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Cairns Bishop critique’s writer’s claims in newspaper column

Bishop James Foley

Critical: Bishop James Foley of Cairns diocese.

This is an edited version of Bishop James Foley’s response to Herald Sun columnist Susie O’Brien’s work ‘Catholic Church must change’, printed in The Cairns Post on December 20.

I have been Bishop in Cairns for more than 25 years and in that time many changes and safeguards have been implemented; with child protection officers in place in every Catholic school, and professional standards personnel engaged at diocesan level.

Codes of professional and pastoral conduct have been put in place.

These and other such initiatives have been instigated during the past 20 years and have been evaluated and improved upon in the past five years – during the life of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I offered an extensive submission to the Royal Commission. This was an effort to contextualise and personalise this soul-destroying abuse of the most innocent and powerless.

It is now an unhelpful and an unworthy exercise to have a race to the bottom to claim or to allot worst-offender status. Yet the popular perception, supported by statistical data, does locate the Catholic Church in that category in this country.

It is cold comfort to relativise or to try to explain away this uncomfortable truth by saying that the Church as the major operator of orphanages, educational and care facilities, provided just the settings where such offending was more likely to occur.

That is a poor excuse. Indeed it is no excuse to hide behind for any religious institution.

Any one instance of abuse, in any one place, utterly contradicts all we are supposed to uphold.

Now to some particular issues raised (in Susie O’Brien’s column):

The question of Confession and its secrecy is, by its nature, one which raises popular curiosity.

Yet for the following reasons I regard this attention of Confession as almost irrelevant to and a distraction from the major concerns.

I have been a regular confessor for more than 44 years, on three continents, and in many and varied contexts.

I can say in all honesty I have never heard anyone confess to the sexual abuse of a child.

Nor have I suspected that a penitent was hinting at such offending. However on numerous occasions those confessing have shared that they themselves had experienced some such abuse.

Other priests and bishops with whom I have spoken would concur with this pastoral experience.

Royal Commissioners may well have heard otherwise, but I suggest that it would be exceptional for a pathological paedophile ever to resort to Confession.

The Royal Commission identified at least three types of child perpetrators.

The first and worst is the fixated, persistent type, of the sort described above. Their interest in or likelihood of responding to any therapies is remote.

The opportunistic perpetrator tends to be less excessively fixated on children and maybe engage in other criminal behaviours for their sexual gratification.

A third identifiable type is the situational perpetrator, who does not usually have a consistent sexual preference for children.

So all this is rather more complicated than the popular stereotype of the lonely dirty old man.

This leads on to another key recommendation from the Royal Commission – that all applicants for religious ministry should have an independent psychological assessment for paedophile tendencies.

One answer is that such psychological screening for this condition is not particularly reliable.

As recorded above, the Royal Commission recognises the complexities and varieties of sexual abusing of children and stated at the outset of this section – there is no typical profile of an adult who sexually abuses a child, despite the commonly held misconceptions and persistent stereotypes.

Then there is the issue of clerical celibacy – another matter of considerable popular curiosity.

The next recommendation is more explicit when it speaks of “the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life”.

No one is ever forced or compelled to be celibate. That is a life choice freely made. It is a call – a vocation – a gift in itself.

Much of the discussion on celibacy seems to glide readily over the foundational Christian fact that Jesus himself was celibate.

The Royal Commission’s report provides a valuable historical overview of celibacy in the Catholic Church, yet this is presented from the perspective of documented failures.

In this context it is also relevant to note that people living on their own are now one of the major demographic categories in Australian society.

Are all people, single, either by choice or by circumstances – widowed or separated – to be suspect?

Surely there is some serious misfit here.

There is that tired yet true tragic fact that most child abuse occurs in the family rather than in institutional settings, which were the explicitly limited context for the Royal Commission’s inquiries.

This then leads to the recommendation in the Final Report: Preface and executive summary p 176-193, on redress for survivors of sexual abuse, in institutional – though not in family – settings.

So far this has received little media attention.

What is proposed is a rather light-touch approach with a complaint being received as a written application or a statutory declaration, which will be assessed by one person on the lower threshold of reasonable likelihood.

This is much lower than on the balance of probability required in civil cases, or the much higher standard of proof required in criminal cases – beyond reasonable doubt.

The accused person is excluded from the proposed process; the relevant institution may be asked to respond, but only the complainant seems to have the right to a review.

All of this changes and challenges fundamental principles of our legal system – the presumption of innocence, the right to be heard and to have a fair trial.

Yet it raises a more immediate concern, which was so frequently highlighted in the Royal Commission itself – the obligations to report a crime or even a suspicion of child sexual abuse to police.

Yet recommendation 73 only has the scheme reporting allegations to police if there may be “a current risk to children”.

The Royal Commission’s recommendations wisely and sensitively propose, that a distinction be drawn between the terms “survivor” or “victim”.

Such people should not be re-traumatised by rigorous questioning, let alone by cross-examination.

Police services are also urged to establish further special units to investigate child sexual abuse, with suitably trained sensitive officers allocated to this delicate work.

However, when, as may often be the case, the alleged perpetrator is dead, then there is an even greater need for forensic examination of the claim, if only for the sake of the reputation, or otherwise, of the deceased, who stands so accused.

However recommendation 12, on the Criminal Justice Report does provide that victims and survivors are entitled to have their statement taken by police even if the alleged perpetrator is dead.

This is an advance on police practice.

Yet, for the sake the others involved, this provision may need to be further developed.

These responses should not be allowed to distract from or in any way to compromise the otherwise fine achievements of the Royal Commission, won through the courage and pain of those who have spoken so forcefully and memorably.

Yet inconsistencies or irrelevancies may need to be identified and addressed so that they in no way compromise or distract from all the Royal Commission has achieved.

This has been realised at a very high cost – the pain of those who spoke up – so courageously.

The full text of the letter is available on the Cairns Diocese website at

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