ROME— Testifying before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, five archbishops acknowledged the failures of the Catholic Church as an institution to protect minors, with one of them calling the response by leadership a case of “criminal negligence.”
“I think it has been a scandalously insufficient, hopelessly inadequate” response, said Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth. “I’m struggling for other words. It’s just such a fundamental failure that I am not sure what else I could say.”
Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who succeeded Cardinal George Pell in Sydney agreed, adding: “I think you might want to use stronger words in some cases, that it was a kind of criminal negligence to deal with some of the problems that were staring us in the face.”
Others, Fisher said, were like “rabbits in the headlights”: they had no idea of what to do, and their performance was “appalling.”
The comments came on Thursday, as the prelates were being questioned by Gail Furness, the lead lawyer assisting the commission in the inquiry.
Three more metropolitan archbishops — Brisbane’s Mark Coleridge, Melbourne’s Denis Hart and Philip Wilson of Adelaide — were also at the hearing, part of a three-week inquiry into the Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse.
Data released on the first day of the ongoing Royal Commission hearing revealed that between 1980 and 2015, 4,400 people had reported having been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia, with seven percent of Australian priests facing charges.
During the hearing, the prelates also said the Church has the responsibility of being part of resolving the crisis.
“Precisely because we have failed so badly, our society has the right to expect us to do what we can to contribute to a solution,” Costelloe said.
He also said that the record and reputation of the Church is so damaged that many would understandably think the institution has nothing to offer. “Tragically and unfortunately, we have learnt an awful lot about this terrible scourge,” he added.
Over the years, Costelloe continued, the Church has made attempts to respond to the crisis, some cases proving to be more successful than others. It’s from this experience, he said, that “we might be able to offer [something] for consideration by the wider society.”
Coleridge agreed with Costelloe, adding that the Church being part of the solution is not a possibility but “an obligation.”
Working with others to find a solution, he said, is something he sees as “a most solemn obligation imposed upon us, first of all, by the demands of the Gospel but, secondly, by the demands of responsible citizenship.”
Furness asked the prelates point-blank if they believe the Church as an institution is responsible for the cases of clerical sexual abuse and for the way they were handled. In response, Wilson said he agreed, but that the situation of the Church is more complex.
“There are some institutional aspects of it which were failures here, but there are many people who belong to our Church who were not responsible for this,” he said, agreeing with Furness when she asked if he was talking about parishioners and members of the congregation.
Fisher acknowledged that there are individuals who should be held accountable for their deeds and failures to respond. Yet he said there’s also a sense in which “the institution as a whole, or the Catholic community as a whole, hangs its head in shame, and its leaders in particular have to do what they can to bring about redress and healing, to make sure we are a safer Church in the future.”
Coleridge built on those remarks, arguing that there’s a complex interplay between individual and institutional responsibility, and that even though the institutional one can’t be underestimated, it doesn’t cancel the individual level.
Many other issues were touched upon during the interrogation, which went on for several hours and will continue on Friday morning Australia time.
The prelates were asked about if, how and when they’ve apologized for the mistakes of the past, about their meetings with survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and about what they’re doing to guarantee the situation doesn’t repeat itself.
Their responses were recorded in a 54-page long transcript, which included Fisher saying that he’s repeatedly told his archdiocese “no excuses, no cover-ups, no pedophiles ever again near our Churches and schools.”
In an attempt to explain why these crimes had been covered up in so many dioceses, by so many different people, Costelloe said that the Church had historically thought of itself as “unique,” and “so important that it stood aside from the normal things that would be a part of any other body that works or exists in a society.”
This view of the Church has changed, both from within and without, with bishops no longer behaving as “absolute monarchs,” as Fisher put it. Bishops holding such attitudes are no longer possible, he argued, because, for one thing, “people won’t let me.”
“My priests and my people, if I start behaving tyrannically, one way or another they will vote with their feet, they will vote with their voices, they will go to the media, they will be sending me petitions,” Fisher said.
Explaining long-term reforms being implemented to guarantee that the abuse crisis doesn’t happen again, Wilson said that there’s a big responsibility on the shoulders of those in leadership. This includes bishops helping and cooperating with one another, beyond the boundaries of their dioceses, and working at a national level through the bishop’s conference and also with the Vatican.
The ongoing process, which includes reaching out to survivors and their families, dealing effectively with perpetrators in a law-abiding way, making sure no new pedophiles appear in the clergy by ramping up the selection and formation process and implementing a safeguarding program, Wilson acknowledged, wasn’t perfect when it was first implemented in 1996, and it’s still not perfect.
Yet further initiatives are being considered, he said, and have in fact been discussed before the Royal Commission.
The inquiry also heard from three members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, set up by Pope Francis early on in his pontificate. Among other things, the members acknowledged that they are under-budgeted for the scope of the task that has been given to them, and that they’re experiencing difficulties due to the infrequent meetings and cultural barriers both in the Church and across nations.
Australian commission member Kathleen McCormack said that despite being an advisory body to the pope, they have a budget more appropriate for a diocese, even though they’re “dealing with the whole world.”
A British member of the pontifical commission, Baroness Sheila Hollins, who joined through video-link, agreed.
When Peter McClellan, chair of the inquiry body, asked, “Why can’t you go to the pope and say ‘We don’t have the resources we need to effectively carry out our work’?” Hollins answered that this may be something they say to Francis when they complete a review.