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.