The royal commission exposed in sickening, staggering detail the church’s crimes against thousands of children in Australia alone, and its culpability as an organisation that protected criminals and facilitated those crimes.
But the bishops, in response, are acting as if nothing has happened. Sure, they’ve promised change. They’ve released pious statements. They’ve even used the words “humility” and “humbled” in the right context.
But with every move they make, with every step they don’t take, Australia’s bishops show they don’t understand that their relationship with Australians has changed. Has had to change.
In the words of Hunter abuse survivor Bob O’Toole, “They don’t seem to get that they don’t call the shots anymore.”
The church kept its crimes and its criminals secret for decades because it didn’t want the scandal that would damage its authority and power. It wasn’t naivety or innocence – as too many senior churchmen argued over the years – but a clinical, systemic, cold-blooded process designed to protect the “brand”, informed by centuries of “calling the shots” on how other people should live their lives.
All swept away. The secrets aren’t secret anymore. The powerless reclaimed some power by speaking out. And that requires the church and its bishops to cede power, which is where they’re failing now.
In the past week I’ve put questions to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference about if and when it is going to release a report completed by its Truth, Justice and Healing Council three months ago in response to the royal commission’s report and recommendations.
I’m not the only one who thinks the council might have gone much further than the bishops expected in supporting the royal commission’s recommendations for historic change in the church – on governance, canon law, reporting to secular authorities, celibacy, women in leadership positions and the iconic issue of breaching the “sanctity” of the confessional.
The bishops haven’t released it, and based on the pile of words I’ve received in response to my questions, won’t be doing so any time soon. They are consulting with people, and that even includes lay people, they said.
But there’s where the problem lies. The bishops have picked those consulted. Groups like Catholics for Renewal – including academic and former priest Peter Wilkinson, who produced a ground-breaking report in 2017 that revealed exactly how radically the church has to change to prevent abuse occurring in future – are out in the cold.
On May 31 Pope Francis issued a letter to Chile’s bishops after a dramatic escalation of public anger because of decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups. The Pope could not have been more clear about what he expected of bishops and, more importantly, of all Catholics.
He reminded Chile’s bishops of a speech he made to young people in Santiago in January, in which he urged “all Christians” to “not be afraid to be the central drivers of the transformation that is being demanded today”.
The church needed lay people to “demand some explanation” and have the courage to tell church leaders “This is the path I think we have to take”, the Pope said.
In response to questions where I quoted the Pope’s letter, Australia’s bishops did the written equivalent of coughing politely, noting they did talk to lay people and “All voices have their rightful place in the conversation”. But they won’t be meeting with Catholics for Renewal, which has strongly supported the release of the Truth Justice and Healing Council report and root and branch reforms of the Catholic Church all the way to the Vatican.
I don’t understand why individual bishops don’t speak out. What exactly is the worst that can happen, given the Pope reminded Chile’s bishops that the “struggle against a culture of abuse” required them not to “supplant, silence or ignore all the faithful”? He reminded the bishops the “people of God has no first, second or third class Christians”.
In other words, get off your high horses.
Australia’s bishops are trying to control what they think they can control now – the release of a church-commissioned report that is probably damning, who they consult with and how they’re prepared to deal with governments.
As if they have that right. When the church facilitated crimes, when it acted as if it was above Australian law for too long, it lost that right.
It has to establish a new relationship with the Australian people, based on acknowledging it has lost power – not because society has outgrown religion but because with child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church debased people’s faith in God.
The federal government must demand a response from Australia’s bishops now, and the release of the Truth Justice and Healing Council report so that all Catholics – all Australians – can contribute, if they choose, to building a new church, for that is what’s required.
Keeping that report a secret is a litmus test for bishops, if only they had the sense to realise it.
Joanne McCarthy from the Newcastle Herald is the winner of the 2013 Gold Walkley.
In the last seven years, she has written more than 350 articles about the sexual abuse of children, primarily by Catholic clergy in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. It was her relentless campaign for a royal commission that prompted a letter from Julia Gillard.
“Thanks in very large measure to your persistence and courage,” the former prime minister wrote, “the New South Wales Special Commission of Enquiry and the Federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.”
McCarthy’s editor at the Newcastle Herald, Chad Watson, describes her as “a beacon for Australian journalism.”