Arriving in Sydney, Australia, this summer for a round of conferences sponsored by the Broken Bay Institute of the Australian Institute of Theological Education, I found a church confronting events likely to have a profound impact on its future: the Royal Commission’s completion of its work on an “institutional response to child sexual abuse”; the return of Cardinal George Pell from Rome to face charges on sexual abuse cases alleged to have taken place decades ago in the diocese of Ballarat; and the announcement of a Plenary Council for Australia set for 2020—the first since 1937.
The three issues are interwoven. The Pell case frightens the institutional church for the ripple effects the trial might have on other investigations into clergy sexual abuse. It complicates the creative response of the Australian episcopate to the scandal: the creation of the Truth, Justice, and Healing Council launched shortly after the establishment of the Royal Commission and headed by Francis Sullivan, a lay Catholic who for fourteen years was chief executive of Catholic Health Australia. After the expected publication of the Royal Commission’s report at the end of this year, the Truth, Justice, and Healing Council will publish its own report. It will be interesting to see how the episcopate receives it. Created by the bishops, the council has nonetheless maintained an independent attitude; for example, it has refused the request of some bishops to cross-examine witnesses heard by the Royal Commission.
Over dinner in Sydney, Sullivan gave me his assessment of the impact of the Royal Commission hearings. “The hearings have laid bare the cultural factors that enabled the scandal to be so badly managed,” he told me. “They can be summarized as issues of power, privilege, and participation. Who controlled decision-making, who was involved in decision-making, and who benefited from the decisions taken. The lack of transparency and the entitlement attitudes that underpin clericalism were given a lot of ventilation. This has opened public debate about the role of women, celibacy, seminary training, supervision of clerics, and the ethical use of church finances.” The church, he added, has lost control of this public debate. “Its voice has been muted and compromised,” he said. “Any semblance of a defensive tone is jumped on by critics and the majority of the leaders have been missing in action.”
The commission, established by the federal government in 2013, has confronted the Catholic Church like no other public inquiry has in the history of Australia. Previous parliamentary or government-led inquiries have examined church positions in specific areas of policy or provision of services in areas such as education, health care, or social work. These usually devolve into debates over identity, ethos, and religious liberty; they do not actually examine the bona fides of the church or its claims to be a trustworthy organization and ethical “corporate citizen.” Moreover, the Royal Commission has displayed a disregard, some even perceive it as a disrespect, for the church in general. Certainly there was no special treatment afforded, nor was there an attempt to pay extra deference to senior church personnel. In many ways the Australian church has had to confront how it has lost its credibility in society generally, and how little tolerance or compassion it can count on in so highly a charged environment.
The commission will not issue rulings but will deliver a report to the government on the probability of the facts, with recommendations for institutions and the nation in broad sense. Should the Catholic Church not follow the recommendations (among those possible: that the church include women in its governing structures, or modify formation for seminarians), there’s a fear that the government might, for example, require registration of religious ministers authorized to perform duties in contact with the public (especially children). There was a preview of sorts in August 14 when the commission issued recommendations that included the obligation of priests to report what is revealed in the confessional. The church responded vigorously, closing the door to every possible mediation and creating the impression of a clerical hierarchy insensitive to the scandal. Yet the senior archbishops could not agree in public about the extent of the seal of confession, and they refused to formally follow up with seeking an opinion from Rome. In a previous commission session, expert canon lawyers agreed that the seal of confession applied only to the confessing of a sin, not to other information that concerned the penitent but was not his or her sin. Thus the way is open to address the substantive issue the Royal Commission is interested in, even if the bishops have refused to entertain such an interpretation.