Your ‘Where to from here?’ speech as CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council on 10 March 2017 was admirably frank about the Catholic Church’s causes of the abuse crisis.
It did not, however, in our view, go far enough in its blame or solutions.
It is surprising that, as you claim, no one “was prepared for the extent of the abuse and the appalling rate across male religious orders and within the priesthood”.
But there was plenty of evidence of the abuse.
The culture of denial and secrecy was led from the very top of the Church in Australia over decades. It continues to compound the abuse suffered by victims by denying justice to perpetrators and those who shielded them.
We are surprised that you thought “maybe the Church had up to 100 paedophiles in its history”. This is so far from the reality elsewhere, known even before the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was announced.
It seems extraordinary that you seem unaware of the implication of the thousands of press reports of such abuse from around the world over decades and the billions of dollars that have been paid out in damages in the US, and millions of Euros in Ireland.
Other sources include the 2015 film Spotlight, concerning the exposés of the Boston Globe journalists, the books Double Cross by David Ranan (2007) and Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church by Fr. Thomas Doyle, A.W. Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall (2006).
Also relevant to the scale of abuse is the Holy See’s representative telling the United Nations Human Rights Council on 22 September 2009: “From available research we now know that in the last fifty years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases.”
Worldwide there are about 500,000 male priests and religious which equates to between 7,500 and 25,000 abusers, most of which have abused multiple children or vulnerable adults in their care and on numerous occasions.
At the same time the Vatican’s UN representative sought to excuse such sexual and other violence against minors by clerics on the grounds that most abuse is “ephebophile” not paedophile.
Nevertheless this kind of abuse is normally criminal action and constitutes a serious abuse of trust and misuse of authority that frequently ruins the lives of those abused and their families.
Such abuse has been a problem since the inception of the Church.
As early as 1963 it was brought to the attention of the Pope in an audience by the Order of the Paracletes that had even considered, but eventually abandoned, an “Island Retreat” in the Caribbean for recidivist abusive priests, such was the extent of the abuse.
Also, in its 2014 Concluding Observations (see in particular paras 43 and 44) the Holy See received the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child’s harshest possible criticism which received worldwide publicity.
The UN Committee noted in para 19 that the Pope’s own Pontifical Commission to sanction bishops covering up abusers was to be “empowered to receive children’s complaints of sexual abuse”.
But, of course, as we know now, the Pontifical Commission was without resources to do anything.
Long before Commission member Marie Collins left in disgust, or indeed before Peter Saunders was quietly ousted from the Pontifical Commission, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child raised alarm bells about this Commission.
The UN Committee’s Observations, just as valid today, continue: “The Committee is, however, concerned that the Holy See has not established a mechanism to monitor respect for and compliance with children’s rights by individuals and institutions operating under its authority, including all Catholic schools, worldwide and in Vatican City State.”
You have rightly acknowledged recent concerns about the Pope’s disinclination to tackle such abuse effectively, but these are simply yet a further symptom of what has been evident from the start of his pontificate.
One of the first indications of this was the refusal to take these UN recommendations seriously; it surely cannot have been without his knowledge that the UN Committee was in effect attacked by the Holy See for its concluding observations.
The Pontifical Commission never had any executive power, and we now learn, resources. It exists to give the illusion of action being taken.
Similarly, the Tribunal the Pope announced to prosecute bishops who covered up abusing priests was abandoned in June 2016 soon after it became evident that these bishops or senior Church figures would con- sequently be vulnerable to secular justice, mainly in the USA. This almost pain-free procedural Tribunal alternative, free from criminal sanctions, never sat.
There have been numerous other accusations of the Pope’s disinclination to act in this area, easily found in the media. The Vatican continues to refuse to instruct, as the UN recommended, that reasonable suspicions of abuse be reported to secular authorities and insists that incriminating information be kept out of secular reach.
You are correct in drawing attention to implications of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine Faith’s refusal to co-operate, even the basic courtesy of acknowledging letters from those alleging abuse far less investigating them.
The combination of a reluctant pontiff and an obstructive curia is a Church, also a nation state, that undermines the rule of law with impunity.
Abusers and their enablers go unpunished by secular courts able to impose realistic punishments for crimes, and many victims go uncompensated.
Despite your mea culpa the Church still ferociously fights both criminal and civil cases, even when there is no doubt about guilt.
We wish we shared your optimism that greater lay involvement would help, given the Curia ignore even requests by the Pope to observe the most basic courtesies.
It would go some way to improve matters for the future if in all countries:
- Reporting of institutional abuse were made mandatory;
- Statutes of limitation were lifted for child abuse cases where the Australian Commission showed that on average reporting took over 30 years;
- No religious organization is in effect immune to being sued because of the nature of its legal persona, which is never a bar to it receiving assets;
- ‘One law for all’ with no recognition of parallel legal systems; religious institutions should not be permitted to exempt themselves from the law of the land; Canon law must not take precedence over Australian law.
Mr Sullivan, would you support such proposals?
Rationalist Society of Australia, Melbourne
Rationalist Assn of NSW, Sydney
Plain Reason, Adelaide
Humanist Society of Queensland, Brisbane
National Secular Society, London
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