Royal Commission final report: ‘Australia has a huge debt to pay’

Ross Greenwood speaks to Truth Justice and Healing Council CEO, Francis Sullivan, about the key recommendations that came from the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse.

Introduction: Royal Commission final report: ‘Australia has a huge debt to pay’

Ross Greenwood:  The Royal Commission today has been handed down into the child sexual abuse, in particular, the allegations in regards to sexual abuse that was either condoned or overlooked by some of their major churches. Do bear in mind that the Royal Commission in the institutional responses to child sexual abuse really did come about, I guess at the sacrifice of many of the victims who have had to relive the horror of what had taken place when they were kids.

Situations that they’ve had to live with over many decades in some cases that has scared them emotionally, psychologically perhaps even had an impact on their ability to hold their job or to have a normal family life. Many of those people came forward and spoke to this particular Royal Commission. The interesting side about what the Royal Commission itself has said is that there are a number of key recommendations. That is, do not allow clergy who have in any way, shape, or form interfered with children to be protected by the church.

That’s going to be an absolute given. Number two is that if there’re rules inside a religious organization which their eye is inside parts of the Catholic church, the Jewish faith, even Jehova’s witnesses that those laws have to be superseded by the laws of the land and that is the children are protected. That the confessional, if people are told about sexual abuse of children, priests inside the confessional that they should have a duty to the community to release that to the public.

Indeed there are question marks given again by the Royal Commission as to whether the vows of celibacy should, in fact, be changed to be made voluntary. Now, the Catholic Church came in for an awful lot of criticism in regards to this. If you consider that going all the way back when first off this Royal Commission was called that at the time, the Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Pell came out and basically said that he believed at that time that many of the claims against the Catholic Church were exaggerated.

The fact of the matter he said is that the Royal Commission would separate fact from fiction. However, over that period of time, another man has been appointed by the Catholic church to basically act as, well, I guess its spokesperson, but as person who has been within the community trying to make certain that deep divisions are healed. That man is Francis Sullivan, the Chief Executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Before being with that council, he was the Secretary-General of the Australian Medical Association. He is with me now. Many thanks for your time Francis.

Interview with: Francis Sullivan, CEO, Truth Justice and Healing Council

Francis Sullivan: Good evening, Ross.

Ross Greenwood:  In regards to what the findings of this Royal Commissioner and the reports that’s been given to the governor general today, do you believe broadly that Catholic Church can live with their recommendations?

Francis Sullivan: Broadly they will and I’m hoping very much that you will hear from senior archbishops particularly that they are going to implement those findings, the recommendations because that’s what we are advising them to do.

Ross Greenwood:  What about things such the voluntary vow of celibacy because that’s a key one because it’s been not a hallmark of the church for years or decades, it’s been centuries. That that’s been pivotal to those people who take the faith and become Catholic priests?

Francis Sullivan: Look, I reckon this is a really important point. Even our own council in its submission to the Royal Commission made it clear that in some cases celibacy was a contributing factor to the abuse. You can’t deny. You can’t put your head in the sand and say, “Oh, that’s already fine but we are not going to do anything about it.” This recommendation by the Royal Commission needs to be taken very seriously.

I am a bit hurt that I’ve heard over the last few hours that the head of the bishops conference archbishop Hurt has said that he’s prepared to take that to Rome and to have it in conversation. As you rightfully said, celibacy is centuries old. It doesn’t mean that they’ll get rid of it. It’s the issue about the mandatory nature of it. Some people clearly who abuse children were not able to keep their vows and the psychological pressure on these individuals this was one element, not the only element that cause them to abuse children.

It’s high time that this conversation is heard in a sober way but in an assertive way as well. Not just to be fobbed off as, “Oh, well, that’s what some inquiry in Australia think,” instead of contextualizing it in that dismissive way.

Ross Greenwood:  What about the sanctity of the confessional? That’s again something that is many centuries old and of course, a person to have a faith in their confession quite clearly needs to know the details of that will not go anywhere and yet quite clearly the law of the land and in particular what has taken place in regards to child abuse. That needs to be almost taking precedence in a modern community over something that has been there for many centuries.

Francis Sullivan: Well, Ross you did right if you just bear with me on this one. It’s complex. There are two parts of it. When the archbishops went to the Royal Commission they really didn’t think on the same because experts, legal, what they call canon law experts internationally recognized, make clear. “In the Catholic church when a person wants to participate in the sacrament of confession what they say in there is confidential.” That’s called the seal.

What is sealed is the confessing of a sin? If a child does it too, confession, and discloses information about the fact that they were abused they’re not confessing their sin. There needs to be a way in which priests through a protocol or whatever get that information out to police. The second side of this is if a paedophile goes into confession and confesses that they abused a child that’s the one that everyone is getting concerned about.

Over the last five years, I’ve addressed all sorts of groups, all sorts of priest groups, I’ve asked this simple question. “How many of you I’ve heard the confession of a paedophile?” Only once did a man put his hand up. I said, “Wow, you are the first person who’s ever said that.” He said yes, “I did hear the confession of a paedophile. I heard it while he was in jail. He’d already been convicted.” Priests tell me they don’t hear these things.

They don’t hear the confessionals but also they tell me that even if a law was passed they wouldn’t break their vow. This is going to come down to what parliaments want to do about whether they believe the issue is so big that they need to pass laws about it. The key to this whole problem is that for so long children weren’t believed. If a child comes into a confessional, tells them what’s going on, there is got to be a way in which priests get that information to the police.

Ross Greenwood:  As a part of your role as the Chief Executive of the Truth, Justice Healing Council you have listened to, you have spoken with– Sat with over a long period of time many of the victims of child sexual abuse and particularly those who have been abused from members, priests whatever it might be. Do you believe that this Royal Commission ultimately is being a healing process for many of them?

Francis Sullivan: Yes. You will hear often that people say for once they were actually believed, they were listened to, they weren’t judged, they were affirmed, and they felt that the information they gave has led to something good. It’s been a brilliant process. I know how much it takes to have to sit through, day after day, to cover the story but to do five years of it, it’s been a champion job. Australia has a huge debt to pay. They’re courageous people that came forward with their story.

They have got a big debt to pay to these commissioners who’ve come forward with these recommendations. Ross, our Prime Minister, our premieres, our chief ministers have got to step up now. They’ve got to able to say that we are taking all of this all this to COAG, because they have got to deal with this in concert, together, non-partisan. They’ve got to say these recommendations can’t be shelved.

We’ve got to see real change, consistent national police reporting, consistent working with children checks. We’ve got to get a national address come up and running by July 2018. If our politicians can’t do this, you’ve got to seriously wonder why they are in the job.

Ross Greenwood:  The other thing also Francis does it trouble you at all that given all of the revelations that have taken place in regards to the actions of various churches that the issue of faith and trust in those institutions, in the churches themselves is going to be diminished in the public’s eye?

Francis Sullivan: Absolutely, the credibility of the Catholic Church is low as it has ever been. It’s possibly going to go lower. People have lost trust, confidence in the Catholic Church because it acted for decades contrary to what it preaches. Even as a practicing Catholic myself, I’ve struggled with that corrosion of confidence in it. Most people who have any sense of faith or any sense of spirituality. Look, let’s face it, Ross. We all get out of the bed in the morning wanting it to be a meaningful life. All of us with a sense of spirituality and faith, what I also think that the faith tradition that we’re associated with is good, true and pure.

It has been a really harrowing time for people associated with the Catholic Church and I’m not kidding myself it’s going to take a long time for that to be restored.

Ross Greenwood:  I’ll tell you what, Francis, it’s great day to have you on the program and terrific to have– Chat with you is not a man who has put enormous amount of work into trying to A, communicate and B, coordinate the response of the churches as part of this Royal Commission. The Truth Justice Healing Council of which Francis is the chief executive has coordinated the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission into the institutional responses to child sexual abuse which has brought down its findings today.

Now as Francis says, “It’s up to the government to respond, to put the laws in place to make certain the children are protected in the future and forever more.” Francis, I appreciate your time on the program this evening.

Francis Sullivan: Good night, Ross.

 

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