The Royal Commission must shine light in the right places
The truth matters. It matters most when its ruthless pursuit is essential to ensuring justice for people whose rights have been cruelly violated, and to ensuring that any failings in law, policy and practice which may have permitted, facilitated or even turned a blind eye to such abuses, are fully identified and dealt with.
It is of course the responsibility of the State to protect and vindicate the rights of its people. The State is ultimately responsible for ensuring that its citizens - especially those who are most vulnerable, such as children - are properly protected and provided for. Where a pattern of abuse is identified, it is the job of the State to investigate it, bring any perpetrators to justice and ensure effective remedies for victims of abuse.
Australia is about to undertake a remarkable investigation. The newly established Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse faces a mammoth task.
It has two years to inquire into child sexual abuse within all institutions across Australia. This obviously includes inquiring into child sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests.
Indeed, it was the scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church which led to the establishment of the commission after many years of campaigning for justice by Australian victims and their families. That the commission has been established is testament to both their courage and tenacity.
That their efforts have paid off finally is very good news. But the worrying element is the scale of the thing.
This commission is expected to investigate institutional child sexual abuse across the entire nation, in schools, scouting associations, children’s clubs, residential institutions and church parishes.
And it is expected to complete all of this work in just over two years. I worry that the Australian Government has underestimated the scale of the task they have set the commission.
I worry that they have not fully realised the resistance the commission is likely to face from Roman Catholic Bishops and other church leaders when it tries to investigate their handling of child sexual abuse.
The Roman Catholic Church does not recognise the need for its leaders to be answerable, openly and honestly accountable, for the manner in which they have handled this issue. In country after country, Bishops and Cardinals have adopted a highly legalistic and adversarial approach to such investigations.
They have fought tooth and nail to avoid investigation, and where they have been unable to do so, they have worked with ferocity to limit the scope and defectiveness of such inquiries. They have even promised full and open cooperation, and then gone on to resist and delay the process of investigation at every opportunity. I have no reason to believe that the Australian Catholic Church will be any different.
When one considers how they have exploited their privileged position under Australian law to prevent victims of abuse from suing them for damages in the Australian Courts, there is obvious reason for concern.
The Archdiocese of Sydney has successfully avoided accountability before the courts by arguing that it does not exist as a legal entity and as such cannot be sued in the civil courts by victims of abuse.
This travesty of justice has meant that victims of abuse have been forced to enter a church process in which they are utterly dependent upon the very institution that they hold responsible for their abuse to decide what, if any, justice in the form of compensation they are entitled to receive.
I hope the Royal Commission addresses such issues. It cannot be acceptable to the Australian Government that any institution is allowed to operate outside the rule of law, to be so unaccountable for such gross failures before the civil courts, most especially one which plays such a major role in the care and education of many Australian children today.
Yes, the Catholic Church has pledged its cooperation, saying that it wants the truth to come out. I hope this is the case. I hope that Australia will mark a turning point in decades of obfuscation and simple deceit on the part of Bishops, Cardinals and even Popes.
The commission will have to investigate the role of such leaders in the abuse scandals. It will have to wade through the complicated mess that is internal church law and practice. It may well have to seek cooperation from the Vatican departments which will undoubtedly be involved in dealing with Australian cases of child sexual abuse by priests.
Others have also tried to secure the cooperation of the Vatican in such investigations and failed. The Vatican, for example, failed to engage with State inquiries in Ireland as recently as within the past five years. I hope, despite all my experience to the contrary, that the Australian Bishops and their Vatican bosses will adopt a more cooperative approach to the Australian Royal Commission.
The Australian Government has made some very big promises. It has promised that victims of abuse will be heard and hard lessons learned. It has promised that the resources necessary to get to the truth will be available to the commission. These are laudable commitments. I hope they can be delivered upon, not just for the sake of child victims of past abuse, but for the sake of today’s children and their children too.
Tune into Dateline tonight at 9.30pm on SBS ONE for a special report on how Ireland handled its ten-year inquiry into child sex abuse, and the lessons for Australia.
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