Australian archbishops: Leadership on abuse was 'catastrophic failure'


SYDNEY (CNS) — Five Australian archbishops testified before
a government commission on child sexual abuse, reiterating apologies and taking
responsibility for actions that occurred before they were church leaders.

They also said they believed the culture of church and
society had changed enough that it would help such abuse from occurring in the

The abuse of children in the church was “a catastrophic
failure in many respects, but primarily in leadership,” Archbishop Timothy
Costelloe of Perth told the Royal
Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
Feb. 23, near the end of three weeks of public hearings.

Gail Furness, the counsel assisting the commission, asked
four other archbishops if they concurred with the assessment, and all agreed.

The commission is
wrapping up more than three years of investigation into the Australian Catholic
Church’s response to child sexual abuse. During the initial hearings Feb. 6,
the commission reported on summary data showing that between January 1980 and
February 2015, 4,444 people made allegations of child sexual abuse that related
to more than 1,000 institutions. The statistics did not differentiate between
allegations and proven cases.

because we have failed so badly, our society has a right to expect us to do
what we can to contribute to a solution, if we can,” Archbishop Costelloe
said. “I mean, there may be many people who would think that our record
and our reputation is so damaged that we have nothing to offer, and I would
understand that, but I think that, tragically and unfortunately, we have learned
an awful lot about this terrible scourge.”

Costelloe — along with Archbishops Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Denis Hart of
Melbourne, Anthony Fisher of Sydney and Philip Wilson of Adelaide — told the
commission about times they had apologized for the church’s actions and what
steps had been taken in their archdiocese to ensure such abuse did not occur.

they also spoke of times they had spent listening to victims, often under the
protocols set up in the bishops’ 1996 document, “Towards Healing.”

One of the recurring questions in three weeks of public
hearing has been how the abuse could have happened on such a massive scale
without people being aware of it.

“Part of the difficulty that we’ve had in responding to
this crisis about sexual abuse was simply based on the fact that people just
didn’t know and understand what they were dealing with,” said Archbishop
Wilson. “I don’t think they really understood the nature of sexual abuse
of children and the effect that it had on the children.”

“I think there were people that were just like rabbits
in the headlights,” said Archbishop Fisher. “They just had no idea what
to do, and their performance was appalling.”

Archbishop Costelloe reiterated earlier testimony that, in
the past, the church “was a law unto itself, that it was somehow or other
so special and so unique and, in a sense, so important that it stood aside from
the normal things” that would exist in society. That kind of culture often
trickled down to priests in parishes, he said.

Archbishop Hart said bishops operated differently in past

“They just sort of floated above it, and it just didn’t
— you know, the awful reality of these crimes didn’t make contact with them,”
he said. “I don’t understand why, but I do know that the way we act now is
very, very different, the way we consult, the way we consult with people in
various areas and relate to the people … very little comes up to me that
hasn’t been reflected on by a group, the people in social welfare or in
evangelization or whatever.”

“Your Honor, I’ve given evidence before about people in
my situation who just couldn’t believe that a priest would do these terrible
crimes,” he added. “I’m not one of them. And I think that illustrates
the mindset. It doesn’t excuse it, but it illustrates what the mindset was,
that it was just out there and it was left out there. That’s a serious failure
of responsibility.”

Archbishop Fisher spoke of a trilogy of sex, power and
theology, and said “our understandings of all three have changed quite

He said many people believe more change is needed and spoke
of the Second Vatican Council idea of “authority as service, leadership as
service, not as an elitist class who are above accountability, transparency.”

Archbishop Coleridge said church structure “is
changing, albeit slowly.”

“For instance, if you take Pope Francis, one of the things
that he is dismantling, I think, is the papal court and the monarchical model
of the papal ministry,” he said. “I think this was a hugely powerful
thing in the past, and it did confer upon the bishops, even in this country,
certainly in Europe, a rather princely style, which could become autocratic.

“Power in itself can be creative; it can be destructive,”
the archbishop added. “The call to serve is the call to use power creatively.
Clericalism isn’t just power; it’s power used destructively.”

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