Archbishop Denis Hart of the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese yesterday issued a letter to Catholic parishioners in the 219 parishes of the archdiocese. Trumpeted by the Catholic Church’s PR machine as an apology to child sexual abuse victims, the letter is, like the recent and very similar letter by Pope Benedict XVI to Irish Catholics, no such thing.
If the letter were truly targeted to the victims of Catholic Church sponsored child sexual abuse, it would not be delivered from Church pulpits. Because most victims are so damaged by their abuse, and by their mistreatment by the Catholic Church, they are unable to enter a Church or sit through a mass.
If the letter were truly intended to help victims recover, to bring offenders to justice and to protect children, it would include specific actions to achieve those aims, not a self satisfied assurance that the current system is already perfect and that there is no need to consider any changes.
Because if you ask individual victims or victim support groups, they will tell you the current Melbourne specific system administered by Denis Hart, and the very similar Towards Healing system covering the rest of Australia, are inadequate, abusive to victims, and riddled with conflicts of interest.
The real audience for this letter, and the Pope’s Irish letter, is Catholics, those filling the pews in the churches where it was read out yesterday. Not the voiceless victims sitting at home crying because once again the Catholic Church is lying about their experience and deliberately denying them the chance to tell their own stories.
The real purpose of Denis Hart’s letter, just like Benedict’s, is to stem the tide of Catholics deserting the Church, and to deflect their anger and blame away from the Catholic Church hierarchy’s ongoing unwillingness to deal with this issue in a compassionate and law abiding manner.
Of course Denis Hart’s letter contains the usual and expected Catholic Church attempts to hide, diminish and avoid responsibility while also, ironically, including a specific admonition not to “…attempt to hide, diminish or avoid in any way…”.
Other excerpts from the letter also deserve closer examination.
“Most of the complaints relate to incidents from 30 up to 80 years ago….cases of abuse occurring in the past 10 years in Melbourne have declined to less than a handful.”
This is a deliberate attempt to minimise the problem, and pretend that there is very little recent abuse. It ignores the fact that any victim of child sexual abuse finds it extremely hard to speak out about their abuse for ten, twenty or more years. The Catholic Church’s cover-up of this issue and conspiracy of silence puts tremendous additional pressure on traumatised victims to remain silent for even longer. The fact that there are fewer recent cases of abuse so far does not indicate rates of abuse are declining at all, but rather, is to be expected.
“Our faith and power to forgive is being sorely tested…”
Once again, confirming the letter’s purpose is to encourage frustrated Catholics to remain loyal to the Church hierarchy throughout this issue. Asking Catholics to forgive both criminal priests and complicit bishops is at best callous, completely ignoring and dismissing victims’ far greater and more direct suffering. But if Denis Hart is also demanding forgiveness from victims, while simultaneously denying them justice and preventing their healing, it is repellent.
“… requires purification and penance if it is to be overcome”.
It beggars belief that Denis Hart thinks purification and penance will stop some of the most determined and dangerous criminals known to man from wreaking devastation on many more innocent lives.
“I recognise that in the past the church has not always dealt appropriately with offending clergy but…”
How comforting that he still trots out this familiar, well worn excuse. The intention being that the words following the “but” completely undermine any acknowledgement of guilt.
“…but since the introduction of the Melbourne Response process in 1996, we have aimed to provide compassion and care for victims at the same time as dealing with offenders”.
This is a very clever piece of deception. It tries to give the impression of compassion and care for victims without making any specific claims, or telling any lies. Hart only claims to have aimed to provide these. And just as well, because if he claimed to have actually provided them there would be plenty of victims able to prove him a liar. As for dealing with offenders, that could mean anything, including hiding them from justice, paying their legal bills to help them escape conviction, and informing them about police investigations so they can hide or destroy evidence.
“My first concern is always for the victims of sexual abuse…” Something he demonstrated clearly when he screamed at a sexual abuse victim, “Go to hell, bitch!”
The entire final third of the letter contains a series of claims about the effectiveness of his Melbourne Response, including making claims about victims’ satisfaction with the system, a conclusion drawn without asking any victims for feedback, while denying them the chance to respond to his claims.
And Denis Hart’s final point, echoing that made by the Pope in March, is the admonition to remember the good works performed by Catholic clergy, in the hope it will distract attention from the tens of thousands of crimes committed by highly esteemed members of this group. Unfortunately for many victims, including myself, those good works were frequently a cover to allow the sexual predators unchallenged access to countless vulnerable victims.
Overall this letter contains a hodgepodge of familiar Catholic Church tactics including distraction, minimisation and excuses. It claims to be an apology to victims but does us more harm than good, and is both insulting and distressing for victims desperate to see a genuine intention by the Catholic Church to do the right thing. On behalf of all victims, I call on Denis Hart and all Church leaders to stop pretending to help victims when you are really only interested in maintaining your attendance numbers, and your income.
Real change to your abusive policies is what will help victims, not cynical PR stunts involving letters read out from pulpits.