Thursday, September 14, 2023

Australian archbishop defends responses to abuse inquiries

Child sexual abuse inquiry: Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe denies  control over other WA Catholic orgs | The West Australian

The difficulties survivors of child sexual abuse face when attempting to pursue justice is a reality of complexities of the church, the Catholic Archbishop of Perth says.

Timothy Costelloe made the statements while testifying before the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee's inquiry into the options available to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse in Western Australia who are seeking justice.

He also rejected claims that he was trying to evade responsibility of being "dishonest" in his communication on the issue.

Described variously as a "war of attrition" and an "attempt to break you down", survivors have spoken of unnecessarily long delays in legal proceedings and unreasonable demands for information.

Archbishop Costelloe, who has been the Catholic Archbishop of Perth since 2012 and gave evidence at the 2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, began with an apology and a pledge.

"I wanted to take this opportunity to repeat again, on behalf of the church I lead in the Archdiocese of Perth, my sincere apology to those who have been so badly wronged by members of the Catholic Church," he said.

"I continue to be horrified by the extent of this abuse in Catholic institutions and am personally shamed by the failure of so many of our leaders to respond with compassion and integrity.

"The safety and wellbeing of children and young people in Catholic settings is now a fundamental priority for us all."

After his opening statement, the archbishop was questioned at length over reports from survivors as to the difficulty they have faced when attempting to deal with the Catholic Church, be it finding information or attempting to begin legal action.

Archbishop Costelloe responded to the many questions of this nature by firstly highlighting that the Catholic Church was a complex organisation, and by pointing out that his jurisdiction did not extend across the whole state.

"[I want to] just reiterate if I may that each diocese — and there are four in Western Australia, about 30 around the country — is headed up by a bishop," he said.

"Every bishop is directly responsible to the Holy See, so we don't have a structure of a national church or a national leader of the church in Australia.

"The reality of the church is much more complex than people appreciate and that's not to make any excuse for it, it is the reality."

When asked his thoughts on how a survivor may feel re-traumatised when seeking justice only to be told they had not come to the right place, or to have someone tell the survivor it was someone else's responsibility, Archbishop Costelloe responded in a similar vein.

"I'm not trying to hide anything, or evade responsibility, I'm trying to explain how I operate within the reality of where I find myself," he said.

"I reject the suggestion that I am being dishonest or insincere in anything I've said about my commitment to this issue.

"I belong to the church and must operate within the reality of the church, we may or may not like the reality of the way the church is structured, I can't change it, I have to operate within it.

"I'm doing that to best of my ability and really want to say strongly I do not accept I'm being dishonest, insensitive or in any way unresponsive."

Archbishop Costelloe said the WA Professional Standards Office was the appropriate body for first contact for survivors, but conceded it might not be well enough known, and highlighted the church's improved accountability. 

"Through our safeguarding program here in the Archdiocese of Perth, and through the establishment of Australian Catholic Safeguarding Limited at the national level, stringent protocols have been adopted and embedded in the way in which the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth operates," he said.

"Our compliance with these protocols will be regularly audited and the results made public.

"As a result, church authorities will now operate with full accountability to the Catholic community and the community at large."

A 'person-centred' approach

Barbara Blayney is the head of the Archdiocese of Perth's safeguarding office and told the inquiry her office implements a national trauma-informed strategy to dealing with survivors and victims.

When asked if they sought feedback from survivors who took part in developing the protocol, Ms Blayney said there was a feedback mechanism within the website, but said they had not reached out to individual survivors to ask that particular question.

Labor's member for Bassendean and former government minister, Dave Kelly, then posed a question to the archbishop based on a personal experience.

"I became aware [in a 2013 newspaper article] of a paedophile at my school, which was Christian Brothers College Fremantle … a brother called Father Danny McMahon," Mr Kelly told the inquiry.

"The article had talked about abuse at Aquinas and Trinity and knowing, from my experience that he'd taught when I was at CBC Fremantle, I wrote to the school saying 'this guy taught at our school, what are you going to do about potential victims there?'

"A couple of months later he [the principal] said my complaint had been referred to the professional standards office, that was in July of 2013.

"I've never received any correspondence from the professional standards office with my inquiry about Brother Danny McMahon.

"So, from talking to victims, they're not particularly impressed by the service they get from the professional standards office and from my own experience … I've never received a response, is there any reason for that?"

Archbishop Costelloe said he was not aware of that issue so could not respond directly but said he would think the church's processes had been improving over time.

"Remembering of course … that CBC Fremantle is not under the authority of the archdiocese, it's under the authority of the Christian Brothers," he said.

"I'm not trying to avoid responsibility, but I feel obliged, also for the sake of those who have suffered at the hands of the church, to be clear about who must accept responsibility for these things."

Survivors struggling to navigate system

Jarrod Luscombe is engaged in civil proceedings over his abuse by McMahon, who is now deceased, when he was a schoolboy and sat through the archbishop's testimony.

He helped members of the Perth-based group Survivors of Child Abuse prepare their submissions for the inquiry.

"Working with the survivors, a lot of them are struggling through these core processes," he told media outside of the inquiry.

"So how do we try and advocate on behalf [of them] when there are hundreds of different Catholic entities that we need to contact to ensure that they actually abide by their own guidelines, which they're not doing."

He said there were several initiatives he and other survivors wanted to see implemented.

"I think initially would be to ensure that the Catholic Church actually abide by the model litigant guidelines," he said.

"We would definitely like to see the district court be able to fast track and expedite some of these cases.

"There are a number of support services as well that survivors desperately need, so one of the submissions with the Catholic Church was a co-funded victim support scheme.

"We also need to fully understand the complex nature of complex PTSD."