A Royal Commission will provide no quick fix or magical solution in an area as complex and tormented as the sexual abuse of minors. But it is our best chance to clear the air at a time when that is very much needed. This will mean distinguishing between fact and fiction, and I very much hope the Royal Commission will help do that. The fictions are many, but prime among them would be that the Catholic Church has learnt nothing and done nothing about sexual abuse of minors in recent years and that there has been a widespread and deliberate cover-up by those who knew exactly what was going on and its effects. In this country at least, the Catholic Church has done a great deal in the last twenty years to put in place procedures which seek to ensure justice for all. They are not perfect and are therefore a work in progress. But to say that we’ve learnt nothing and done nothing is simply wrong. Similarly, in the past there was an attempt (and not just in the Catholic Church) to deal discreetly with cases of abuse, based upon a failure to understand the pathology of child abuse and the effects of it upon those abused. But that approach has been shown to be a total failure, and in more recent times there has been a sense that unless we deal directly and comprehensively with abuse, then we will certainly fail. I would also hope that, beyond establishing the facts, the Commission will help to bring justice and healing to those who have been abused and to their families.
A more distant hope would be that the Commission might also help to eradicate the sexual abuse of minors, though again one needs to keep in mind what a Commission can and can’t do. Some have complained that the scope of the Commission is too broad. But a Commission which was not so broad in its scope would run the risk of failing to deal effectively with a pervasive problem in this society. To narrow the scope of the Commission might have made for manageability, but it would not have dealt with the reality as it is. The broad scope will make the Commission’s work almost unmanageable and it will mean that its work will take a very long time. But any other kind of Commission may not have been worth the effort. Certainly a Commission which focused only on the Catholic Church would have amounted to a kind of scapegoating which is always tempting though never helpful when a society isn’t sure what to do about a serious and pervasive problem.
In the Catholic Church at least, I don’t think it’s enough to attribute the entire phenomenon to an unaccountable clericalism. That is one of many factors, as I sought to point out in the long Pastoral Letter I wrote while in Canberra (“Seeing the Faces, Hearing the Voices”). Reductive diagnoses don’t help in this area. Is abuse of the young still happening? I don’t know. It is possible. All I can say with certainty is that we now know a lot more about the causes and effects of abuse, and are much more determined in working to eradicate it. That’s why we will work as cooperatively as we can with the Royal Commission.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
November 13, 2012