Last week survivors, many of whom had travelled long distances, crowded into the hearing room for the historic first Royal Commission hearing into how the Catholic Church handles child sexual abuse. Many lasted only until the well paid Church lawyer first opened his mouth. What emerged was so offensive, so deliberately designed to undermine and to harm survivors, that it prompted a mass walkout and a flood of tears in the foyer.
I absolutely agreed with their actions and was equally as offended, but decided to stay to hear what other tricks the trained monkey would pull.
Below is a transcript of that low point of the legal profession in Australia. I have added my translation of each section, for those who do not have the benefit of a lifetime of suffering at the hands of callous and deceitful church officials. The lawyer who uttered these carefully crafted passages was Peter Gray SC.
This is a searing and decisive moment in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Well, we certainly never thought this day would happen, especially after all our efforts to prevent it.
The sacred place of children, their innocence and their trustfulness is central to the Christian tradition and to the Catholic faith.
The punters love this fantasy stuff about innocence and trust. It keeps the focus on what they like about religion, and not on our behaviour.
Many will remember from their own childhoods the ageless words from the Gospel of Mark:
First let me throw in the obligatory quote from the bible – takes the high moral ground immediately and undermines both victims themselves, and the tendency to support them.
Let the little children come to me; do not
stop them; for it is to such of these that
the kingdom of God belongs.
Isn’t that clever of us, taking the very quote seen so often on signs outside this and other hearings and using it against those pesky victims. Though of course we prefer a different translation, to avoid that unfortunate word, “suffer”.
And again from Mark, driving home the point:
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
Now, if the first verse hasn’t slapped victims hard enough, here’s the second to really undermine them. Plus the millstone bit makes us look like we take this issue seriously.
The Catholic Church comes before this Royal Commission acutely aware of its failures in this fundamental part of its mission.
I guess denial is really no longer an option, is it?
For many Catholics, the realisation that some Catholic priests and religious, of all people, have betrayed the trust of children and their parents by abusing them in sexual ways has been almost unbearable.
Let’s get Catholics thinking about their own suffering and not that of victims.
The further bleak realisation that such behaviour was sometimes covered up, with wrongdoers protected while victims were disbelieved or treated coldly, has made an already disgraceful situation even worse.
Oh yeah, these days we have to refer to this aspect as well, but we can get away with going pretty soft, because understanding of our cover-up is still limited.
For the vast majority of priests and religious, dedicated and selfless and innocent themselves and truly faithful to their vows and their vocations, the revelations of recent decades have been heartbreaking.
Pow. Two of our most effective excuses. “Good” priests, and non abuser priests as victims. We’re going hard on this because it is so effective at distracting from what happened to victims. And we get it in first to leave many minds less inclined to listen to rubbish about victims.
But for the victims and their families, the effects have obviously been, and continue to be, shattering and devastating. Terrible wrongs have been done to them. Complex, ongoing damage has been caused, the real extent of which may not, even now, be fully appreciated.
We don’t usually go here because it creates sympathy for victims, not us. But if we want to pull off the “we have changed” con, it is unfortunately necessary to sound a bit better informed than previously on the effects of abuse.
A great poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, found words which capture something of this nightmare:
No worst, there is none …
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
We position Hopkins as an authority, then use his quote to soften the facts of our criminal coverup, while demonstrating that we get this i.e. no further action needed.
I will say something in a moment about the way in which the church intends to participate in and contribute to the work of the Royal Commission. But first, let me repeat the unequivocal commitment made by the leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia. It is on page 1 of our written submission to the Commission. It is in the following terms:
The leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia recognise and acknowledge the devastating harm caused to people by the crime of child sexual abuse.
Much as it hurts, we are going to have to state the bleeding obvious, which we have studiously managed to avoid doing until now.
We take this opportunity to state:
1. Sexual abuse of a child by a priest or religious is a crime under Australian law and under canon law.
2. Sexual abuse of a child by any church personnel, whenever it occurred, was then and is now indefensible.
3. That such abuse has occurred at all, and the extent to which it has occurred, are facts of which the whole church in Australia is deeply ashamed.
4. The church fully and unreservedly acknowledges the devastating, deep and ongoing impact of sexual abuse on the lives of the victims and their families.
5. The church acknowledges that many victims were not believed when they should have been.
6. The church is also ashamed to acknowledge that, in some cases, those in positions of authority concealed or covered up what they knew of the facts, moved perpetrators to another place, thereby enabling them to offend again, or failed to report matters to the police when they should have. That behaviour, too, is indefensible.
7. Too often in the past, it is clear, some church leaders gave too high a priority to protecting the reputation of the church, its priests, religious and other personnel, over the protection of children and their families, and over compassion and concern for those who suffered at the hands of church personnel. That, too, was and is inexcusable.
8. In such ways, church leaders betrayed the trust of their own people and the expectations of the wider community.
The words stick in our throats, unused as we are to honesty on this topic, but that just shows how damaging and irresponsible those blasted victims really are, selfishly promoting their own interests, no matter the damage it causes the church.
9. For all these things the church is deeply sorry. It apologises to all those who have been harmed and betrayed. It humbly asks for forgiveness.
We’ve said sorry about this so many times. Once more through gritted teeth changes nothing. They can force us to say it but they can’t force us to mean it.
The leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia commit ourselves to endeavour to repair the wrongs of the past, to listen to and hear victims, to put their needs first, and to do everything we can to ensure a safer future for children.
We commit ourselves to nothing specific, just a lot of PR friendly concepts, all heavily qualified. Naturally, there is no means for anyone to measure success or even track if we actually do anything. The imbeciles fall for this one every time.
When this Royal Commission was announced, the leaders of the church – that is, the bishops and religious leaders from all around Australia – appreciated that this Commission would be, as it is, a watershed in church history and, indeed, in Australian history. They realised that the issue of abuse within the church is so fundamental and so serious that at least three things needed to happen.
We knew this damn commission would be bad. That’s why we undermined all efforts to hold one for so many years.
First, the church must, wherever possible, speak with one voice at the Commission.
We need to tightly control the message. Individuals could say anything, even, God forbid, the truth.
Second, any of the old ways that still remained, shrouded in secrecy, defensiveness or damage control, must be renounced.
Yeah, the Vatican’s really going to let us break with the long tradition of coverup. I should be a stand up commedian.
Third, the church should seize the opportunity provided by the momentous circuit-breaker of the Royal Commission to renew itself, to look closely at the ways in which it has responded to the issue both in the past and up to the present time, and to do so with humility and openness and generosity of spirit.
If we really have to do this, we are going to bury some smelly old skeletons, and bury them deeeep. They’ll never come back to haunt us.
As to the second and third of these, time will tell, and the community will ultimately be the judge.
As time passes, everyone will forget about any commitments we make now.
As to the first, let me say something about the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. The council was established in February this year by the peak body of bishops, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, known as the ACBC, and the peak body of religious, Catholic Religious Australia, known as CRA. It is the council which will represent and speak for the many dioceses and religious institutes which have authorised it to do so.
The Catholic Church in Australia is not a single discrete entity or thing. It is made up of people in complex and disparate groupings, the millions of lay people, as well as the priests and bishops and religious. There are some 34 dioceses and over 180 different religious orders and congregations.
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.
Good luck with finding anyone ultimately responsible, or tracing the chain of command. We have centuries of practice in dodging responsibility, amateurs.
The first major demonstration of that approach was the development of a uniform national protocol for responding to complaints of this kind. I will say something about that shortly.
The second is that the Truth, Justice and Healing Council has been brought into existence. Every diocese and well over 100 orders and congregations have authorised the ACBC or CRA to represent and act for them in the engagement of the church with the Royal Commission.
The ACBC and CRA have, in turn, delegated that authority to the council.
For practical purposes, therefore, the council will ordinarily speak for the whole church, its dioceses, its religious institutes, its priests and religious in the Royal Commission. All of them are united in their support for the principles stated in the commitment which I reiterated at the beginning of these remarks.
Talk to the hand.
Let there be no doubt about the attitude and approach of the church to the work of this Royal Commission. The church, through the council, intends to cooperate with the Commission fully, without reservation.
Of course, co-operation only applies to in front of the cameras. Behind the scenes we’ll fight as hard as ever to prevent the truth getting out.
Tens of thousands of documents have so far been produced from all around the country. Witnesses have been and will be made available. Bishops and archbishops and religious leaders will participate as the Commission may require.
We are going to bury you in paperwork and delay this baby till we can convince you that all the current office holders are too old or too dead.
The council’s aim is to do everything in its power to ensure that the Royal Commission has available to it from the church all the material that it needs for the work it seeks to do, so as to ensure that a light is shone on dark places and times and events – in the words of St Augustine nearly 2,000 years ago, to flood the path with light to ensure that nothing is concealed or covered up in respect of what church personnel did or failed to do, and so to give the victims and also the church itself a better chance to heal. In that way, in the end, something good may be able to emerge from the awfulness and suffering which have occurred. If it does, it will be the victims and their families who will have brought that about.
Another biblical reference. Another fine sounding but impossible to measure or assess PR objective. Don’t we sound like we are open and honest about this? All without actually having to be open and honest. Brilliant stuff.
Stay safe everyone.
Coming soon: Part 2 – specific comments on the cases to be studied and Chair, Justice Peter McClellan, reprimanding Mr Gray for repeatedly trying to dictate to the Commission what to conclude.