IN the wake of the Catholic Church’s final hearing before the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, Church leaders from across Australia have held a day of “reflection and conversation” on child safety.
The three-week Royal Commission hearing investigated the Church’s response to a crisis of child sexual abuse by members over six decades, and particularly the Church’s plans for child protection protocols and institutional change.
The commission heard that over the past 35 years, 4445 people made complaints of child sexual abuse in Catholic Church institutions, and seven per cent of priests were identified as alleged perpetrators.
National Professional Standards Office executive officer Fr Tim Brennan said New Horizon Day, convened in Sydney on March 9, aimed to assist “in the work of safeguarding children” and “to grow in an understanding of the complexities in which we work at this point in the life of our nation, and our Church”.
“It is a moment of enormous transition,” Fr Brennan said.
The New Horizon Day brought together Church leaders from religious orders, diocese and some of the major groups which engage with Catholics across the country including parishes, schools, hospitals and welfare services.
“Clearly, while the Royal Commission has put the Church in the spotlight, now that has passed, it is important to continue the momentum, to discuss what’s going on and where we are headed – and to surface the million questions that people have as they seek to appreciate this confusing transitional period,” Fr Brennan said.
“It was not intended to make policy but to ensure a place for exchange of information and learning.”
The conference included discussion of Towards Healing protocols, how state professional standards might fit into future safeguarding arrangements, and how Church authorities can maintain a pastoral response while dealing with complex legal cases.
“People are galvanised for change and for reform,” Professional Standards Office Queensland director Mark Eustance said.
“They don’t want to lose the momentum.
“It’s about changing the conversation from the horrific history that’s been revealed to the Royal Commission and changing that to a more positive note around what’ll we do to rectify that.”
The conference heard from chairman of the new Catholic Professional Standards Ltd Geoffrey Giudice about the role of the new independent company set up to develop, audit and report on compliance with professional standards to protect children and vulnerable people.
The future operation of the CPS was closely scrutinised during the Royal Commission hearing.
The commission considered how Church authorities would hold non-compliant dioceses and religious orders to account.
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge told the Royal Commission he thought bishops should consider entering into formal arrangements with priests so they could be stood aside or have their faculties removed if they repeatedly flouted the new standards.
Fr Brennan said one of the aims of New Horizon Day was to acknowledge that the Church in Australia was in a time of transition as it awaited the Royal Commission’s final recommendations in December.
“Their (the Royal Commission’s) views are clear, but the final, definitive report has not yet come, nor the legislative response,” he said.
“So, we have a sense of direction but not clarity. “And even when it does deliver in December, we still have to wait and see what state and federal governments do together or in isolation in response to the Royal Commission,” he said.
Fr Brennan said conference participants also discussed smaller Church entities “that need to be drawn more into the professional standards realm of the Catholic Church”.
He said this could include myriad smaller church gatherings or groups, “not run by bishops, not run by religious orders”, and may not have set policies on child safety.
“While we await the new organisation being fully operational, and while we await the legislative outcomes, we as a Church need to move on the area of identifying these smaller organisations that exist separately from religious orders and parishes,” Fr Brennan said.
Describing these groups as “the ad hoc groups”, he identified the challenge of bringing them “into the conversation directly”.
Some of these groups might have priests attached, Fr Brennan said.
“It’s a minefield of questions. If the priest is there, how responsible is he if he didn’t gather the group, but they invite him to sit in or join them,” he said.
“You hold it on Church property, you advertise it in the bulletin … it would be a lawyer’s picnic arguing about liability in those cases.
“But the real question is not liability, the real question is to get all those groups thinking child safety.”
To report or disclose misconduct or abuse contact the Professional Standards Office, Queensland on (07) 3336 9474 or toll-free 1800 337 928 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.