THE chief executive officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council has a blunt, final message to Australia’s Catholic leaders following completion of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse: “There needs to be reform, renewal and refreshment in the Church”.
As the council’s chief executive officer since 2013, Francis Sullivan is compiling a final report to be handed to the Australian bishops by the end of March.
He is also preparing for the council to be disbanded after delivering the report, and for his own next career move.
Throughout the Royal Commission, Mr Sullivan pinpointed “the shameful and confronting” culture of Church in the past, and maintained the need for cultural reform if the Church was to seriously tackle child sex abuse.
His public statements were often met with polarised responses.
“It’s been five tough years,” the father-of-three told The Catholic Leader last week, as he also considered his own future.
“I said ‘I would do the job’.
“I literally have given my all, supported by my wife Susan.
“Child sex abuse is about the abuse of power and the Catholic Church unfortunately has a very bad history about the abuse of power – and not just in regard to the abuse of children.”
The TJHC’s final report will contain an analysis of Royal Commission recommendations, and how, during the past five years, the council has spearheaded the introduction of child sexual abuse handling, safeguarding, care and prevention programs.
Mr Sullivan said the report would recommend Catholic leaders set up a new implementation body to guide the future Church governance of the protection of children and vulnerable adults.
“I do think it should be run by lay people, and I do think it should be something the bishops and religious leaders are advised by rather than sitting on the implementation body themselves,” he said, making clear he is not personally interested in joining any new body.
“I think the implementation calls for a different set of skills … I think its best to get out of the way and let other people have a go.”
Many remember the moment, inside the Royal Commission last February, when Mr Sullivan delivered the Church response to shocking figures of abuse by priests and religious brothers.
Mr Sullivan broke down as he spoke.
“I didn’t expect to be so emotional, but I was overwhelmed by the harsh reality of the extent and the breadth of the abuse – also what those figures represented about the betrayal of trust,” he said.
“I am reminded of it quite often. People keep calling it my national blubber.
“People have also said it reflected what they were feeling. They could resonate on it.”
The Royal Commission has recommended sweeping reforms, and the Holy See and Australian Catholic leaders have said they would seriously consider them.
It will be up to the Pope and his advisors to consider at least 10 of the final report recommendations, including changes to canon law and voluntary celibacy for priests.
One of the recommendations appears non-negotiable.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Melbourne archbishop Denis Hart and Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher have both rejected the inquiry’s call for priests to break the seal of confession to reveal child abuse.
The Royal Commission suggested new canons that frame child sexual abuse as crimes against the child, not as moral failings or breaches of the obligation to observe celibacy.
It also called for amendments to remove the “pontifical secret” or confidentiality imposed during Church investigations of child sexual abuse.
Other amendments include making it easier to take internal disciplinary action and permanently remove from ministry priests or religious against whom abuse complaints have been substantiated, or their dismissal if they have been convicted.
Mr Sullivan said he was still grappling with how his final report would address some of the Royal Commission recommendations, and he predicted the “unfinished business” of cultural reform in the Church would be hard fought and could take years.
“That is why we will need an expert implementation group – because some of these issues will probably not be able to be settled until more information is available,” he said.
“There are parts of some of the (Royal Commission) case studies that are heavily redacted because of ongoing investigations. So we don’t know the findings for a couple of the case studies.
“In time they (the case studies) will see the light of day and the implementation group will have real information to go with.
“There’s a fear amongst people that there won’t be the change people are seeking and there will be a propensity for the Church to go back into its shell for a while.”
Mr Sullivan said he counted three major successes in the five-year work of the TJHC.
“The establishment of Catholic Professional Standards, the push for a national redress scheme, and the willingness for Church leaders and bishops to enable victims to sue,” he said.
“Those three major changes were ground-breaking.”
Mr Sullivan also praised Church leadership at a local level.
“I think there have been many people in dioceses and religious orders who have responsibility to professional standards who have worked overtime getting in place better programs, new structures, best-practice arrangements – during the Royal Commission period,” he said.
“It wasn’t the work of the TJHC, it was their work.
“The Church is a big entity and the goodwill within the Church is what makes us a force for good.”
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