Walking with or walking away from victims of clerical child sexual abuse?
The Second Decree of the Plenary Council expressed the Councils ‘profound sorrow that children and young people and vulnerable adults have been abused by clergy, religious and lay workers of the Catholic Church, and that religious leaders have failed to act sufficiently to prevent or respond to abuse’. The Council offered an ‘unreserved apology’ and committed ‘to doing whatever we can to promote healing for those so gravely harmed and to make the Church a truly safe place for everyone’. It recommitted the Catholic Church in Australia ‘to responding transparently, with justice and compassion, to those who have been abused’.
The apologies made by the Australian bishops and the leaders of religious congregations to the victims of clerical child sexual abuse are, however, anything but ‘unreserved’. Rather they are tainted by various conditions: compensation delayed for years, settlements refused under the threat of permanent stays of proceedings if the perpetrator is either dead or demented – a condition likely rendered unenforceable by the High Court decision of 1 November 2023 – and counselling services limited, for budgetary reasons, only to those approved by the diocesan bishop or religious congregation.
The Australian bishops and congregational leaders to this day are especially reserved in laying out the detail of what they knew about the abuses and the steps they took to cover them up. They refuse to expose their own vulnerability by publishing the reasons why they chose to protect the wealth and reputation of the Church instead of the lives of children.
In short, the Australian bishops and congregational leaders’ commitment to walking with victims continues to be conditional upon the cost of doing so not rendering their dioceses or congregations bankrupt. Their argument is that they need to protect their finances to support their schools and parishes for the Church’s mission of bringing the ‘good news’ to the poor.
The bishops and congregational leaders, however, do not appear to include victims of clerical sexual abuse among the poor needing ‘good news’. The victims must instead come to terms with the ‘reasonable’ limits of justice and compassion in respect of the compensation and redress which the bishops and congregational leaders are prepared to offer, lest the dioceses and congregations fall into bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is, of course, a secular device for preserving assets from debt collectors.
Trust in God or in their wealth?
If the Australian bishops and congregational leaders are serious about protecting the Church’s ability to preach the ‘good news’, they will heed the Gospel call to ‘go, sell what you have and give the proceeds to the poor, THEN come follow me’ (Luke 18:22). Nowhere does the gospel command the bishops or any of the baptised to protect the church from bankruptcy. Indeed, the imperative of seeking protection from bankruptcy derives exclusively from trust in worldly assets.
The fundamental call of the Gospel is ‘to entrust one’s whole self freely to God’ (Lumen Gentium 5). The witnessing power of St Francis of Assisi’s embrace of total poverty attests the power of trust in God rather than in wealth to preach the gospel.
In essence, when the ‘unconditional’ commitment of the Australian bishop and congregational leaders to walk with victims turns out to be conditional, why should victims not feel that the Church is again walking away from them?
The Instrumentum Laboris of the XVI Assembly of the Synod of Bishops states that ‘synodal listening is necessary to mark and transform all the relationships that the Christian community establishes among its members as well as with other faith communities and with society as a whole, especially towards those whose voice is most often ignored‘ ‘(n. 22).
If the Church in Australia is serious about synodality in its treatment of victims of child sexual abuse, it must listen to sources outside its own boundaries. And among these the most authoritative is the Australian Royal Commission which closely scrutinised the ‘culture’ underlying abuse in the Catholic Church. Notably, the Commission did not limit the meaning of ‘culture’ to institutional attitudes towards children as the Church has done in its response; rather it extended the meaning to include the doctrines and practices that facilitated the abuse. In doing so, the Royal Commission listened to victims; a synodal church should listen to both.
The Synod of Bishops’ recent Letter to the People of God affirmed that ‘the Church of our time has the duty to listen … to those who have been victims of abuse committed by members of the ecclesial body, and to commit herself concretely and structurally to ensuring that this does not happen again’.
Unless the Australian bishops and the congregational leaders are prepared to abandon their resistance to just redress, and to listen to the Royal Commission’s findings about the role played by the doctrinal and disciplinary aspects of church culture in child sexual abuse, victims are entitled to dismiss such declarations as hypocritical rhetoric.
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