The head of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart has welcomed the whole-of-community focus of the recently announced Royal Commission into child sex abuse.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the announcement on November 12 after securing the cooperation of the Victorian and New South Wales Premiers, Ted Baillieu and Barry O’Farrell.
Archbishop Hart said the Church had done “a tremendous amount already” in addressing child sex abuse and remained committed to continue that momentum.
“I welcome the national inquiry because I believe it will help us to know with certainty that the awful matter of paedophilia has been addressed and will put in place arrangements to ensure the best care of our children,” Archbishop Hart told The Record earlier today.
The Church has had “very good and very adequate” protocols in place for the past 16 years in an attempt to provide victims with pathways to healing and redress.
“We have been doing this since 1996; now there is a unified focus across the whole of the community,” the Archbishop said.
“We’re not proud of what has happened but we are committed to address and, with the rest of society, to follow through on exactly what has to be done.”
The Prime Minister told national media on November 12 she had spoken to Sydney Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, prior to the announcement.
Cardinal Pell told her he welcomed the move and pledged his archdiocese’s full cooperation.
Earlier that day, the Federal Opposition also pledged to support such a commission proposal on condition it was not limited to any one institution.
With the specific terms of reference of the Royal Commission yet to be decided, some people, such as government MP Joel Fitzgibbon, have estimated it may take up to ten years to conduct its investigations and publish its findings.
Archbishop Hart was hopeful the Government would arrive at the right terms of reference.
“I am certainly comfortable that we will be able to get to terms of reference sufficiently broad and sufficiently clear to enable us to address this matter,” he said.
Archbishop Hart’s assertion that the Church’s current protocols are working well is at odds with Victorian Police’s submission to the ongoing Victorian parliamentary inquiry into how church and non-church organisations have dealt with abuse claims.
Police have alleged that since 1996, there have been incidences in which the Church in Victoria; has been evasive and defensive in its dealings with victims; has attempted to disuade victims from going to police; and has alerted alleged offenders to police investigations, among other claims contained in its submission.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has rejected those claims.
The Prime Minister’s announcement of the Royal Commission follows nearly a week of mounting political pressure from concerted media coverage and calls from Government and crossbench MPs.
That momentum began when the Newcastle Herald published retired Newcastle police inspector Peter Fox’s open letter to NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell on child sex abuse.
The letter contained many general allegations of mishandling and cover-up by Catholic authorities but did not specify a time frame to which the allegations relate.
“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church,” Mr Fox wrote in the letter.
Mr Fox’s allegations were aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline program that night and Mr Fox was also interviewed on the program.
The Bishop of Maitland-Newscastle William Wright, who told ABC Radio National’s News Breakfast on November 9 that he was personally in favour of a Royal Commission, took umbrage at Mr Fox’s claims and the way they were reported by media.
“As comments on the present practices of this diocese, these allegations, made in the present tense, are not true,” Bishop Wright said in a statement on November 9.
“As to silencing victims, the settlements made with victims of abuse in no way limit their freedom to speak of what happened to them if they wish to do so.
“The Church’s official protocols for these matters, the Towards Healing protocols, in fact stipulate that there must not be any such confidentiality clauses,” Bishop Wright said.
“Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime; it is shameful and shocking that a crime so contrary to the message of Christ could ever be perpetrated by someone associated with the Church. Nevertheless, the diocese has acknowledged repeatedly that such crimes have been committed.
“While my heart goes out to those who suffered abuse, I am filled with contempt and rage against those who so betrayed the ideals of Christianity and the sacred offices that they held.
“I can appreciate the anger and frustration that must build up in a dedicated Police officer like Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox.
“That anger and frustration, however, does not entitle him to remain unchallenged when he makes statements about the present day situation that are simply not correct,” Bishop Wright said in the statement.