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‘We created the abuse’: Church official leading response to child sexual abuse tells priests its time to listen to the community

Francis Sullivan

Francis Sullivan: “Our culture grew the abusers and our culture protected the abusers and our culture for so long denied the victims.” Photo: Mark Bowling

AN official leading the Church response to child sex abuse has told priests in Brisbane, “we created the abuse”, now it is time for parish priests to listen to their communities, including people who have been abused and are angry with the Church.

“We created the abuse. That is the harsh reality,” chief executive of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council Francis Sullivan said, addressing about 180 priests from the Archdiocese of Brisbane attending an annual convocation.

“Our culture grew the abusers and our culture protected the abusers and our culture for so long denied the victims.

“We didn’t listen. We didn’t believe.”

Mr Sullivan, through the TJHC, has led the Church’s response to the four-year child sex abuse royal commission.

In February, the commission revealed that a total of 1880 priests, religious brothers and sisters, and lay people have been identified as alleged perpetrators in abuse claims made to the Australian Catholic Church by 4444 victims.

“And when priests did muck up, the basic tendency of other priests was to cover up,” Mr Sullivan said, encouraging priests to adopt a humble disposition in relation to the sexual abuse scandal.

“The tribe looked after itself.

“… There can be the tendency to compartmentalise that and simply say it was history. But it’s not history. We are living history.

“What matters is that we have to take to heart what it is saying about ourselves. It’s terribly difficult.”

Mr Sullivan said “the game has changed”, and priests must now engage in “the current realities”, including speaking directly with parishioners, some who may be abuse victims themselves, or feel angered and hurt by the Church.

“People who have been abused are scared of talking to the Church, and people in the Church are scared of the people who have been abused,” he said. “The Church leaders who are ‘on the journey’, whether they wanted to or not, … are there because they started to talk directly to victims.”

Mr Sullivan, acknowledging that many Brisbane priests had already worked closely with parishioners, said: “It is time to revisit how your local faith community is travelling with this issue”.

“Do it the way you do it. Do it with your own special skills,” he said.

Some priests indicated they intended to hold open meetings with parishioners to discuss abuse and the way forward.

Mr Sullivan foreshadowed a new era of transparency and accountability for priests, overseen by the newly created company Catholic Professional Standards Australia.

“Priests have to see themselves as modern-day professionals. They cannot be lone rangers,” he said. “We need to make sure they are in best-practice priesthood.

“We have to be able to articulate that, set standards, and they need to be able to work towards those standards and be prepared to be audited accordingly.”

Mr Sullivan said new standards would apply “across the board in Church life”, and would include the formation of priests in seminaries, and ongoing support and training of priests during their careers.

A discussion paper circulated to Brisbane priests proposes that priests undertake annual professional development (PD) including pastoral, sacramental, theological, and administrative and managerial components.

The PD could include formal training courses, monthly meetings with a spiritual director and supervision by psychologists/psychiatrists, as well as attendance at support groups.

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who will be responsible for seeing new standards are demonstrated in the archdiocese, said he fully endorsed the new, professional standards approach.

“You can sense from the attention that the priests have given that they understand how important this discussion is,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “The questions are very difficult, they are very challenging, but they are crucial questions for the priests personally and they know, too, they are crucial questions for the Church as a whole.

“We are taking the concrete steps that are required, however difficult and costly they may be. The time for words is over. Now we need action.”

On the sidelines of the clergy convocation, Mr Sullivan expressed dismay that some bureaucrats in the Vatican were “doing all they can” to undermine reform efforts.

“The reality is the Church is a very conservative organisation. It deals with difficulties sometimes just through inertia,” he said.

“And silence, unfortunately, has been one of the really bad characteristics of how we have dealt with the scandal.

“What’s important from Church leaders here, but also in Rome is that there is a one-hundred per cent recognition of the factors that led to the abuse and factors that led to the cover-up, and those being known, addressed, and that the wider community sees that they are being addressed.

“I think that the Archdiocese of Brisbane is in the forefront of change in Australia, in terms of professionalism, transparency, building safe communities and being open to what will be required to engage with people who have been abused,” Mr Sulivan said.

“The Church cannot expect to have credibility unless it demonstrates through its actions that it’s not going to have business as usual.”

Archbishop Coleridge described Mr Sullivan’s presentation to priests as “very challenging, but very encouraging”.

“He spoke about the reality of the royal commission and all that has emerged there … where do we go in the future, a change of culture, and what does it mean in practical terms,” he said.

“What we are really talking about here is the future of the Church in Australia, not just the priesthood.”

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