Gough Whitlam and how Australia facilitated a child sexual abuse crisis

Visit: Gough Whitlam and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican in April, 1973, after Australia granted diplomatic recognition to the Holy See.
Visit: Gough Whitlam and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican in April, 1973, after Australia granted diplomatic recognition to the Holy See.

GOUGH Whitlam wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI in October, 2012, nearly four decades after his government granted formal diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, and only weeks before another Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, established a royal commission that would expose the extent of child sexual abuse within the Australian Catholic Church.

Diplomatic relations with the Vatican from 1973 was a “memorable and significant initiative” of his government, Whitlam told the Pope. The relationship was one “which has always been maintained with deep mutual respect and consideration”.

“The mutual hopes for closer relations between the Holy See and Australia have been fulfilled in abundance. I shall always have fond memories of visiting Pope Paul VI and of the great enchantment of Rome, the Eternal City,” one of the Labor Party’s great reformers wrote. 

Whitlam died two years later, on October 21, 2014, only three months after Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin declined a request from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for files of all Australian alleged perpetrator priests held by the Vatican.

Commission chair Justice Peter McClellan said the files would help commissioners understand the extent of allegations referred to the Vatican, and action taken by the church in each case.

Cardinal Parolin declined in a letter to the Australian embassy to the Holy See, saying it was “neither possible nor appropriate to provide the information”. The request to “undertake the substantial burden of locating, reviewing and copying all files regarding every accused Australian cleric appears inconsistent with international practice”.

The cardinal ended the letter by reaffirming “the importance of reciprocal exchanges of information between sovereign states”.

On the opening day of the royal commission’s 16th and final public hearing into the Catholic Church on February 6, the staggering extent of abuse over decades reduced the church’s non-cleric spokesman, Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan, to tears.

Commission data showed 4445 people between 1980 and 2015 alleged they had been sexually abused by Catholic Church representatives, a figure even the church acknowledged was an understatement.

“We recognise that many have not come forward and never will,” Sullivan told the commission.

The data was an “indictment” on the church’s child sex offenders and a reflection on church leaders who “failed to deal with them in accordance with the law”, he said.

The shocking figures included alleged offending by 40 per cent of members of the St John of God order of Brothers, which ran Morisset’s Kendall Grange facility for intellectually disabled and troubled boys from 1948; 20 per cent of Marist, Christian and Salesian Brothers; 7 per cent of priests and up to 15 per cent of priests in dioceses like Sale, Sandhurst and Port Pirie.

For three weeks theologians, academics, bishops, archbishops, priests, lawyers, canon lawyers, psychologists, management consultants, Catholic education and welfare service executives, international church representatives and peak Australian church reform group Catholics for Renewal, have given evidence about how and why the abuse occurred for so long, and how the church needs to change.

Evidence has ranged from secrecy provisions in canon law to clericalism; from celibacy to priests’ clandestine relationships with women; from the confessional to sexual repression; from dud bishops to authoritarian popes.

Time and again the commission has returned to the church’s culture, and the need for change. And outside the commission, the need for change has prompted calls for Australia to renounce the church’s diplomatic status, and for the federal government to seriously consider those calls.

Catholics for Renewal president, and former chief executive and chair of federal and Victorian government departments and public sector organisations, Peter Johnstone, supported those calls after giving evidence at the commission about the need for Australians – Catholic and non-Catholic – to send a “hard” message to the Pope and the Vatican in response to the tragedy of abuse in this country.

“I have no hesitation in arguing the royal commission should say to the government that if the Catholic Church will not cooperate in making major changes – and the Australian church can’t change without the global church changing - then the government should say to the Catholic Church it will reconsider its diplomatic recognition of the Holy See,” Johnstone said this week.

He argues the church’s unique position as the only religion granted statehood status, with a permanent observer seat at the United Nations and diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries, has been a factor in the “considerable hubris” he believes has contributed to the global child sexual abuse crisis.

Australia’s diplomatic recognition of the Catholic Church had “handicapped” the commission, he said.

“The Australian Government has to recognise that all churches are in a privileged position. They're in that privileged position because of what they add to society. If churches are seen not to be adding to society, they shouldn't be in that privileged position. It seems to me that we have to play this fairly hard, that that sort of thing has to be said very clearly to the Pope, to the Holy See, to the bishops of this country,” Johnstone said in his evidence on February 8.

The final hearing was only a few hours old when Sydney parish priest and theologian, Dr Michael Whelan, took the commission back more than 1500 years, to when Catholic bishops ruled.

The Catholic Church “moved away from a community of pilgrims to an empire understanding, and bishops took one step up and they became judges and civil leaders, and so forth, and began to own property”, Dr Whelan said.

“I think so much of the Catholic culture is empire shaped, not pilgrim community shaped, and it makes a huge difference. I actually think culture is a major issue here.

“I really think, deeply embedded, if we don't get to this cultural issue, if we still go on thinking of ourselves in terms of empire - and I think that culture is still alive and well - if we can’t make the transition to being a community of pilgrims, none of those guidelines or rules are going to make a whole lot of difference,” Dr Whelan said.

In a blistering few words this week human rights lawyer and church critic, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, supported renouncing the church’s diplomatic recognition, saying “if we have any self-respect we should sever our ties with it”.

“Closing it now would send an important message to the Vatican that it must never again orchestrate child abuse, and it must not continue to cover it up by declining to cooperate with the Royal Commission,” Robertson said.

If we don't get to this cultural issue, if we still go on thinking of ourselves in terms of empire - and I think that culture is still alive and well - if we can't make the transition to being a community of pilgrims, none of those guidelines or rules are going to make a whole lot of difference.

Catholic priest Dr Michael Whelan

In his 2010 book, The Case of the Pope, Robertson savaged the path by which the Catholic Church used a 1929 treaty with Italian dictator Mussolini to support its elevation to statehood.

In 2014 Cardinal Dominique Mamberti marked the 40th anniversary of Australian-Vatican relations by calling for “increased cooperation… for the good of all humanity”.