Criminal, callous, depraved, abysmal
The Tablet02 March 2017 The Catholic Church in Australia is in very deep water. There is widespread public disgust and horror at its failure to stop the sexual abuse of children by a considerable number of its priests. The evidence that has emerged during the hearings of a royal commission into institutional child abuse entirely justifies the description of the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, of the Church’s response to the victims of the abuse as “a kind of criminal negligence”.
Collectively, Australia’s archbishops have anticipated the likely outcome of the inquiry by what amounts to a plea of guilty, institutionally, while implying that it was an earlier generation of church leaders who must bear the actual blame. The Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, said the “abysmal” response to complaints by that earlier generation was due to their complacent belief in the “untouchability of the Church”, making it unaccountable and “a law unto itself”.
Public attention has already focused on Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Fisher’s predecessor and a conspicuous member of that earlier generation, who has admitted that he failed to carry out his duty regarding several priests suspected of abuse. Cardinal Pell clearly considered himself untouchable. The royal commission is unlikely to be kind to him and his position as one of Pope Francis’ close advisers in the Vatican has to be in question.
Callous indifference to the suffering of children by those responsible for their safety is impossible to excuse. It cropped up again, and also in an Australian context, when the British public inquiry into institutional abuse began its public hearings in London this week. The inquiry heard how, from 1947 onwards, more than 4,000 children were sent to live overseas, mainly in Australia, but also in New Zealand, Canada and Southern Rhodesia, under a government scheme. The Catholic Church was one of the institutions taking care of them; its record was by no means the worst. Many children were exploited as cheap farm labour, and not a few sexually abused. A 1956 investigation identified some of the abuse. It was brushed aside, and the depravity continued.
Public confessions of shame, and public attributions of blame, as are inevitable after both the British and the Australian inquiries, do serve a valuable purpose. They can be potent in resetting the moral and cultural landscape, and can aid healing. But what matters most is that the lessons are truly learnt.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey of Norfolk, who is the lead officer for child protection, said recently that police in Britain are “overwhelmed” by allegations of abuse. It is no comfort that the full scale of the problem in other public institutions and in society at large puts the situation in the Catholic Church into perspective. One abused child is too many; any institution caught protecting its good name by criminal negligence deserves neither respect nor public trust.