Crashing The Vatican’s Celebrations

priest with crucifix

In an environment in which allegations of historic child abuse are being aired almost daily, and in which Australia’s chief member of the Catholic clergy is being publically called on to front a Royal Commission, a surprising announcement has come out of Rome. An announcement from The Vatican yesterday confirmed that the Catholic Church (“the Church”) intends to establish a tribunal at which Bishops may be brought to question their role in covering up child abuse committed by clergy. The move seems to have been welcomed by victims groups thus far.

Further details as to this Tribunal’s role have also been announced today with an express reservation suggested by The Truth, Justice, and Healing Council in Australia: the Tribunal will not commence investigating any behaviour of Australian bishops before The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Assault (“The Commission”) has concluded their work. This is an important move for the Church, potentially putting them beyond on the ambit of criticism that might otherwise suggest they are trying to usurp the role of the Royal Commission.

The question Australians of all faiths (or of none) need to ask themselves, however, is whether such a tribunal is welcome or appropriate. We must bear in mind that this Royal Commission is not a commission into whether child abuse happened historically, but how institutions including the church responded to children reporting their abuse and how that abuse was allowed to continue. This Royal Commission is a response not to the sexual acts alleged but rather a response to the fundamental and intense distrust that Australians have for the institutions involved.

With evidence being aired at hearings of the Royal Commission that bishops, teachers, and other authorities knew or ought to have known of sexual abuse, should Australians really accept the Church vowing to investigate itself? The Truth, Justice, and Healing Council’s suggestion that the Church would not act before the Royal Commission has concluded its work is not necessarily an adequate answer to this problem. Allowing the Royal Commission to maintain its place in the canteen line does not prohibit the Church from investigating separate matters which the Commission was not in a position to hear publically, nor does it prevent the Church from reaching different conclusions than the Royal Commission. Both hypothetical scenarios would be effective challenges to the legitimacy of the Royal Commission on the matters. Certainly, if the Tribunal were to find bishops less culpable than the Royal Commission, would we see criticism of the Commission’s integrity?While the tradition of the Church in these situations is to work off of official reports, judicial judgements, and other like-documents, this would not necessarily prohibit the proposed Tribunal from taking findings of fact and reaching different conclusions. While we might think that most Australian’s would accept the Royal Commission’s comments over that of the Church’s in these imagined scenarios, we should consider what kind of message such a challenge would send to victims. It is not difficult to imagine that victims would rightly perceive a disagreement with a Royal Commission report to be yet another impediment in their road towards healing.

Even if we accept that the Church would not act in the above manner, the announcement itself might be worth considering. Given the emotionally charged context in which the Royal Commission is working, the announcement might be seen as a challenge to the Royal Commission’s, and in some ways the victims’, control over the conversation. As Nicky Davis of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (“SNAP”) was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald today, this move has come only after 26 years of ongoing calls from victims for a Tribunal similar to the one just announced [1]. It would seem that the announcement is strategically timed before the Royal Commission could call on the Church to do so, and in an environment in which many Australians, and many across the globe, are becoming increasingly critical of the Church. This begs the question of whether the announcement ought rightly be viewed as a legitimate path towards healing, or as political spin. In this author’s opinion the announcement allows the possibility for the Church to suggest that they established the Tribunal of their own volition; it allows the Church to try to reassert its dwindling legitimacy.

In essence, whether the Tribunal itself is intended as a legitimately positive tool in aiding the healing of victims or not, Australians should be careful of allowing the Church to be seen as an institution deserving of being patted on the back for its latest announcement, rather than an institution which is coming to the party with too little, and too late.

Nathan Johnston
Law Clerk

[1] See the Sydney Morning Hearald story quoting Nicky Davis here: http://www.smh.com.au/national/australian-bishops-wont-be-investigated-by-vatican-until-after-royal-commission-20150611-ghlugs.html