Victim advocate: The abuse scandal has broken the heart of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Francis Sullivan and Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley attend a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23 (CNS photo/Paul Haring). Francis Sullivan and Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley attend a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

In this exclusive interview with America, Francis Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the Australian Catholic Church’s “Truth, Justice, and Healing Council,” reflects on what contributed to the abuse of minors by priests and religious in Australia, and what he thinks the Royal Commission that has been investigating this abuse might say in its report at the year’s end.

T.J.H.C. was set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia soon after the federal government announced on Jan. 11, 2013, the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It represents dioceses, archdioceses and religious congregations across the country. It was set up for the church to address the past openly and honestly, and to speak with one voice before the Royal Commission.

Mr. Sullivan was one of the speakers at the seminar on “Safeguarding children in homes and schools” held at the Gregorian University in Rome last week. He spoke with America on March 27.

At the seminar, you said that while recognizing that the abuse of minors is widespread, the question is: Why did it happen in the Catholic Church, too? From your experience in Australia, what answers have you come up with?

Clearly, those in positions of authority, whether they were bishops or leaders of religious orders, instinctively chose to look after the institution no matter how, at times, scandalous were the cases. Instinctively their heart was with an institutional agenda, not with a compassionate agenda that speaks of the Gospel. So it’s a matter of instinct, and instinct is always shaped and nurtured by culture, a culture that’s self-protective, that’s about continual preservation and promotion. It’s a culture where people can identify with certainty and security, and when something like child sex abuse, clerical sex abuse, confronts them it’s a disruptor, and the way institutions deal with disruptors is to get rid of them. They don’t integrate the experience.

The Holy Father says the church needs to be continually converting, reforming at the heart—that means it needs to be honest about the tensions in its heart and the tendency to always justify itself rather than keep itself vulnerable and open.

Sex abuse is ultimately an abuse of power.

You said corruption in the church was a factor that made abuse possible. Could you elaborate?

Sex abuse is ultimately an abuse of power. When power is abused it corrupts, and the outcomes are always degradation. So, this scandal demonstrates how the church corruptly goes about looking after itself. It looks after those clergy, it looks after bishops, it looks after those who are part of a clerical caste. It becomes a closed system, it no longer has the spirit of the Gospel, it’s no longer reaching out, it’s no longer going to the fringes, it’s no longer dealing with messy situations, it’s always choosing certainty, rigidity and self-protection.

You have studied carefully what happened in the Australian church in terms of abuse. Are there two or three things that stand out in your mind from this devastating experience?

The church for a long time in Australia has demonstrated that it is frightened, threatened by victims. Church leaders took a long time to sit down with victims. Some still don’t. And I think the church institutionally is still threatened by victims’ stories. They try to re-contextualize their stories; in other words, they try to re-tell their stories in an acceptable way. That’s the first thing, and I think that stretches beyond Australia.

Secondly, the language that church leaders always use is always subtly framed to, in a sense, to continue to justify the existence of the church in the light of the scandal. You hear people say, “Oh, this has been a terrible thing, but the church is still doing all these good things,” and in saying that they try to drown out the volume and the potency of the experience of the scandal. It’s a management agenda, it’s not a pastoral agenda. It’s much more driven by the juridical issues or interests of the church than the pastoral ones.

The third thing, at least in Australia, church leaders kept this issue close, and in closed quarters, almost secretly from the faithful about how it was being managed. They misguidedly thought they didn’t want to scandalize the faithful; instead they scandalized the whole country, and now the faithful, the Catholic community, is seething with rage about the whole experience. And I’m sure this applies to lots of places, church leaders—at least in the last 20 years—have tried to get on top of this issue, but any progress they are making is completely overlooked because the community in general still doesn’t think the church leaders get the issue. And the issue wasn’t just that there were perpetrators, and the issue just isn’t that there were far more cases than anyone knew, the issue is that it took major inquiries to bring out the truth.

Government inquiries, and media inquiries, too.

Correct! The church has never volunteered the data in a public sense, in a deliberate action to show that it is being open. The last area that this whole thing demonstrates is that the overreliance by church leaders on legal advice led to the times that they forewent the responsibility to take moral leadership in these areas. They hid behind legal advice because they were intimidated by the implications of what this could possibly mean for the institution. The church has tried never to be vulnerable, but part of the answer is to be vulnerable.

Marie Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. How did you read that?

I thought that was a shocking development. I think what it says is that the inertia that inevitably exists in big organizations like the Catholic Church still tries to manage away the voice of the victims and the implications of the scandal. I don’t believe that it reflects the motivations of the Holy Father. However, I do think that the Holy Father and others need to be extremely careful about the language that’s used in this area, the need to give overt signs of support for victims in this area, and to start listening to people who aren’t just clerics who have their own institutional comfort zones.

If you had 10 minutes with Pope Francis, what would you say to him?

I would say to him that on every occasion possible, and certainly in a public way, to demonstrate a solidarity and affinity with people who have been abused by clerics. And to listen to them; to listen underneath the story.

I would say to him that on every occasion possible, and certainly in a public way, to demonstrate a solidarity and affinity with people who have been abused by clerics. And to listen to them;

Secondly, never use language that appears to minimalize or contextualize the church’s role in this, but rather to be open and to challenge all of us Catholics to help repair the heart of the church because the heart of the Catholic Church has been broken.

Thirdly, to always question how the church can in a sense do more in overt ways to demonstrate that it’s not just been about having perpetrators; it’s been about the mentality of those in positions of responsibility that enabled abuse to continue because that, ultimately, is what most people shake their heads about.

Lastly, I would say to the Holy Father that I think he needs to have direct links to other than clerical advice in this sex abuse area, because I believe the more independent the Vatican can make their investigative and policy consideration processes the better for the long-term credibility of the church.

You told the seminar that recent surveys about the Australian bishops showed that 50 percent of regular churchgoers find them “untrustworthy” and a higher percentage of those who identify themselves as Catholics share that opinion. You said bishops can no longer convince people by words, they can only do so by actions. What action is required of them now?

In the Australian context, in fairness today, the bishops have accepted a recommendation that a new system of auditing and accountability be placed upon them and on how they ensure that standards for child protection and the protection of vulnerable people will be met in their dioceses, and that those audits be made public so that they be accountable back to the wider community.

These are independent external audits, and not run by clerics?

Oh, absolutely! We’ve created an independent board and that board will accredit or license the appropriate companies to come in and do the audit and they will fully audit the bishop or the religious leader.

Apart from that, is there something else you would like to see happening?

I would recommend that where it is possible, and people are open to it, bring victims back to the center of the church.

I would recommend that where it is possible, and people are open to it, bring victims back to the center of the church. Victims say two things when you talk to them. One is, “I want to be believed,” and the second is, “I want to belong.” Now they’re not saying I want to belong back in the Catholic Church, what they’re saying is that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life walking around with a label on my head. I just want to be a normal person again. And we have a responsibility to deliver a practical way how that can occur.

You participated in the seminar. What was your impression?

I thought it was a powerful day where individuals were talking about the work they are doing with children at risk across developing countries and the developed world. It was exceptional. But when we talk about the church and children we cannot ignore the fact that there’s a massive history of clerical abuse and we should be talking about that, too. I think that was absent.

At the same time, the real positive was that we had very, very senior members of the Roman Curia there, sitting, listening. That sent a very good signal, it showed there is the capacity to do this work together, and the recognition that as a church we can take collective responsibility. Most of us have no fingerprints on the past but we all have a responsibility to help recreate our church to be what it once was.

As you know, there’s some discussion on how best to deal with the perpetrator: whether to defrock him, but then the church has no longer any control over him, or to sentence him to a life of prayer and penance in a monastery under the supervision of church authorities. What do you think?

I believe we need to think about this very clearly. Any individual in society who commits a crime against a child is put in jail, does their time, then leaves and is a free person. That’s how the system works. For us to turn around and say we’re not prepared to do the ultimate penalty because on some grounds we think that we need to safe-house this person is less than the community expectation and is really no justification. The community accepts that people do their time and then they are a free person, and that’s whether the person has abused children or done anything else. That’s how the rule of law works, and it seems to me by taking the lesser route you have to wonder whether that isn’t tinged by clericalism, and clericalism has been one of the contributing issues that led to the cover up over the years.

The Australian Royal Commission is completing its investigation on the Catholic Church and will present its report before the year’s end. What do you expect it to say?

We don’t know what’s going to come out. It will finish at the end of the year, and we’ll have a better sense of what’s going to come out of it when we get the final case studies report. In most of the case studies, however, the commission has been pointing often to what it sees as the administrative governance irresponsibility of bishops and religious leaders, and they’ve always couched that in terms of their not being vigilant enough for the ultimate welfare of children. My sense is that the final report will sound like that.

You mean it could point to “neglect” by church leaders?

They could talk about neglect because the church in Australia has drawn its own line in the sand in fact with the leadership of the church saying that it wasn’t until the 1990s that it got in place legitimate set of protocols for dealing with complaints. Prior to that it was a fumbling attempt to come to terms with the revelations of abuse. And prior to that, of course, we had all the secrecy that was involved, even at local levels. So, by drawing a line in the sand of the middle-1990s, it gives the Royal Commission the opportunity to contrast two periods, and I’m sure it’s analysis of the pre-1996 period will be fairly damning.

Cardinal George Pell has been targeted in relation to abuse cases in Australia. Many allegations have been made against him but he has denied them all. How do you see his situation? What do you think could happen to him?

From the very outset of the Royal Commission the cardinal has been a focus for attention. He has been and continues to be a lightning rod for discontent. He is outspoken and often a controversial public advocate. You never die wondering what the cardinal thinks. To give him his due, he has appeared before the commission more than any other single witness, from any institution, and he has provided far more personal evidence than any other witness. The case studies that involve his evidence are yet to report and other investigations remain ongoing. Like anyone else, he is entitled to natural justice and we await the determinations of the independent umpire.

The church can only ever do what our tradition tells us to do, and that is go back to the Gospel and reform ourselves accordingly.

Given all that has happened, how does the church in Australia pick itself up and begin to walk upright again?

I think that’s a massive question that all of us in Australia are struggling with. There’s no doubt the Royal Commission has been like a lorry hitting people head on. I think a lot of the people involved, a lot of the current leaders are really feeling weight of this whole exercise and are increasingly very realistic about where that leaves things. The church can only ever do what our tradition tells us to do, and that is go back to the Gospel and reform ourselves accordingly.

The church is far more than an institution. The institution has been on trial but not the faith community and the faith community is what will ultimately nurture the changes that are required. In Australia, given our context, that means we need much more involvement of lay people, male and female, at all levels of decision-making. It doesn’t mean you replace bishops, that would be ridiculous, but it means a lot of mutual decision-making and engagement. It means we have to become much more a church for truth and justice than a pillar of the establishment, we have to be much more open and transparent. I think those sort of things will help the church in Australia at least to rebound.

Michael Seredick
1 month 3 weeks ago

Only an Australian problem? The pews are rather empty in my USA parish. It's the COVERUP that destroys me. I love my five grandchildren more than saving the reputation of my Church.

Father John Michael George
1 month 3 weeks ago

the combination of shameful scandal and cultural hostility sometimes made it a grim time to be Catholic.
Americans tend to be myopic and see the Church only through the lens of their own nation. But the Church in America makes up only a small fraction of a billion people who belong to the Catholic Church all over the world. Millions of Catholics live on every continent, and in some of those places the Church is growing at an amazing rate. Now Africa and Asia are exporting priests to parishes in the United States, as many American Catholics have been delighted to discover. The Church is more truly “catholic” now than at any time in history.
So what is the real story of the Church in the twenty-first century?
No one could deny that the Church is facing a crisis. But that’s nothing new. If we’ve learned anything from the past two thousand years, it’s that the Church is always facing a crisis.
In fact, as the historian Philip Jenkins points out, crises are what drive the Church. “The best indicator that Christianity is about to experience a vast expansion is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days.”4 Over and over again, the doubters have confidently predicted the end of the Church, only to be overwhelmed at the next moment by a sudden burst of Christian energy.

Aquilina, Mike. The Resilient Church (Kindle Locations 1711-1720). Lambing Press. Kindle Edition.

Father John Michael George
1 month 3 weeks ago

So what is the real story of the Church in the twenty-first century?
No one could deny that the Church is facing a crisis. But that’s nothing new. If we’ve learned anything from the past two thousand years, it’s that the Church is always facing a crisis.
In fact, as the historian Philip Jenkins points out, crises are what drive the Church. “The best indicator that Christianity is about to experience a vast expansion is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days.”4 Over and over again, the doubters have confidently predicted the end of the Church, only to be overwhelmed at the next moment by a sudden burst of Christian energy.
In the early part of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton noticed the same phenomenon: Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.”5 The pagan Romans thought the Christians would just go away if they passed laws that were strict enough. Instead, that odd little Jewish sect conquered the empire. The Arians rationalized the central mysteries of Christianity away, and confidently celebrated their victory. Instead, orthodox Christianity triumphed, and the Arians faded into history. In the High Middle Ages, heresies and intellectual skepticism seemed ready to make the Church a shell of empty rituals. Instead, the age brought forth both some of the greatest theologians and the greatest mystics in Christian history. In the Renaissance, the revival of pagan learning and taste threatened to reduce the Church to a crusty old irrelevance. Instead, the same age saw an explosive growth of the Church in all four corners of the world. The French Revolution, and the secularist revolutions throughout Europe in the 1800s, took away the temporal power of the Church and seemed to threaten the extinction of the whole institution. Instead, there was a great religious revival all over the world, one whose effects we’re still feeling today. The Communists ruled half of Europe and most of Asia for half a century, and it may have seemed that the Church was wiped out in both continents. Instead, it was Christians, led by a pope from a Communist country, who overthrew the Communists. The Church remains, still doing the work it did in secret for fifty years. Now, as countless dozen pundits confidently predict the end of Christianity and the beginning of a new, “post-Christian” age, we can predict, if only from the example of history, that they’ll be wrong. The Church will find new energy, and the billion faithful will stay true to what they believe. Even when we suffer with Jesus, we know that we also rise with Jesus. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

Aquilina, Mike. The Resilient Church (Kindle Locations 1716-1738). Lambing Press. Kindle Edition.

Thomas Severin
1 month 3 weeks ago

The pedophile scandal for the Church worldwide is the elephant in the room that just won't go away. Besides the pedophilia itself, the rampant clericalism that under girded the cover up of the abuses exposes a systemic problem within the Church that Pope Francis frequently mentions.
Proposed solutions to the problem of pedophilia within the Church that only address pedophilia per se without addressing clericalism will never fully resolve the issue.
In addition, the fact that hardly any bishops have been held accountable for the immoral and illegal roles that they played in the scandal only prolongs the problem and diminishes any trust the laity have in the hierarchy.

Father John Michael George
1 month 3 weeks ago

Interestingly mere clericalism was no correlate in abuse of 4.5 million kids in USA State Schools
In 1994, Shakeshaft published a report based on a four-year study of 225 sexual abuse complaints—184 in New York State and 41 in other states—against teachers made to federal authorities from 1990 to 1994. She found that "All of the accused admitted sexual abuse of a student, but none of the abusers was reported to the authorities, and only 1 percent lost their license to teach. Only 35 percent suffered negative consequences of any kind, and 39 percent chose to leave their school district, most with positive recommendations. Some were even given an early retirement package."

In 2004, Shakeshaft published Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature for the United States Department of Education. The report indicated that nearly 10% of U.S. public school students, or 4.5 million students, had been the victims of sexual harassment, rape or sexual abuse. The review described the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct, offender characteristics, targets of educator sexual misconduct, and recommendations for prevention of educator sexual misconduct.

James Murray
1 month 3 weeks ago

Long ago I realized the motivation of bishops was to protect their corporation over the faithful explaining the hiding of criminal activity. The other sad part is that few to no bishop has been removed for administrative malpractice as, also, the so called 'clergy-abuse crisis' is intentionally misnamed by bishops to deflect their failure. Lawsuits succeed against dioceses due to the co-conspiracy of the bishop in hiding criminal activity. So the crisis is administrative malpractice by bishops. But bishops want to hide even this and instead misname the issue. So I do not see vulnerability and my only way of protesting is to reduce my financial support. I think I am better understanding why the protestant reformation happened.

Phil Tanny
1 month 3 weeks ago

This is an excellent article which clearly outlines the profound challenge such scandal presents to the credibility of the Church.

Sadly, the article also illustrates the chronic inability of Catholic culture to be a revolutionary movement as intended by it's founder.

A scandal of this scale can not be managed by anything less than truly dramatic action, which is not even being considered. The Church should end the celibacy requirement for all those serving the Church. The Church should have all of the male clergy swap roles with the nuns. Only profound earth shaking changes which make the world sit up and say, "Wow! They did that??" have any chance of putting this behind us.

Catholic clergy lost half the Catholic laity in the Protestant reformation. In our time they are losing the Church's traditional European homeland. On top of all this the Catholic clergy has inflicted a near fatal blow upon the Catholic brand.

And still even the wisest most hard nosed Catholic commentators do not recognize that more of the same old stuff by the same old people with a little tweaking here and there has exactly no chance of reversing these trends.

Catholicism dominated Western culture to a degree that is unimaginable today for 1,000 unbroken years. Catholicism is, or rather was, capable of huge bold accomplishments. That brave heroic spirit seems to be gone as Catholicism descends in to being little more than a cozy comforter for a few fearful old ladies lighting candles at the altar.

All things must pass I guess.

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

The problem is not Catholic but religion in general. No form of Christianity is thriving anywhere and Protestant decline preceded Catholic decline and it began long before the abuse scandal broke out. The cause of decline is not a Church scandal but the lack of belief in a creator and for most who acknowledge the likelihood of a creator, there is no belief that the creator had a plan for his creation. So religious belief has no purpose.

The Catholic Church today does not promote itself as God's way to salvation as it did for almost 2000 years but as the preferred social organization of choice for correcting social ill on earth. One only has to see the articles that America publishes to see what the emphasis is.

Phil Tanny
1 month 3 weeks ago

Some people believe that correcting social ills on earth is the way to salvation. Not what we believe or what we say, but what we do. The word love is an active verb.

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

Some people believe that correcting social ills on earth is the way to salvation. Not what we believe

What we believe is very important. Helping the poor is not in the 10 commandments but belief is. How we act is very important as most of the 10 Commandments are about thoughts and actions for each individual but belief is also critically important.

Certainly helping unfortunate people is desirable for each individual . Notice I said unfortunate not poor (some of the signature identities of the Catholic Church are the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd. These are are examples of helping the unfortunate.). There are a lot of unfortunate people who are not poor, some may be very rich. And they should be helped as well.

But only God can read what is in each person's heart.

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

This topic has been discussed intensely for almost 20 years. How many incidents has there been since that time? Or are nearly all discussed incidents from a time period previous to 20 years ago.

Vincent Gaglione
1 month 3 weeks ago

“The institution has been on trial but not the faith community and the faith community is what will ultimately nurture the changes that are required. In Australia, given our context, that means we need much more involvement of lay people, male and female, at all levels of decision-making. It doesn’t mean you replace bishops, that would be ridiculous, but it means a lot of mutual decision-making and engagement.”

I take heart in those words, although I see or read few examples of it in local parishes and dioceses here in the United States. There are many faithful people who in their minds dismiss their pastors and bishops for their clericalism. They pursue their Catholic lives as best they can with little real example from those ordained to guide them. Ironically I see a clerical movement to return to the pre-Vatican II days of liturgy and religious practices as an attempt to avoid the current modern cultural context. Those days required no “mutual-decision making or engagement,” rather submissive and rote religious behaviors. In the social media driven world of today it just doesn’t and won’t work for any Catholic with some ability to think and reason.

One of the commenters here, a priest(?), uses institutional public school examples of child sexual abuse as a contrast to the institutional Catholic Church’s own experiences with it. A cleric trying to say “clericalism” isn’t the problem! He just doesn’t get the point. My own experience as a public school educator and union activist saw equally many examples of “clericalism” among my superiors and peers, regarding themselves as a caste apart, protecting themselves and the institution instead of the children in it. In public schools nowadays both employer and union call for the immediate removal from the school system of any child sexual abusers and those who protect them, with the rights of due process protected. Not a bad response if the Church used it, especially in regard to bishops!

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