After three gruelling weeks, the Royal Commission’s final hearing into the Catholic Church has come to an end. The preparation for it was tough, and my own three appearances were challenging enough. Through it all I had a growing sense that, after four years of public and private hearings, the Royal Commission had already come to an understanding of the Catholic Church and sexual abuse. Not surprisingly, one element of that understanding seems to be that Church authorities – people like bishops – are untrustworthy; they were in the past and may still be, saying one thing and doing another. Words were not enough to modify that understanding at this late stage, so actions will have to do what words could not. Our trustworthiness will have to be demonstrated by what we do rather than by what we say.
First we have to do all we can to heal the deep wounds of the past, by which I mean bring justice and healing to the survivors of abuse. We have done a good deal in the Archdiocese, but the more we do the more we see we still have to do. There’s no room whatsoever for complacency; the job is far from done. A major question is how to offer really effective ongoing pastoral care to survivors outside Church protocols like Towards Healing. The protocols are important but more is needed if we are to walk with survivors on the longer journey, listening to their voices and seeing with their eyes – on the understanding that their voice is the voice of Jesus, their eyes the eyes of Jesus.
Secondly, we have to look to the future and do all we can to ensure that there’s no repetition of the abuse and cover-up of the past. This will mean not just refining protocols and procedures, but building a culture of safeguarding in the Church. Changing protocols and procedures is hard enough, but cultural change is harder still. Yet if our culture doesn’t change, we run the risk of treating the symptoms and not the cause. At the heart of that cultural change will be greater accountability and transparency in the Church. The need for that was stressed repeatedly through the final hearing.
In the task before us, the Church will need the help of the state, just as the Royal Commission was needed to make us focus on the scale of the problem, its causes and the actions now required. We couldn’t do it on our own; and we won’t be able to do it on our own in the future. So a more accountable and transparent Church will also have to be a more collaborative Church, both internally and externally. What this means will be a major question for the 2020 Plenary Council, towards which we’re already on the way.
Now we await the Royal Commission’s final report with its recommendations which will come at the end of the year. The Commissioners are alert to the delicate question of Church and state, not wanting to intrude into areas beyond their terms of reference. Inevitably the Royal Commission’s account of the Church has been incomplete, but the Commissioners have heard and seen many things through these years, which is why we should trust their judgement and consider very seriously any recommendation they may make to the Church, quite apart from what they recommend to government. That’s part of what it means for us to work together to build a culture of safeguarding not only in the Church but in society as a whole.