As many Catholics will know by the time this edition of The Record is in parishes, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB welcomed the announcement on Monday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a Royal Commission into the abuse of children in church and state-run institutions in this country over decades.
The news of the Commission has also been welcomed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, including Bishop William Wright of Maitland-Newcastle in whose diocese significant numbers of children and/or youth were abused decades ago.
It has been welcomed by senior church leaders such as Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne. Bishop Wright had also said he was personally in favour of a Royal Commission several days before the announcement by Prime Minister Gillard.
The welcoming of the announcement by the leaders of the Church in Australia is a critically important step at a number of levels, but first and foremost it was important for victims throughout this country.
Although many Australians might be inclined not to believe it, the bishops of the Church in Australia are responding for the victims’ sake in the most appropriate way at this moment, much as Pope Benedict XVI has so notably done in countries such as Ireland, the US and here in Australia, when he has met privately with, and heard first-hand the pain of, victims of abuse by Church personnel.
Welcoming the Royal Commission has shown that the bishops want the whole truth of abuse to be considered and faced.
In so doing they have shown a radical commitment to uncovering the truth and to the protection of our children into the future.
This is undoubtedly one of the main advantages of the Royal Commission: to the extent that it is historically accessible, the whole truth will be studied.
A further advantage is that it can reasonably be hoped that the Commission’s extensive powers will eventually help all Australians to develop an adequate perspective on the true size, scope and extent of the crime of the abuse of children and the young in our society.
On this front many painful truths will certainly need to be faced by our entire society.
It is theoretically possible that there may yet be further revelations of individual cases involving the Catholic Church but on the available evidence it also seems likely that the Church’s efforts to address the needs of victims and the existence of sexual abuse within the ranks of its own official personnel over the last decade and a half through the nationally-adopted Towards Healing process and, in the case of Melbourne, that archdiocese’s own unique process, have borne significant fruit.
It is significant that the bishops have said they trust that the Commission will acknowledge the work they have done over the last 16 years to provide victims with means of redress, justice and healing.
It is also to be hoped that in Australia the Royal Commission will act for the nation much as the 2004 report of the New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice inquiry commissioned by the bishops in the US and as the 2009 Ryan Report commissioned by the Irish government did in those countries in exposing the truth.
This country’s Royal Commission, it is to be hoped, will have the advantage of considering the entire scope and extent of the problem in this country so that from this point on the crime of sexual abuse of the young can be guarded against and eradicated as far as it is humanly possible to do.
It is occasionally said that new information is sometimes painful to discover.
This is undoubtedly true, but the pain of discovering the truth is also necessary.
Unless the truth is faced and understood, no progress can be made and it is only in the absence of the truth or in its suppression that evil multiplies.
The Catholic Church has learned a painful lesson at a global level over the last decade and a half which has often led to its shame.
Individual members of the Church and those entrusted with the duty of guiding it and leading it have felt sickened and ashamed by the betrayals from within.
Among the major problems which have been exposed was a clericalist, bureaucratic culture devoted to protecting the good name of the Church at the expense of the victims.
Another was the naive fallacy that offenders could be treated in therapy.
However, without seeking in any way to minimise or sideline the crimes, the violations and the pain suffered by victims, it can be reasonably argued that the Church has largely learned this painful and bitter lesson and, increasingly over the last decade, has been busy cleaning up its own act, including the vetting of candidates for ministerial life, its processes for handling allegations, measures for dealing with cases where allegations are vindicated and offering healing processes.
It is to be hoped that this Royal Commission’s investigations will enable numerous other organisations in Australian life and our society to begin doing the same.
For such organisations, just as it has been for the Church, the process will also be painful and bitter as the truth is confronted and the full extent of the betrayals are exposed.
But it is only on the basis of being prepared to face up to the truth that there is any possibility of being able at all to address the deep, underlying structural factors that led to or facilitated such situations.
Evil, it is often remarked, prospers when good men do nothing.
This Royal Commission marks an important step in Australian life confronting the worst crime of all.