Church leaders have spoken out in support of the Australian Government’s recent landmark apology to Australians who have experienced abuse in children’s homes and institutions. In the wake of the apology journalist PAUL DOBBYN spoke to several Church figures with close involvement in dealing with such issues
THE Catholic Church was among organisations adding their voices to the Australian Government’s recent apology to the hundreds of thousands of Australians who had been subjected to harm in children’s homes and other institutions.
The Church’s endorsement of the apology represented another step along the way as it seeks to address the issue of the abuse of the vulnerable by its representatives.
Catholic religious and clergy with first hand experience of this journey spoke of varying degrees of success in the Church’s endeavours.
They also spoke positively of the benefits likely to flow from the Government’s apology to those who had suffered institutional abuse.
Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, who co-chairs the Australian Catholic Bishop Conference’s (ACBC) National Committee for Professional Standards (NCPS) with Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Tim Brennan, said “Church members should be very proud of the Towards Healing initiative which was in the forefront of such programs and not only encompassed children but also vulnerable adults”.
The NCPS is a combined initiative of the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA).
NCPS protection and prevention officer Brigidine Sister Angela Ryan said Towards Healing often provided a starting point for those reluctant to approach government authorities.
She also mentioned the Anglophone Conference (which both she and Bishop Morris attended in Rome in June), a network of English-speaking bishops who meet periodically to share strategies for fighting abuse.
However, founder and chief executive officer of Youth Off The Streets Salesian Father Chris Riley had concerns about the Towards Healing process saying that the Church should not conduct such investigations and “that complaints need to be handled by police”.
Brisbane priest Fr Wally Dethlefs, who provided a submission to the 2004 Senate Inquiry, Forgotten Australians, said “no doubt it is intimidating for many to come face to face with people who belong to institutions who had abused them … however, a process such as Towards Healing is better than no process at all”.
Bishop Morris said despite the ongoing criticism the Church was receiving as the extent of past abuse came to light, there were “a lot of good things happening which are very creative and life-giving to communities”.
The Anglophone Conference was proving to be an excellent way for the Church to tackle abuse through sharing information at an international level, he said.
“Next year’s conference will be held in Dublin,” Bishop Morris said.
“This will provide a valuable opportunity to confront difficulties exposed by the Ryan Report into Church and state abuse in Ireland.
“This also fits in with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s proactive and pastoral approach to this tragic situation.”
Sr Ryan, who has worked with the ACBC’s NCPS committee for the past 10 years and has been involved in dealing with Church-related sexual abuse issues since the mid-1980s, said people with whom she had been involved in the course of her work had indicated for many years that an official apology was important.
“Watching the media coverage and the reactions of many of the hundreds of those in parliament to hear the apology, this clearly proved to be the case,” Sr Ryan said.
The Towards Healing process, which started in 1996, had grown out of recommendations from the NCPS, she said.
In the Towards Healing document, the Catholic Church made its first apology to all people who had suffered abuse by Church personnel.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney was instrumental in setting up the process.
Outcomes and processes associated with Towards Healing were last reviewed and published by the ACBC in 2000.
The latest review conducted during 2008 and 2009 will be published in early 2010.
Within her line of work, Sr Ryan said she was frequently faced with the harsh realisation that many people have been abused through the Church.
She said the Towards Healing program “offers a pastoral approach by the Church to those who have been abused”.
“Towards Healing has been a valuable way to start the process for many,” she said.
“Some people for various reasons may not want to go straight to the police.
“Perhaps they are uncertain about what will happen when they go to the authorities; maybe they don’t want their names in paper; don’t want their family to know and so on.
“However, this does not stop such people taking civil action.
“In fact for criminal cases the NCPS encourages people to go to the police.”
Fr Riley said that, for 35 years, he had worked daily with “kids and adults who have had their lives destroyed because of sexual assault”.
“I made a comment about Church investigations and processes last year around World Youth Day,” he said.
“I indicated that the Church should not do any investigations, and complaints need to be handled by police.
“The number of calls I received supporting my comments was amazing.
“These were from victims who had experienced the process, from lawyers who were part of the process and the general public.
“The general comment was that the Church process was intimidating.
“The Church’s point of view was that many wanted its involvement.”
Fr Riley said in terms of the Government’s apology “look, if it even benefits one person it’s worth doing, but my concern is also very much for the present”.
“The institutions are gone and in many ways that’s a good thing,” he said.
“But, though the environments might be different … the outcomes are often still the same.
“As a society we didn’t look after these kids in the ’30s, ’50s and so on and I don’t believe we’re looking after them now either.
“Currently there are 13,000 young people in out-of-home care in NSW alone and this is predicted to rise to 18,000 in next five years.
“Statistics show that many of these will go on to become homeless.”
Fr Riley said it was “even worse in indigenous settings”.
“This past decade has been worse than any previous ones for the removal of indigenous kids,” he said.
“Some 9000 are currently removed … My Aboriginal team, who keep in touch regularly, reported 40 kids removed from an Aboriginal community in Lightning Ridge.
“We’re on the way to creating another Stolen Generation.”
Fr Dethlefs, whose long involvement with the issue includes a period as commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1989 Burdekin Inquiry, said he had received mixed messages from those who had been involved in the Church’s Towards Healing program.
“Some said they had not been heard at all at an official level before the program started,” he said.
“They just wanted to be heard and for someone to say sorry and were very upset that this wasn’t happening.
“When the Towards Healing process came in there was still a mixed response. Some thought they had finally been heard … others thought they could have been treated with more dignity.”
Fr Dethlefs said there were several gaps in the Government’s apology.
“For example, the question of compensation was not dealt with. Many of these people were condemned to poverty because they weren’t given proper education. On top of that many were abused which destroyed their self-esteem.”
Another gap in the Government’s apology was that certain groups of people who suffered significant abuse in mental institutions were not recognised.
“For example, two women I know were sent as very young teenagers while wards of the state to Osler House at Wolston Park outside Brisbane, and detained alongside women judged criminally insane,” Fr Dethlefs said.
“These two women went to Canberra to hear the Prime Minister’s formal apology in parliament on behalf of the Commonwealth. Still, the apology was important for them, as it was for many.
“The thing to watch will be the Federal Government’s agreement with the states to ensure that young people once they leave out-of-home care – and there are about 30,000 in this situation – do not continue to be discharged into homelessness.”