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Australia’s bishops and religious vow never to repeat shameful child sexual abuse history

Archbishop Coleridge and Sr Monica Cavanagh address the media at a press conference on the Church's response to the Royal Commission

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Catholic Religious Australia president Sr Monica Cavanagh responded to the Royal Commission at a press conference on August 31. Photo: Supplied.

CATHOLIC leaders today (August 31) announced they accept 98 per cent of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse and have vowed that the Church’s shameful history will never be repeated.

Catholic Religious Australia president Josephite Sister Monica Cavanagh and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge spoke at a media conference in Sydney, expressing their deep sorrow that vulnerable children were abused, weren’t believed and weren’t supported when seeking justice.

Archbishop Coleridge said the one Royal Commission recommendation the bishops could not accept concerned the seal of the Sacrament of Penance, since to accept it would be “contrary to our sense of faith and would corrode religious freedom”.

“Australian priests and the lay faithful are deeply committed to both child safety and the seal of confession, which we hold to be inviolable,” he told reporters.

Sr Cavanagh said the Royal Commission “was an important and necessary period for the Australian community” and expressed gratitude to the survivors “whose courage in coming forward and telling their stories will mean that the Church and society will be safer in the future”.

She also spoke of a shameful history of Church abuse, and of the cover-ups, the stone-walling and attempts to avoid justice.

“The Catholic Church’s shameful history and the crimes of hundreds of priests, brothers and sisters and lay people were exposed,” she said. “We as a Church have said sorry before and we will continue to say we are sorry but we know that sorrow and contrition are not enough. Visible actions are now required.”

Sr Cavanagh said the process was already under way to reform the Church’s practices to ensure that safeguarding was integral in ministry and outreach to the community.

“Making the Church a safer place for our children and vulnerable persons is at the heart of our commitment to mission,” she said.

Sr Cavanagh said the Church had already begun to change a number of practices, including in the screening and formation of those training to be priests or religious sisters and brothers, and more was being done to ensure the ongoing formation of priests and religious men and women.

Archbishop Coleridge said many changes had been made since the horrific reality of child sexual abuse became known, but they were sometimes too slow and too timid.

“Too many priests, brothers, sisters and lay people in Australia failed in their duty to protect and honour the dignity of all, including, and especially, the most vulnerable – our children and our young people,” he 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.

“We cannot change the past but we can seek to make reparation for the damage caused, commit to practices which put child safety first, and say firmly and clearly to everyone that we have listened, that we have changed and that we will keep changing.”

Archbishop Coleridge said the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations was “a plan of action; it is our pledge to the Australian people; it is our promise of transparency and accountability”.

Cannot accept removal of seal of Confession 

Repeatedly questioned by journalists about the seal of Confession – the one Royal Commission recommendation that the bishops cannot accept – Archbishop Coleridge said: “The seal is a non-negotiable element of our religious life”.

“We don’t believe that abolishing the seal would make children any safer, and as I suggested, in some circumstances it may make them less safe,” he said.

Archbishop Coleridge said it was the bishops’ view that any law abolishing priest-penitent privilege would be based on a lack of understanding of what actually happened in Confession, and moved in a purely hypothetical world.

“Any suggestion that a perpetrator may in fact confess is removed all but certainly by the imposition of a law such as this,” he said. “Nor do we believe that the seal and the safeguarding of children are mutually exclusive; and we’ll do all we can to ensure both the safety of children and the inviolability of the seal.”

Archbishop Coleridge compared the imposition of a law requiring a priest to break the seal of Confession to laws that required journalists to reveal their sources.

“We see the seal as not dissimilar to legal privilege, which no one disputes, and the rights of journalists not to disclose their sources. And as you know some of your colleagues have been jailed,” he said.

On the commission recommendation that the Church consider voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy, Archbishop Coleridge said he would be sceptical it would work.

“The vast bulk of child abuse is perpetrated by people who are not celibate. That’s just a brute fact,” he said. “I think that if voluntary celibacy were introduced next week would it dramatically affect the incidence of abuse in the Catholic Church? I doubt it.”

The commission called on the ACBC to ask the Holy See to amend canon law to create specific references to sexual crimes against children and end the use of the “pontifical secret” or confidentiality imposed during Church investigations into child abuse allegations.

During today’s Church response, Archbishop Coleridge called for the building of a new culture of safeguarding in the Church.

“Some of the new provisions are required by law; others are to ensure that the archdiocese is a genuinely safe place for all, but especially for the most vulnerable,” he said.

To help build a culture of safeguarding, the bishops and religious leaders have established Catholic Professional Standards Limited, an independent lay body which will set nationally consistent safeguarding standards and monitor compliance with them across the Church in Australia.

“One especially important action will be provision of pastoral care to survivors of abuse and their families,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “Now that the Church has committed to the National Redress Scheme we hope that the financial element can be dealt with elsewhere and that we can focus more on pastoral care for survivors and their families. That’s what the Church should do best.”

Sr Cavanagh said a greater role for women in the Church was “played out in the story of the Royal Commission”.

“Women are seeking a greater role for decision-making in the Church,” she said. “We do have places now where women are involved in decision-making, but I think we have a long way still to go …”

Awaiting response from the Holy See

The ACBC last month said it had begun discussions with the Holy See about the Royal Commission’s recommendations dealing with the discipline and doctrine of the universal Church.

“They are looking for us to provide them with backgrounding and with advice rather than looking to them for some kind of magisterial utterance that is going to answer every question and open every door,” Archbishop Coleridge told journalists.

He said he hoped to receive a final Holy See response on the Royal Commission recommendations by mid-December.

The joint response from Catholic Religious Australia and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference can be found at www.catholic.org.au or www.catholicreligiousaustralia.org.au.

The Truth, Justice and Healing Council reports can be found at www.tjhcouncil.org.au.

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