COMMENT: Why we need a royal commission into church sex abuse

The state government must hold a royal commission into child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Comment by Joanne McCarthy.

LAST Saturday I sent an email to a fair number of Australia’s bishops after Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright acknowledged growing calls for a royal commission into the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, and said he was ‘‘broadly supportive’’ of a public inquiry.

I asked one question: ‘‘Do you support a royal commission into the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases?’’

A Victorian bishop responded fairly quickly, saying he was willing to assist that state’s parliamentary inquiry into church abuse matters. He didn’t respond to my follow-up question: ‘‘But not a royal commission?’’

Broken Bay Bishop David Walker replied that he agreed with Cardinal George Pell, who said he didn’t believe a royal commission was needed ‘‘at this time’’ in response to Bishop Wright’s statement.

One bishop formally declined to comment. Several others asked what day a response was needed, but did not respond beyond that. The Bishop of Lismore Geoffrey Jarrett supported Bishop Wright’s statement that ‘‘these problems are best examined by an independent inquiry of some sort’’, although he did not support a royal commission ‘‘at this time’’.

And that was that. No other responses. Just the silence of the bishops.

Next week the Pirona family will farewell John – father of two children aged 11 and 7, husband, son, brother, friend, workmate, and victim of a sadistic Hunter paedophile priest, and the system that supported and hid his crimes for decades.

Pirona’s death, after reaching a point of ‘‘too much pain’’, has come to represent more than just the tragic loss of one man’s life.

He is the reality of the Catholic Church’s child sex crisis that has been largely hidden from the community until the last decade or so. He represents that crisis, for anyone who dares suggest it is ‘‘just a media beat-up’’.

To read the article, Changing the church from the inside, click here.

He is the face of thousands of Australians whose childhoods collided with the ugly secrets of the church.

He is one of many who struggled through adulthood until he could do it no more, despite the love of his family, and the love he felt for them.

There will be a royal commission on the church’s handling of child sex abuse because there must be.

To join the call for a royal commission into church sex abuse, add your name to the petition here.

We live in an age of cynicism. We’ve lost faith in governments. We’ve lost faith in people in authority. We’ve lost faith in the politicians who purport to represent us. We’ve lost faith in the media. We’ve lost faith in the idea that everyone is equal before the law. And because of the child sex crisis, we’ve lost faith in faith itself.

Which is why the NSW government has to lead on this issue and call a royal commission, because people are tired of cynicism. We are, inherently, a society that believes in the fair go, and we respond when that concept is trashed by the powerful, and ignored by those whose duty it is to represent us.

The Australian Government’s Law Reform Commission says royal commissions ‘‘should be reserved for the highest form of inquiry dealing with matters of substantial public importance, which may warrant the abrogation of certain privileges and protections, such as the right against self-incrimination’’.

The commission goes on to note that ‘‘these inquiries may also fulfil an important social function by providing an opportunity for individuals to air grievances against various parties, including governments’’.

The erosion of public faith in the church – supposedly a moral leader in society – brought on by the child sex crisis and the church’s repeated failure to acknowledge and address it, is a ‘‘matter of substantial public importance’’ which includes grievances against governments.

Governments in the past have handed responsibility for raising children to the church. This week I was contacted by an Upper Hunter man who was made a state ward at the age of five, and sent to Boys Town for troubled children, run by the church.

He was sexually assaulted by two priests including Paul Evans, who was jailed in 2008 for repeatedly sexually assaulting seven boys.

The man is a coalminer. He spoke to a journalist about John Pirona’s tragic final statement – ‘‘too much pain’’ – and how he knew what that meant.

He was a child who repeatedly ran away from his abusers, was picked up by authorities and sent back to his abusers again despite telling them of crimes. And when children such as him were returned to the priests, ‘‘we copped a flogging’’, he said.

They were powerless in an ugly world.

The church has a top-down authority structure.

The bishop in each diocese consults with other bishops at the Australian Bishops Conference, but is responsible to Rome, and is the ultimate authority over clergy in each diocese. It leaves a tremendous amount of power in one person’s hands, in a church structure that ultimately leaves an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of the Pope.

Such a system might survive for a time under benign, open leadership.

It is a sick system if that leadership demands blind obedience and stifles dissent, as exists in the church today. We don’t tolerate such a system in government, yet we leave that sick system with responsibility for dealing with child sex abuse complaints committed by church representatives.

In the Hunter we have seen how that system operates in case after case, with catastrophic results for children.

Children, parents, teachers and even a priest on one occasion relating to the priest who sexually assaulted John Pirona, repeatedly reported child sex allegations to the late Bishop Leo Clarke.

Others within the church hierarchy had direct knowledge of those allegations, but stated their responsibilities ended when they reported to Clarke. The welfare of the children was rarely mentioned.

Yet when Justice James Wood sat in the Wood Royal Commission in 1996 he was told by a senior church representative that there was ‘‘nothing that I am aware of in church law that would prohibit a priest following the provisions of the Crimes Act’’.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the media, and where it’s heading.

The child sex abuse crisis has demonstrated why a critical and responsible media is vital in democracy.

The Herald has been reporting on this issue in a sustained way since 1995 when Vince Ryan was charged. From 2007 it has exposed the cover-ups.

It has been the voice of the Hunter – but not of the powerful. On this issue, it has been the voice of those silenced by a church that committed crimes against them.

The newspaper has represented the broader community in taking responsibility from the victims and their families to deal with the church.

And the Hunter community – including the media and tenacious police who have investigated the church’s crimes – is saying to the NSW government, it is now your time to accept responsibility.

Ask your local MP what he or she knows about the child sex crisis. Ask if they’ve seen church documents, court transcripts, witness statements, or the horrifying, bloodless letters of churchmen like the late Monsignor Patrick Cotter, who wrote in 1976 to Bishop Clarke about paedophile priest Denis McAlinden’s predilection for ‘‘the little ones’’.

If their only knowledge of this crisis is what they’ve read in the media, tell them that is only a tiny fraction of the reality, and they have a responsibility to know more. When they do, they will support a royal commission.

I’ve been accused many times over the past six years of trying to bring down the church, or having a vendetta against the church.

Far from it.

My aim has been to restore faith in institutions including the church, by allowing people to believe in them again. The aim of this newspaper is to uncover any injustices that may have occurred and learn the truth. To speak up for the victims. To shine the light on criminals within the clergy and those who protected them, or failed to protect the most vulnerable of their flock.

The Herald has not followed the typical short media cycle on this. It has mounted a sustained campaign of support for victims and families, and a determination to expose the truth.

It has highlighted outstanding work by police, and acknowledged attempts by people within the church who have tried to change the institution from the inside.

And now it is time for government to recognise this is an issue of ‘‘substantial public importance’’.

Prosecution of individuals is not enough.

The system supports the crisis, and despite the pious words of church leaders on this subject, time and again the church has failed, right up to the present.

The victims of one Hunter paedophile priest were savagely betrayed in the 1970s when they were sexually assaulted within a school where they knew no one would stop him, and where their appeals for help were met with anger, and even violence.

Their trust was betrayed again several years ago when the priest who did nothing about those offences was convicted of making a false statement tendered to a court, but allowed to remain a parish priest.

John Pirona was one of the men who struggled with that betrayal of trust.

I was raised Catholic, the eldest of 11 children, but my parents’ faith was the enlightened kind.

Being Catholic did not mean blind obedience and silence. It meant being a responsible member of the community and living by the social justice teachings of the church which are its greatest contribution to society. My parents taught their children to think and speak on moral issues, even if that meant speaking against the church.

When Justice Wood delivered his final report after the exhaustive Wood Royal Commission, he included these words about the Catholic Church and the development of protocols to deal with the handling of sex abuse cases within the church.

‘‘The development of this protocol and the other steps outlined earlier indicate that the Catholic church is now aware of its past deficiencies in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and is making a concerted effort to overcome them,’’ he said.

‘‘As with all policies and plans, the proof will lie in their implementation.’’

Sixteen years have passed. It's time.

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