Cardinal George Pell. (Pic: Joel Carrett)
Cardinal George Pell. (Pic: Joel Carrett)

The church’s problem isn't celibacy, it's denial

AS FAR as inquiries go, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has gone where no one was game to go before.

It was the inquiry that we, as all Australians, had to have and, more importantly, that the churches needed to wake them up to a dark underbelly buried under multiple layers of denial.

The commission's 400 recommendations are mostly well thought out and critical to securing justice for victims and preventing future instances of abuse. But the commissioners have failed dismally in two major recommendations relating to the Catholic Church and shown a naivety which is hard to comprehend.

To recommend that the celibacy rule for priests be relaxed and the seal of confession be broken in cases of child sexual abuse is a gross misunderstanding of the causes of this heinous crime.

As the commission's own findings reveal, abusers are not just celibate Catholic priests or religious. Perpetrators can also be found in other churches and institutions that do not have celibate pastors, as well as among married and single lay people with and without families.

The Church's problem lies with the inadequate screening process for those seeking to become ordained ministers and the lack of compulsory ongoing emotional and psychological support for its pastors in serving the church for the rest of their life. Celibacy itself is not the problem.

The commission's recommendation to remove the seal of confession would not help to weed out abuse either. It would only drive the problem deeper underground.

Perpetrators of abuse are highly secretive and it is reasonable to expect they would not risk confessing their crimes if they knew they would be reported. No priest I have ever spoken to has been in a situation where anyone has confessed to abuse in such a situation. As Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said following the release of the commission's report, this proposal is a "distraction".

In any case, neither recommendation can be changed by the Australian bishops, and the Vatican is not about to overturn centuries of fundamental tradition on the basis of the commission's questionable findings linking celibacy and confession to child sexual abuse.

Commissioners Justice Peter McClellan and Justice Jennifer Coates at the final sitting of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (Pic: Jeremy Piper)
Commissioners Justice Peter McClellan and Justice Jennifer Coates at the final sitting of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (Pic: Jeremy Piper)

I have known several priests who, to my shock and horror, turned out to be abusers. I also know church leaders who were subsequently found to have failed to act or moved priests to avoid causing "scandal to the church". Ironically, their attempts at cover-up have brought even greater scandal to the church.

But a new generation of church leaders is replacing them in Australia with a sense of responsibility for the protection of children and other vulnerable members.

Nor should we forget the culpability of police and other non-church authorities who disbelieved and chose not to act when victims reported their experiences.

The past five years of this royal commission has been an agonising emotional journey for me as a practising Catholic and a former church worker who sought to shine a light on this evil within the Church against constant opposition from my superiors.

I have followed the proceedings with much hope and anticipation that finally it will bring about change.

Many of the revelations have been shocking, while at the same time not surprising considering the deep secrecy that has been endemic in not just the Catholic Church, but also the other churches and institutions.

Although I have long supported a royal commission, the Catholic Church was initially dragged kicking and screaming into accepting that one was needed.

However, I believe there are promising signs it has finally got the message that cultural change is vital within its ranks.

In the past few years, new protocols and procedures have been implemented and mandatory training in professional standards for all church workers is being rolled out.

The abusers can no longer hide or expect others to cover up their terrible sins.

But we must continue to hold the church to account because, as history has shown, it cannot do this by itself.