliament, following release of a devastating report into child sexual abuse involving the church in Dublin.

The church claimed the move was in response to “excessive reactions” to the report.

A few months later the Irish government closed its Vatican embassy, saying it “yields no economic return”.

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