Royal commissioner Robert Fitzgerald tells some home truths to a national Anglican synod

Confronting: Royal Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan (right) and Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald. Commissioner Fitzgerald delivered a strong speech to a national Anglican synod meeting in Queensland.

Confronting: Royal Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan (right) and Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald. Commissioner Fitzgerald delivered a strong speech to a national Anglican synod meeting in Queensland.

THE Anglican Church has taken steps to join a Commonwealth redress scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse only days after a national Anglican synod was warned some clergy and lay people continue to hold on to “long discarded myths” about child sexual abuse.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald urged the synod in Queensland to join the redress scheme, in a speech that criticised the church for the lack of a coherent national response to survivors.

It meant some clergy and lay people held on to “long discarded myths including that children are not reliable witnesses, that adult survivors who take a long time disclose abuse lack credibility, that survivors are only after money, that the problem has been exaggerated or is an historic issue which has passed”, Mr Fitzgerald said.

On Wednesday the national synod voted to establish a company as a step towards joining the national redress scheme, while seeking clarifying on “some key issues” from the Federal Government. 

A royal commission hearing in 2016 into significant child sexual abuse in the Newcastle Anglican diocese over decades included strong criticism by royal commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan after a group of prominent Newcastle Anglicans complained about former Bishop Greg Thompson, who challenged a culture of diocese “mates looking after mates”.

Mr Fitzgerald said data collected during the royal commission’s five years showed a significant level of complaints of abuse within the Anglican church, but it was likely also a significant underrepresentation of the true level of abuse.

The Anglican Church must strive to become not only a safe place for children but also an institution that places the interests of children above all other considerations. - Child sexual abuse royal commissioner Robert Fitzgerald.

Only one in three people attending royal commission private hearings had ever reported their abuse, he said.

Of 23 Anglican dioceses surveyed, 22 reported one or more complaints of child sexual abuse between 1980 and 2015, with 1119 reported complaints to Anglican Church dioceses.

Where abuse had taken place “the victim’s own religious communities may have contributed to the risk of abuse, acted as a barrier to disclosure or impacted adversely on institutional responses”, Mr Fitzgerald said.

“Often the word of a minister was automatically accepted over the word of a child.

“The status afforded to people in religious ministry blinded community members to seeing the signs of abusive behaviours and gave unfettered access to children in multiple environments. Too often perpetrators would use their special ‘relationship with God’ as a means of intimidating, manipulating and disempowering victims, not only in the acts of abuse but also to prevent the child disclosing what had happened.

“Sometimes children were told that they were the wrong doer, they had committed a sin, and they would be punished if they ever told.”

The impacts extended beyond the victim and their families.

“We have seen extraordinary damage to religious communities where disbelief is replaced by anger, shame and confusion as to the true values of their church, which seem to have been so compromised in the responding to claims and complaints,” Mr Fitzgerald said. 

The royal commission would recommend mandatory reporting requirements that would affect all people in religious ministry, in a final report in December.

“The Anglican Church must strive to become not only a safe place for children but also an institution that places the interests of children above all other considerations,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

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