This week, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced that a Royal Commission will be established into the sexual abuse of children across Australia. Though terms of reference are yet to be announced, this Royal Commission will be welcomed by all who are concerned for the safety of our children, and for the healing of past victims.

The scope of the problem

Child sexual abuse is an evil that society has been afraid to face. Mrs Hetty Johnston, the founder of the Braveheart organisation, reports that one in five, or 59,000, Australian children experience some form of sexual abuse each year. Currently, the West Australian police report that they are investigating 184 cases from state institutions alone.

It is a matter of deep pain to find that children have suffered abuse also within the Church. It is hard to understand, for example, how over the past 70 years, there could have been more than 600 cases in Australia’s largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The same is true of the few cases in the long history of this Diocese.

This behavior will be beyond the comprehension of the tens of thousands of priests who have served God and people faithfully over the decades. It remains incomprehensible and bewildering for us all today.

Hopes for the Royal Commission

The Royal Commission hopefully will do much good. If its terms of reference aim to discover the total truth about the problem, it should

  • contribute to the healing of past victims, for being believed is a critical step towards healing
  • develop recommendations for the better protection of children
  • encourage institutions, including the Church, to keep improving their efforts to prevent the abuse of children, and to deal transparently where abuse is found.

Some have suggested that the Royal Commission should be restricted to the Catholic Church. However, this would not be acceptable to anyone whose real concern is the well being of children and of past victims.

What must we do as Catholics?

Over the coming period of the Royal Commission, there are a number of things we need to do as Catholics.

Pray for the victims

The hearings of the Royal Commission, and the tendency of many media to sensationalise rather than report news fully, mean that the coming period will be painful for victims. Past hurts will be reopened, painful memories stirred and stresses will lead to pressures on marriages, family lives and other relationships.

I ask all Catholics in our Diocese to pray each day from now on for victims of sexual abuse. Pray that they be given strength and guidance, as well as healing and comfort.

I ask priests also to make the victims of sexual abuse the intention of one of their Masses each week, including victims of sex abuse in the Church.

Second, if we know of victims of sex abuse, let us do what we can to show them understanding and support. While no one – even other victims – can appreciate fully the suffering of an individual victim, it is important to be with and encourage them.

Third, it is important to keep before people the Towards Healing process. The word ‘towards’ highlights how healing is a long process, but the Church seeks to contribute towards this.

Remember basic facts

From media reports, one could be excused for imagining that most sexual abuse occurs within the Catholic Church. It is interesting to note, for example, television pictures on some stations were exclusively of Catholic churches even though the Royal Commission is concerned with all Churches, government and non-government schools, government care institutions and hostels and non-profit organisations. The Australian navy is the subject already of another inquiry into child sexual abuse at HMAS Leeuwin.

Media also report historical cases as though they are recent, and refer repeatedly to the same cases. This leaves an exaggerated impression of the facts.

Given the all too often selective reporting by media, it is important for us to keep the following points in mind:

  • a small percentage of priests and religious have committed crimes against children over past decades stretching back into the last century
  • some Church leaders, reflecting the minimal understanding of the effects of pedophilia of their times, made terrible mistakes in how they dealt with these criminals
  • there has not been a systemic failure by the Church to take action against sex abuse
  • the Australian Bishops put in place regulations to prevent these crimes in 1996, as well as the Towards Healing process to help victims
  • media stories about the moving of such criminals within Australia precede 1997
  • the Church believes that any sexual abuse of children should be reported to the police
  • to serve in pastoral ministry today, anyone in contact with children voluntarily, or in a paid capacity, is required by law to have a working with children check clearance.

The other selective reporting of abuse cases, and the moving of priests, in the Church leave people with the impression that historical cases are recent. Also, the failure to report adequately on the prevention steps the Church has taken have left the impression that nothing has changed.

It is important to recognise that there has been change. Some are critical of the Church’s 1996 regulations, even though they have been the subject of independent legal reviews in 1999 – 2000 and 2008 – 2009. Constructive criticism is always welcome.

Continue to serve

Service of the poor, those in need, the sick and others has been part of the mission of the Church since Christ founded it. Countless, Catholic priests, religious and laity have served others selflessly for two thousand years.

This continues today through diocesan and parish institutions and organisations. Many volunteer their time and energy, and others contribute financially.

The number of people needing help continues to grow in our society. In Bunbury, for example, there has been an increase over the past year alone of more than 30% of people needing support.

Let no one lessen their involvement in Church work for those in need because of embarrassment as a result of the Royal Commission.

Let us support each other

Jesus said that his followers would be recognised by their love for one another [John 13:35]. Let us love and care for each other during the coming period of investigation, which no doubt will be difficult for us all at times.

Let us talk freely about whatever is reported and share our feelings. Why should any of us behave as though we have done anything wrong?

Finally, please support our priests. They have given their lives to serve people for love of Christ. It would be unfair if they were to suffer because of the crimes of a minority. Please encourage and appreciate them.

God bless you all

Most Rev Gerard J Holohan

Bishop of Bunbury

15th November 2012