– The Catholic bishops of New Zealand have countered reports that say they are backing away from an upcoming government inquiry into sexual abuse cases in state and religious institutions in the country.
“Listening to individuals who have been harmed is critical in ensuring the Church’s response will be thorough, effective and compassionate, and forms part of our experience for developing safeguarding for today and into the future,” the bishops said in a statement published on their website.
They wrote responding to reports that they had backed away from a royal commission inquiry, which will examine historical cases of sexual abuse at institutions of care in New Zealand between the years 1950-1999.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the royal commission of inquiry into sex abuse cases in January 2018, the highest form of long-term investigation available in the country.
While the original terms of the inquiry included youth detention centers, psychiatric hospitals and orphanages, as well as any government care services contracted out to private institutions, the Catholic bishops of New Zealand published a letter in March 2018 calling for an expansion of the inquiry’s terms to include Catholic care institutions.
In that letter, the bishops said they would be “active contributors and learners within the Royal Commission of Inquiry.”
“We assure you once again of our support and our desire to learn from this national undertaking which we are confident will contribute positively to the strengthening and safeguarding of our whānau, communities and society,” they wrote.
In their recent statement, the bishops referenced their March letter and reiterated their support of the inquiry.
“The Bishops and representation from Catholic Religious orders wrote to Prime Minister Ardern, Minister Martin, and Sir Anand Satyanand in March this year. That letter explicitly sought the broadening of the draft Terms of Reference to include Church institutions and was made publicly available and reported in the media,” the bishops said.
The statement comes amid pressure from two New Zealand men who are publicly calling for the release of Church files on Father Cornelius O’Brien, an Irish priest who moved to New Zealand in 1963 and served at least seven parishes until 1976, at which point he was accused of indecency against a 10 year-old and returned to the UK. He is reportedly believed to have sexually abused multiple children during his time in New Zealand. O’Brien died 6 years ago, his priestly faculties having never been removed.
The New Zealand Royal Commission inquiry is expected to take several years and is similar to the recently-concluded five-year Royal Commission inquiry in Australia, which examined sex abuse in Australian schools, churches, and sports clubs, and set up a government program to financially compensate victims.
The bishops of Australia said in August that while they have accepted hundreds of specific recommendations from the final report, they reject the recommendation that priests violate the seal of confession in cases of sexual abuse disclosed during confession.