Religious leaders should "get with the program"

Bishop Bill Wright.

Bishop Bill Wright.

BISHOPS and religious leaders must ‘‘get with the program’’ of the zero tolerance culture being demanded by Pope Francis, Catholics were told at an information session in Newcastle on Wednesday.

They also needed to steer away from viewing and handling matters of child sexual abuse as legal issues, and accept and embrace their importance from a wider, moral perspective, said the chief executive officer of the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan.

‘‘We are a bit lucky, I’m lucky, that I do this at this time because the new Pope, unlike previous popes, has made it abundantly clear in correspondence to Bishops and religious leaders of the world ... where he expects full co-operation,’’ he said.

That meant he expected full co-operation with all of his annunciated policies, directions and processes, Mr Sullivan said.

‘‘What he is saying is there needs to be a zero tolerance culture around that and that where if can be demonstrated that religious leaders have dropped the ball, they need to be held to account.’’

When asked if the church’s response to Father Bill Burston and Monsignor Allan Hart were adequate in light of that culture, Mr Sullivan said he was not aware of the particular details but could speak to the process.

‘‘Using something like an independent panel or an independent advisory group is now going to have to be par for the course to demonstrate that the type of advice coming through is not self-interested advice, that’s terribly important, and I think that is what Bishop Bill Wright undertook here, he said.

‘‘I would also like to say that even when that does happen, we, the church, need to cop it that people are still not going to be satisfied.’’

Monsignor Hart and Father Burston were described by Commissioner Margaret Cunneen SC, head of a state inquiry into church abuse within the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, as "unimpressive witnesses" in her final report last May.

Monsignor Hart has accepted that he gave misleading evidence to the inquiry, and failed to report paedophile priest Denis McAlinden to police.

A panel appointed by the Bishop found that Father Burston had to retire because he had ignored the Bishop’s direction to give honest evidence to the commission of inquiry.

The panel made no finding in relation to Monsignor Hart because he had already retired due to ill health.

Bishop Wright, who is a member of the council, said on Wednesday that while it was being said in some quarters that he should have sacked the two priests immediately for ‘‘not giving good evidence or whatever’’, he did not have canonical grounds to sack the two men.

‘‘I think these guys, the penalty of being asked to retire, doing so under a cloud, and the criticisms by the Commissioner, and confirmation of those criticisms by the panel, up there and out there for the public, we have not done nothing,’’ he said.

THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is holding private sessions in the Hunter this week with 32 victims of historic child sexual abuse.

The sessions, scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, are described by Royal Commission chief executive officer Philip Reed as critical to the Commission’s work.

“Through private sessions, we are learning about the impact of child sexual abuse not only on individuals, but their families and communities,’’ he said.

Mr Reed said private sessions also “shed light on the tactics perpetrators use and how institutions have responded, or failed to respond, to children who have been abused”.

They would directly inform the Commission’s work in developing recommendations that would provide a just response for people who have been sexually abused and ensure institutions better protect children in the future.

The Royal Commission has so far held more than 2,975 private sessions in cities and towns across Australia.

 In the first half of 2015, the Royal Commission will hold private sessions in at least eight regional centres across Australia.

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