Federal Government urged to demand church response

Reforms: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flanked by Attorney-General Christian Porter (left) and Social Services Minister Dan Tehan announce sweeping child sexual abuse reforms.
Reforms: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flanked by Attorney-General Christian Porter (left) and Social Services Minister Dan Tehan announce sweeping child sexual abuse reforms.

THE Federal Government needs to demand release of the Catholic Church’s response to the child abuse royal commission, say survivors after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday announced sweeping reforms and an October 22 date for a national apology.

Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon supported Hunter survivor Bob O’Toole, survivor advocate Chrissie Foster and Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson in calling for the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council’s royal commission response to be immediately released.

Their call came after Mr Turnbull announced the Federal Government had adopted 104 of the royal commission’s 122 recommendations directly related to the government, and was working with state and local governments and other institutions on the remaining 18 recommendations.

The reforms include establishment of a national office for child safety which will operate from July 1. Mr Turnbull announced Western Australia would sign up to the national redress scheme which will also operate from July 1 and offer redress to more than 90 per cent of people sexually abused as children in institutions.

Redress is capped at $150,000, with an expected average payment of more than $75,000.

Mr Turnbull paid tribute to survivors and their families for their bravery, honesty and strength in coming forward and said a national apology will be delivered on October 22 during Children’s Week.

Your courage has helped expose the scale of institutional child sexual abuse in our country.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

“For many of you, the royal commission was the first chance you had to be heard, to be have your pain acknowledged and most importantly to be believed,” Mr Turnbull said.

“Your courage has helped expose the scale of institutional child sexual abuse in our country.”

Hunter abuse survivor Bob O’Toole, who played a key role in the Newcastle Herald’s Shine the Light campaign in 2012 for a royal commission, said he was pleased by the government’s response but expected the government to demand the Catholic Church release its Truth Justice and Healing Council report in response to the royal commission.

The report was completed by the council and given to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference three months ago. The bishops conference this week, in response to Herald questions, would not say when it would release the report.

The process of consultation on a response “has begun but it will take some time to complete”, the ACBC said in a statement. 

“The response to recommendations from the Royal Commission itself has already started, but the full response will come once we have received advice from the lay-led Implementation Advisory Group and completed our dialogue with the Holy See,” the statement said.

Mr O’Toole said the church’s response was unacceptable.

They don’t seem to get that they don’t call the shots anymore.

Hunter abuse survivor Bob O'Toole on the Catholic bishops

“They don’t seem to get that they don’t call the shots anymore,” Mr O’Toole said.

“The Federal Government should be pressuring the church to release the Truth Justice and Healing Council report. The bishops carry on that we are the church but we’re not the bloody church.

“We don’t have a say in how the church is going to respond to the royal commission. It’s a closed shop. It’s all a secret. They won’t say when they’re going to respond, how they’re going to respond or if they’ll release the Truth Justice and Healing Council report. So what’s changed? How is the church acting any differently to what it always has?

“Of course the Federal Government should be applying pressure to have the Truth Justice and Healing Council report released, as a sign to Australians, if not to the church, that governments will no longer defer to the church. That those days are gone.”

Sharon Claydon, who is a member of the parliamentary committee advising the Federal Government on the national apology and national redress scheme, backed Mr O’Toole.

“The Royal Commission was supposed to put an end to the veil of secrecy, and the failure of the Catholic Church to release the Truth Justice and Healing Council report is deeply concerning,” Ms Claydon said.

“The Catholic Church holds a grave responsibility to survivors to be absolutely transparent and accountable, especially given that more than 60 per cent of the child sexual abuse in religious institutions reported to the royal commission occurred in Catholic-run institutions.

“This report must be released. The thousands of people who suffered unthinkable abuse in Catholic institutions deserve answers now.”

Academic, former Catholic priest and author of a groundbreaking report in 2017 into the global Catholic child sexual abuse crisis, Peter Wilkinson, said the bishops conference had to release the report.

Calls: The late Anthony Foster and wife Chrissie in Rome during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Calls: The late Anthony Foster and wife Chrissie in Rome during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“It is now time for the ACBC to release to the public the full contents of the TJHC’s advice to the bishops on how they should respond to the royal commission and its recommendations,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“This cannot be delayed any longer.”

Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest, said it was “wonderful” that the Federal Government had adopted the 104 recommendations and was working with the states on the remaining 18.

“I feel as though we have won this. When it went from the royal commission to politicians I felt it could all slip away, but the government response shows that won’t happen,” Mrs Foster said.

Her late husband Anthony, who died in 2017 after years of advocacy on behalf of abuse survivors, would be pleased with the government response, she said.

The Catholic bishops had to release the TJHC to show the Australian public, and survivors, that it understood what was required of it in future, she said.

“This is the most researched issue in modern times but the church in Australia is still trying to control the situation. They’re trying to flex their muscle, or what’s left of it,” she said.

“There’s public interest in how the TJHC has responded to the royal commission final report and recommendations, but the bishops are being difficult, as they’ve always been difficult. They probably don’t want it public because it’s damning.”

In a statement on Wednesday the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it had established an implementation advisory group, made up mostly of lay people, which was “helping the bishops decide how to respond to the royal commission”

The royal commission recommendation that confession should not exempt Catholic priests from reporting child sexual abuse allegations to authorities was not accepted by the church.

“Regarding the issue of the seal of confession, the Catholic Church does not view the sacramental seal as incompatible with maintaining child safety,” the bishops conference said.

“The church wants measures that will genuinely make environments safer for children. There has been no compelling evidence to suggest that legal abolition of the seal of confession will help in that regard.”