A FORMER senior federal and state government executive and leading Australian Catholic reform group president has backed calls for Australia to break diplomatic ties with the Vatican over the tragedy of child sexual abuse.
Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone said the response was “right on the money”, in comments after telling the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that Australia needed to send a “hard” message to Pope Francis and the Vatican.
Shine the Light: the Newcastle Herald’s complete coverage of the Royal Commission
“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,” Mr Johnstone said on Tuesday.
Australia’s diplomatic recognition of the Catholic Church had “handicapped” the commission, he said.
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 church it will reconsider its diplomatic recognition.Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone
Mr Johnstone said 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, is a factor in the “considerable hubris” he believes has contributed to the global child sexual abuse crisis.
In evidence to the royal commission on February 8 Mr Johnstone said the Australian Government had to recognise 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,” he said.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, told the Newcastle Herald Australia should renounce 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,” Mr Robertson said.
In his 2010 book, The Case of the Pope, Mr Robertson savaged the path by which the church used a 1929 treaty with Italian dictator Mussolini to back its statehood claims and gain permanent observer status at the United Nations. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in March, 1973.
Calls for diplomatic recognition to be renounced followed evidence at the 16th, and final, royal commission hearing into the Catholic Church from February 6.
The staggering extent of abuse over decades reduced its 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,” Mr 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 some dioceses.
Survivor group Blue Knot Foundation president Dr Cathy Kezelman said revoking diplomatic recognition of the Vatican and the church changing its own secrecy laws would be positive steps.
“Any mechanism which enables full open transparency of previously closed internal processes will enable the secrecy and silence of Catholic clergy abuse to be eroded. Revoking formal diplomatic recognition of the Holy See by Australia would be one such step,” Dr Kezelman said.
Mr Johnstone, whose public service experience included periods as first assistant secretary of the Commonwealth departments of social security and health, and the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission, said faith was very important to Catholics for Renewal members.
“The church must change. It’s acting hypocritically. The church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ who said that it would be better for those who harm children to have a millstone around their neck and be drowned,” Mr Johnstone said.
”It couldn’t be more fundamental than that. The church has protected paedophiles rather than innocent children.”