Aussie prelate says Pell verdict created ‘clear air’ to move forward on reform

Aussie prelate says Pell verdict created ‘clear air’ to move forward on reform

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops' conference, center, and other Australian bishops leave after concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome June 25, 2019. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

One of Australia's most senior Church officials has said the acquittal of Cardinal George Pell last April has allowed the country to move forward on necessary reforms in abuse prevention.

ROME – Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has stressed the importance of listening to abuse survivors in the country’s new protocols on child protection.

He also spoke of what the last few months have been like for Australia following the release of Cardinal George Pell, who last April was acquitted of historical child sex abuse after becoming the highest Vatican official to ever be jailed on abuse charges, and the impact the case had on Australian society, both inside the Church and out.

“Every allegation against Church personnel demands that the Church respond with compassion and justice, seeking to heal where and as possible,” Coleridge told Crux in an interview.

When it comes to the Pell case, reactions were widespread and varied, among abuse survivors as well as those in the Church and Australian society.

“In ways not always helpful, the cardinal’s case became a focus of issues much broader than the charges before the courts,” Coleridge said.

“It’s hard for me to say how the case changed the reality of what happened before, during or after his legal proceedings. But it ensured that the Church remained under scrutiny, which is not something we shy away from,” Coleridge said.

Since Pell won his appeal to Australia’s High Court last year, Coleridge said “the Church in this country has at least found some comparatively clear air, which has made it less difficult to continue constructing and implementing the necessary reforms.”

Coleridge, who serves as president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, also spoke about the significance of the bishops’ new National Response Protocol for abuse, adopted at their November 2020 plenary assembly, which, he said, “represents a significant change from previous protocols.”

He also reflected on the impact of Pope Francis’s 2019 law Vos Estis Lux Mundi aimed at bishop’s accountability, as well as the work that still needs to be done in creating a culture of listening so that survivors are heard and helped to heal.

“Listening doesn’t mean just sitting across from someone and copping what they say,” he said, adding that in his view, “The whole Church, not just the leadership, needs to grow in empathetic listening.”

Below are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Coleridge.

Crux: Does the new document introduce any new element to the Church’s response that was not in previous protocols?

Coleridge: The National Response Protocol (NRP) represents a significant change from previous protocols (Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response), though it has sought to build on the foundation they established. [Since then], the Church and the wider society learned more about the prevalence of abuse, the behaviour of predators, the damage done to victims, and how best to respond with proactive policies relating to individuals and environments. This meant in part how to address the cultural factors underlying abuse and its cover-up.

The protocols emphasize listening to survivors. Do you think the Church in Australia has made progress in developing a culture of listening?

We have made some progress, not least through the years of the Royal Commission when we heard the harrowing testimony of many survivors. I have spoken often enough of how listening to survivors changed the way I understood and responded to abuse. That is true of the Church as a whole.

Yet we still have a lot to learn, and many voices to listen to if we want to develop and consolidate a culture of listening. According to a trauma-based framework, we need to be guided by victims and survivors and their support networks. Listening doesn’t mean just sitting across from someone and copping what they say. The whole Church, not just the leadership, needs to grow in empathetic listening, knowing that sometimes a spoken response will be needed after the listening, but sometimes not. This implies a better understanding of trauma and its effects.

One thing we have learned from listening is that we need to introduce risk assessment and risk management processes into our response processes. That is now a strong safeguarding feature of the National Response Protocol. We have also come to see more clearly and urgently how necessary it is to comply and cooperate fully with emerging legislation and social expectations on developing genuine cultures of safety and care for children.

It’s now been a year and a half since Vos Estis took effect. What impact do you see that having in promoting transparency in the Church?

Vos Estis Lux Mundi was an important step forward for the Church around the world and a sign of Pope Francis’ determination that the meeting of Episcopal Conference presidents led to concrete action. There are two main aspects. The first is the mandatory reporting obligation on clerics and religious. The second is the introduction of consequences for diocesan bishops and major superiors who do not properly deal with abuse complaints. The introduction of these two features address two common failings that the Royal Commission uncovered. First, reports of abuse were not properly communicated to bishops and major superiors. Second, some bishops and major superiors who did receive reports did nothing to deal with them.

Without claiming to provide all the answers, Vos Estis seeks to implement universally a number of practices and policies that the Church in Australia, through the Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia, had already put in place. It provides a framework for action and clear guidance on what accountability requires. In Australia too, it makes clear that we have more work to do in the area of accountability.

What has the “Australian Catholic Safeguarding Limited” had on child protection? Is it generally seen as objective, even though it’s owned by the bishops?

Australian Catholic Safeguarding Limited, and its predecessor, Catholic Professional Standards Limited, are seen as critical and credible elements of the Church’s response to abuse. Most significantly, the earlier program developed the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards, developed from the Ten Child Safety Standards formulated through the recent Royal Commission. These have now been implemented across the country, drawing on best research and practice from within and beyond the Church, across Australia and overseas. The introduction of public auditing of Church entities’ compliance with those standards has, I think, demonstrated both the objectivity of the programs and the transparency of the Church entities being audited.

One of the changes that will come with the establishment of the new system is broader discretion for Church authorities to choose independent auditors from within or beyond the Church, adding to the actual and perceived independence of the auditing process. Bishops and religious leaders will have to be diligent in ensuring that functional independence is a reality.

As to the effect on child protection, it is too early to say. “Australian Catholic Safeguarding Limited” will start operation only from Feb. 1. But the members of the company and the board are determined to build on the pioneering work of the earlier program to ensure that the system is functionally independent, effective, and affordable. As far as the bishops and major superiors are concerned, the move from one to the other isn’t a diminishment of our commitment but a consolidation of professional standards required by changed, and changing, circumstances.

It’s been 10 months since Pell was released. Has the fact that the process is now over, plus the fact that he’s been in Rome, meant the Church has been able to go about healing without focusing on that one case?

Every allegation against Church personnel demands that Church respond with compassion and justice, seeking to heal where and as possible. The bishops and the wider Church – locally and internationally – watched Cardinal Pell’s legal dramas with a wide range of responses. So did those who have been abused within the Catholic Church or elsewhere. In ways not always helpful, the Cardinal’s case became a focus of issues much broader than the charges before the courts. The drama of George Pell moved at many levels and in many directions.

It’s hard for me to say how the case changed the reality of what happened before, during or after his legal proceedings. But it ensured that the Church remained under scrutiny, which is not something we shy away from. Since the Cardinal succeeded on appeal, the Church in this country has least found some comparatively clear air, which has made it less difficult to continue constructing and implementing the necessary reforms.

Is there anything else you think is important to say about the new protocols?

They respond directly to recommendations of the Royal Commission, best practice in trauma-based responses and emerging legislation in the states. They introduce a robust and transparent set of procedures which will ensure that complaints of child sexual abuse will be independently investigated, and perpetrators will be held to account. Another strong feature is that the processes fit better with the Church’s canonical penal procedure than did “Towards Healing” or the “Melbourne Response.” This was a sore point with some canonists who will, we hope, find the new protocol more acceptable.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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