AFTER months of deliberation, Australian Catholic Church leaders announced on Friday that they “accept 98 per cent of the recommendations” of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, rejecting only a single recommendation relating to the sanctity of the confessional.
Unfortunately, however, a line by line examination of the church’s official 57-page response shows a somewhat different picture. Of the 80 recommendations considered by the church, only 47 are accepted without qualification, with another six accepted “in principle”. Twelve are “supported”, with a 13th “supported in principle”. Twelve are classed as “noted”, while another requires “further consideration”.
It is true that only one, the confessional recommendation, is “not accepted”.
But even if, as the report argues, there are decisions the church cannot make in Australia and must refer to Rome, the less than total acceptance of the commission’s recommendations will be read by many as another sign of an organisation that is still unwilling to own up to the horrors of its past with actions as well as words.
In an official statement, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops College, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, said: “Many bishops failed to listen, failed to believe, and failed to act. Those failures allowed some abusers to offend again and again, with tragic and sometimes fatal consequences. The bishops and leaders of religious orders pledge today: Never again.”
As heartfelt as this pledge undoubtedly is, the church is fast running out of time to make meaningful change. The Catholic Church, like other established religious institutions, was already losing relevance before its child sexual abuse scandals made headlines around the world.
In passing many of the difficult questions posed by the royal commission on to the Vatican, the Australian church is effectively relying on head office to take control at a time when there is very little evidence that the one person with the theoretical power, Pope Francis, has the strength or the inclination to heed the reformers’ calls.
It is one thing, as the church did yesterday, to describe clerical child sexual abuse as a “grave sin”. It will be another thing entirely when it is prepared to call it what the rest of society does – a crime.