The Catholic Church Is Not Suffering


In an astounding public hearing yesterday, the Catholic church was at last scrutinised by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse for the conduct of its victims' compensation protocol, Towards Healing.

The evidence tendered and statements heard already show serious misconduct by the church. Tomorrow I'll go through the significant findings from the first two days of the fourth public hearing. But it's worth at the outset, after some extraordinary events yesterday, to first analyse how and why the Catholic church continues to present itself on the issue of child abuse: in a self-pitying and recalcitrant manner, recasting even its mistakes as achievements.

The Towards Healing sessions will form the backbone of the commission's work and will continue for as long as it sits. They are the most crucial and politically sensitive element of its inquiry. The church knows this, which is why it has responded so stridently, with the formation of a supra-church organisation, the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Despite setting up this "whole-of-church" body, the Catholic church is still unable to come to grips with the profound damage it has caused victims. It still feels as if it has, to use its own language, a "moral witness" to offer on the subject.

The church's counsel, Peter Gray SC, opened his remarks to the commission by referencing two infamous passages from the Gospel of Mark, much-quoted by critics of the church regarding its stance towards child abuse:

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such of these that the kingdom of God belongs … Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

At this point, several victims were heard to gasp and cry out in the commission's hearing room. They left, and many were reportedly in tears in the foyer.

Gray then went on to say that the whole church was "deeply ashamed", as were the majority of priests and religious, for whom the "the revelations of recent decades have been heartbreaking". He quoted a couplet from the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

"Comforter, where, where is your comforting? / Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?"

Let's be clear: the "comforter" he refers to is the church, which in the best Catholic mode is also the site of suffering. Mary, who is venerated by Catholics sometimes more than her son Jesus Christ, is the key figuring of both goodness and tragedy in Catholicism — both giving birth to God and seeing Him die on the cross. She is a kind of stand-in metaphor for the church itself.

This idea, of a suffering church venerating a suffering God, is a powerful theme in Catholicism. GK Chesterton, the church's greatest apologist in modern times, once wrote that upholding the law against anarchy is itself a type of agony:

"So that each thing that obeys law … may earn the right to say to [the anarchist], 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.'"

Put more concisely, the victims had every right to leave the chamber and should be celebrated for doing so; in the opening remarks of its first appearance, the church has indicated that it still sees itself as a victim of child abuse, a perverse and utterly unacceptable position for it to hold at this late stage. By maintaining this line the church also co-opts the suffering of its parishioners, who have often been victims themselves.

This attitude also extends to the church's governance, one of the very things that allowed it to move abusers from parish to parish, stonewall victims and so on. Gray, referring to the Truth Justice and Healing Council, had this to say on the matter:

"Each individual diocese and each individual religious institute is basically autonomous and independent of every other. For example, no archbishop or bishop has any authority or control over any other bishop.

”Not surprisingly, to achieve a consensus amongst so many different and independent people and bodies and groupings has, in the past, often been difficult, but on this issue, that of the tragedy of child sexual abuse, differences of view have been put aside."

To call this summation of the church’s institutional dysfunction a whitewash would be too generous. For a long time, the so-called Ellis Defence, the existence of which the church has consistently denied, even as child abuse lawyers have insisted its operation has made things nigh-impossible for its clients, means that it is "effectively immune from suit".

Essentially, because of its internal structure and the placement of its assets in trusts, the church was found by the NSW Court of Appeal in Ellis v Pell to be unsueable. As the Australian Lawyers' Alliance noted in 2012, this makes it hard for victims to recover damages. Priests, who generally aren't flush with material possessions, don't make good defendants in civil cases.

The Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into child abuse, which focused on the Catholic church, recommended that governments co-operate on passing legislation to establish a concrete legal entity for the church. As NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said in 2012, regarding comments from Cardinal Archbishop George Pell:

"The Church does meet all of its legal obligations. But that’s a very narrow truth that he says, because the fact of the matter is, the way the law is structured, the Church has effectively no legal obligations. The Church itself doesn’t exist in the eyes of the law."

So the church should not expect applause for establishing the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, effectively a one-stop-shop for Catholic public relations, at a time when it itself is under threat of being totally reorganised and transformed by state power.

Peter Gray SC came out hard in his opening remarks. In doing so he is following a similar model to the YMCA, which, as I wrote of the second public hearing, is an attempt to get out in front of the commission.

Gray attempted to reframe the Towards Healing sessions away from the commission's fact-finding role, seemingly trying to relegate it to passing judgment on the church's own assessment of its performance. For example, he attempted to make irrelevant altogether one of yesterday's witnesses:

"One of the cases, as we see it, is not really a Towards Healing case at all but an example of someone who chose to approach the church outside Towards Healing."

Justice Peter McClellan, the commission's chair, reprimanded him for this:

"Mr Gray, I know I have allowed you to make an opening, but an opening is designed to lay out where the evidence is going to go, not to express conclusions about it. Conclusions are a matter to be assessed after the evidence has been given."

The church's ability to give up that evidence will be sorely tested. As Gail Furness SC, the counsel assisting the commission, noted there are no published data on Towards Healing.

The church's own records are incomplete and had to be obtained by the commission under summons, and, Furness said, the church even then "advised that due to the inconsistent use of databases kept, it could not confirm that the data was a complete or up to date source of information on all Towards Healing cases."

The hearing continues this week.

How does the Vatican operate in Australia? How does it interact with the vast "submerged state" of Catholic education and welfare? What kind of Church will survive the child abuse inquiry? Over the following months New Matilda will be investigating the application of Catholic power in Australia, the various mechanisms set up by the Church to attempt to deal with the scourge of child abuse, and the work of the Royal Commission.

Tips can be sent to adam [dot]brereton [at]newmatilda [dot]com. Confidentiality and sensitivity guaranteed.

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