Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse case study 50 | day one

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse | day one

Catholic priest Dr Michael Whelan, who is the director of Aquinas Academy and parish priest in a Sydney diocese, has just given evidence about how he “nearly destroyed my life through idealising myself as a priest, trying to be the good priest”.


  • 4.06pm The Royal Commission has adjourned for today and will resume at 10am on Tuesday. 
  • 1.38pm The Royal Commission has resumed.

Dr Whelan has told the royal commission that “the good priest” was a “template”, and trying to be a good, but idealised priest, produced “enormous conflict between what I was discovering in myself and what I was supposed to be”.

Dr Whelan underwent therapy as part of his doctorate. He has given evidence about the tyranny of trying to live up to being an idealised person, rather than an actual human being.

“We develop conflicts and we seek consolation and we seek compensation, and generally are not able to be graceful free human beings,” Dr Whelan said.

He attended a Toongabbie seminary. He was very young and naive, but his experience was mostly a happy one.

“Mostly I was intent on becoming a priest and a Marist priest at that. It was only when I look back, there were quite intense conflicts,” he said.

He said he didn’t know why he wanted to be a Marist priest. He didn’t want to become a Jesuit because it would take too long, and “I didn’t want to become a diocesan priest because I felt they are lonely men”.

“You are presented with all these ideals, and then you are invited to use your will power to go and do it, and I think that is a very destructive way to live. I didn’t realise it at the time, I jut thought this was the way you became a priest,” Dr Whelan said.

He was sent to a Tasmanian school to teach, but hadn’t had any teaching training.

“Before I turned up in Tasmania the then principal had a meeting with me in Sydney and the only thing I remember about that meeting, apart from him saying I would be in charge of the junior school, was ‘Buy yourself an instrument of discipline’. So I went and bought myself an instrument of discipline,” Dr Whelan said.

Gail Furness: “What was it?”

Whelan: “A cane.”

Whelan said there was no mentoring.

“I just turned up with my cane and a lot of goodwill and naivety and set about probably being quite a bad disciplinarian and teacher,” Dr Whelan said.

“I say thank God I didn’t have a proclivity to misbehave.”

Furness has asked him why he said that.

Whelan: “Because the tensions that I was under and the opportunities that I had could have led me to that.”

Giving evidence on a panel with Dr Whelan is Broken Bay diocese priest Dr David Ranson.

Dr Ranson is explaining changes within the church over the past two centuries, and how they have affected both clerics and lay people.

He said the church’s view of where holiness can be found has changed over that time, with priests now understanding, and the church accepting, that holiness can be found in the outside world, and not just in cloistered communities or other structures within the church.

Dr Ranson’s evidence is about life in a monastery, where he ran the dairy farm.

He left the monastic community in 1998, then came to Sydney.

Furness has just asked Ranson why he’s come to have a particular interest in child sexual abuse in the church.

Ranson: “I received an invitation from the Jesuits to lead them in what I thought would be a once-off reflection on celibate sexuality. From 1992 to the end of the 1990s I was involved in every seminary in Australia and many of the religious houses of formation.

“I think I had the sense at the time that seminary faculties or seminary staff were turning to me because I was the only one who was offering such workshops or such seminars.”

Ranson said his seminars sought to help people reflect on their actual experience rather than on their idealised experience.

He said he taught people a way of a more positive way of imagining celibacy, rather than celibacy being the source of people living “lives of quiet despair and isolation”.

He taught them “to try to develop emotional, and what I was calling at that time, sexual literacy”.

“That is to try to assist people to listen to what they were experiencing and to try to interpret that.”

Ranson said he would present different sexual fantasies and different scenarios that represented sexual misconduct.

“What I was trying to do there was simply create all these different scenarios that were possibilities, and to try to get people to understand what were the forces, what were the factors, what were the driving features underneath this,” Ranson said.

It became apparent to me that there was no simple cause. There was no single factor. If there was a simple cause or a single factor that occasioned abuse within the church, then life would be a lot more simple.

Priest Dr Michael Ranson

He said he used to teach priests and religious that celibacy did not mean a denial of intimacy.

Furness has just asked Ranson why, in 1992, sexual misconduct was a topic that was on his mind.

It was in the early 1990s that the first cases were being revealed in public.

In 1996 the Australian Catholic bishops put out a nine-point plan in response to, what Dr Whelan has referred to, as “an avalanche of revelation” about child sexual abuse.

Ranson started writing about the subject in 1997, at the request of the Catholic Church.

He wrote: “Abuse, however private its exercise, is never personal, nor is abuse an isolated incident, whether it occurs within a family or within an institution, it occurs within a concrete social context.”

He began to write about the causes of abuse within the church.

Ranson: “It became apparent to me that there was no simple cause. There was no single factor. If there was a simple cause or a single factor that occasioned abuse within the church, then life would be a lot more simple – that factor, that cause could be addressed or eradicated. But it always struck me that the phenomenon of abuse within the church was far more complex.”

Furness has just asked Dr Ranson about God and God’s gender.

Furness: But in relation to what you have described as the patriarchal imagery of God, there is no question that those who represent God on earth are male. How then should one see the image of God in other than patriarchal terms?

Ranson: Because God is neither male nor female, and so there are many other ways of imagining God.

Ranson has just said a lot of words that defy translating here, but we are back to how the church’s patriarchal culture “translates into systems and structures of power and submission”.

An “exclusive patriarchal sense of God”, as demonstrated within the Catholic Church, translates into behaviours, including clericalism.

Ranson: “There has been, I think, within the Catholic tradition this unrealistic expectation that life is lived perfectly. This is very dangerous because it means then that people’s vulnerability and their struggle goes subterranean. In other words, it is not given the space to be acknowledged fully as itself.”

Ranson said everyone struggles with their sexuality, one way or another.

Ranson: “This is where we are most vulnerable, where people carry both hurt and hope. And so for every one of us we are on a journey into recognising how flawed we are, and yet the possibility that we carry within ourselves.”

He said the church’s views on sexuality creates difficulty, because it taught that sexuality represented shame and sin.

Justice McClellan is questioning Ranson about sexuality, and how most “normal, healthy” people will have sexual and erotic thoughts.

McClellan put to Ranson that there would be many in the community who would say that imposing celibacy on a normal healthy human being is a denial of the reality of people’s lives.

McClellan: “What is it that makes a celibate person able to maintain a healthy personality while denying what normal healthy human beings accept?”

Ranson gave a lengthy answer, but McClellan has repeated the question.

McClellan: “What is it that one allows for in that space of developing intimacy that is not sexual that enables the healthy person to not engage in sexual activity?”

Ranson has explained there are other engagements with people that allow for intimacy.

Ranson: “To enter into another’s pain with empathy, and with presence is a way of expressing intimacy.”

Ranson: “But if I try to live a life that does not have sex and at the same time does not have intimacy and does not know the ways by which intimacy can be experienced, then I’ve set myself up for disaster.” 

Ranson said the church’s lining up of the “expectation of perfection” with being asexual was “one of the distortions that has crept into the church’s understanding”.

Commissioner Murray has just asked a great question about whether there was a danger in his answer.

Murray: “If celibacy is easier as people mature in life – in other words, it is easier for old men – and the church is run by old men, and the old men in the church dictate celibacy to the younger men – doesn’t that carry on the contradiction and the difficulty that church people will feel?”

Ranson said there were examples of young and old men who had been able to balance celibacy with intimacy.

I think the church’s law of compulsory celibacy is misguided and it should not be in place.

Dr Michael Whelan

Dr Michael Whelan has just told the Royal Commission that “I think the church’s law of compulsory celibacy is misguided and it should not be in place.”

Whelan: “I think it is unjust, actually. And I think there were a lot of people who came into religious life… but they weren’t really called to celibacy and they should never have been there.”

Whelan has said that as far as he is concerned, “St Augustine has a lot to answer for”.

Augustine is one of the most influential of the church’s saints, from the first few centuries of the Catholic Church. Augustine, from memory, led quite a life, including a sexual life with women, before deciding that a sexual life with women was a bad thing. He gave sex a bad name.

Whelan has also quoted from St Thomas Aquinas who said that women were “botched males”.

Furness has just asked Whelan if he thought those views, perhaps differently expressed, are present in the church today.

Whelan: “That’s hard to say. I hope they are not as widely spread. They were standard then. I don’t think they are standard now.”

Whelan has told the Royal Commission that he believes mandatory celibacy is “a huge issues for the Catholic Church and we have to deal with it”.

Ranson said when trainee priests were asked if they would be celibate if they weren’t becoming priests, they answered now. They were condemning themselves to “leading lives of quiet desperation”.

McClellan has asked Ranson about the clerics he had contact with in the 1990s who were still in service but who admitted to conflict even then.

Ranson: “One can’t deny that there are people who are currently exercising ministry for whom this is a continuing struggle.”

Justice Coate: “And what is being done about that, to your knowledge?”

Ranson said it was spoken about much more within the church now.

Ranson: “I think although we have a long way to go yet, we are a lot further developed in terms of ongoing supervision and mentoring.”

Discussion has turned to how much supervision priests are subject to.

Dr Whelan is giving evidence about the long period of training for priests, and the “huge lack” of structures and processes.

Whelan has told the royal commission the church should get rid of seminaries.

Get rid of seminaries. Seminaries are like boarding schools and I don’t think they are healthy environments for maturation to take place.

Dr Michael Whelan.

Whelan: “Seminaries are like boarding schools and I don’t think they are healthy environments for maturation to take place. Let the would-be ordained minister live in the community.”

Whelan is giving evidence about how the Catholic Church came to think it was an empire, subject to its own rules, about 400-500 years after the death of Jesus Christ.

The church had changed from a community of pilgrims to a situation where bishops were rulers, lawmakers.

Whelan: “I think so much of the Catholic culture is empire-shaped, not pilgrim community-shaped, and it makes a huge difference.”

In that process the laity became non-entities, Whelan said.

Whelan: “Now I don’t think that’s a cause of sexual abuse, but it seems to me that it sets up a culture”, where the laity don’t count.

Accountability would require the laity to be more involved in the appointment of bishops, and more women involved at all levels of decision-making and ministry within the Catholic Church.

McClellan has just asked Whelan about priests abusing the trust of families by taking advantage of the opportunity to access children.

McClellan: “Why does the priest or religious take the opportunity?”

Whelan: “I think there are always a confluence of factors. I know one family where two members of the family became male religious. One turned out to be a terrible paedophile and the other turned out to be a fine religious, grew up in the same family, went through the same novitiate, same religious order. I don’t know how to explain that. But again, I think we look for a confluence of factors, not just one thing.”

Whelan has just told the Royal Commission that the church’s culture is a major thing.

Whelan is now asking how the church came to do a lot of awful things.

Whelan: “Why has the church repeatedly persecuted and oppressed Jews, tortured heretics, and why did it fight the brutal wars we know as the Crusades? I know nothing in the teaching of Jesus or the gospels that could in any way promote or justify that. I take that back to the empire model of church.”

Whelan will be 70 in a few months and has been a priest for 45 years.

Whelan: “When I think about what might come out of the commission and I think of the changed rules and regulations and policies and procedures, manuals and guidelines, that we’ve already got in place, actually, and the lovely handbooks about formation – I don’t trust it.”

If the church doesn't change the cultural issue – “If we still go on thinking of ourselves in terms of empire” – and change the focus to people and relationships, then “none of those guidelines or rules are going to make a whole lot of difference”, Whelan said.

Ranson said the figures revealed by the Royal Commission showed the very wide range of differences in offending rates between dioceses, and between dioceses and some orders.

It was incumbent on each church community to ask itself why abuse had occurred in its community, Dr Ranson said.

Ranson: “It’s not until every single community within the church asks that hard question for itself that change will actually occur.”

Gail Furness has just asked Whelan and Ranson whether the changes they are talking about can happen without recourse to the Vatican.

Whelan: “I would like to see much more leadership on this question. Pope Francis is trying to do that, and it is very significant the amount of push-back he is getting. So it is not just a matter of the Vatican or the leadership. He is getting push-back from within the curia.”

McClellan: “Some of the things we’re talking about, of course, the way the church structures and organises and manages its affairs. There will be some in the Catholic community who will say: ‘That’s no business for the Royal Commission’.”

Church: The Catholic Church has much to change.

Church: The Catholic Church has much to change.

Whelan: “It is.”

McClellan: “Tell us why you say it is.”

Whelan: “We are part of the world. We engage with the world. We want to contribute to the world and the world has ever right to challenge us. And I welcome – I think of the role of the Royal Commission in prophetic terms, to be perfectly honest.”

McClellan: “Dr Ranson?”

Ranson: “The church stands before the commission to learn. Part of the clerical mindset is that it doesn’t have anything to learn from outside of itself, and so the church must engage in a conversation such as to learn from the commission, and to not would be just disastrous.”

Ranson: “The church must have the humility to say ‘Teach us what we need to learn’.”

Ranson: “My own thinking is that the commission needs to be a catalyst for a continuing inquiry within the church of Australia itself. So we should never think that it’s all over when the commission has finished its deliberations. That’s for us I think, the very beginning.”

Ranson said the church needed its own inquiry “because it’s only through the process of sustained systemic conversation at every level and through every community that constitutes the identity of the church that it becomes aware that things need to change, and where and how. And then I think there is an ownership of the change”.

Whelan has just told a story about an American bishop who had a brief affair with a man, and the affair was later revealed in the media. Whelan said the bishop was advised by a more senior Catholic cleric that “Of course, you will deny it.”

Whelan: “That is a culture which I do not understand. It’s abominable.”

The church must have the humility to say ‘Teach us what we need to learn'.

Dr David Ranson, parish priest and theologian.

Furness has just asked Whelan what you do when you get “a bad bishop”?

Whelan: “You live around them, really. It is a test of endurance. I’m thinking of – mmm. Yes.”

Furness: “You are thinking of someone you know or knew?”

Whelan: “No, I don’t wish to take that any further.”

McClellan is asking the two priests, Dr Whelan and Dr Ranson, if the Catholic Church in Australia has committed leaders who are prepared to drive change.

Whelan: “I know a number of the bishops and they are fine men, and individually they will talk much as I’ve been talking. But again, it’s this silo effect: this diocese, that diocese. I wonder how many of our bishops have supervision – what we were talking about earlier on for clergy, I think ought to apply.”

Ranson said he was “not convinced that we as a church through our leadership have admitted the problem”.

Ranson: “We know that there are complaints, we have sought to deal with those complaints, but we have not as a church stood and said what needs to change within ourselves. Because apology is not enough, and I think people are tired of hearing apologies. The test of this, I think, will be to the extent that we as a church can stand in front of those who have been abused in such horrific ways and say to them, ‘You become our teachers. You teach us through your pain what we need to do’. Unless we have that humility to go to those who have been abused and learn from them and allow them to indicate to us what must change, then we haven’t admitted the extent of the problem.”

David Ranson has told the Royal Commission that the Australian Catholic bishops have proposed to Rome a plenary in 2020 for the whole church of Australia.

Ranson: “This will be for the church in Australia the test of its commitment or otherwise, because whether or not the voice of those who have been abused and who have been hurt so tragically is included and represented.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald: “Is it not true that the church has not itself embraced transparency in any meaningful way, both in terms of the problem or, in fact, to its own people. I mean is there an example of a diocese that has actually published data, information, about sexual abuse within the diocese, how it was handled and the outcomes of it? And isn’t it the case that in many of the issues that we’re talking about, the failure to allow both its own people and the world at large to look in, to be engaged in a conversation which starts with an articulation of what the issues are is still a major issue for the Catholic Church in Australia, that it talks a language, but when you actually look at it there is almost no transparency in relation to the fundamental issues that we have been talking about, other than those that have been exposed by external agencies such as the Royal Commission.”

Dr Whelan agreed, saying “If it hadn’t been for the courage of victims and the persistence of the courts, the journalists who brought this commission into being. We would have done something to tidy it up but we would not have gotten to the truth of it.”

Fitzgerald: “If that is so, what is it that the church is so fearful of about transparency in a world in which other organisations, agencies and some governments, where transparency is the essential ingredient, the first starting point for genuine change. What is it that the Australian church so fears by telling both the world and indeed its own congregation of members about its internal workings, both problems and in fact the solutions or the actions to it?”

Whelan: “I’m tempted to say loss of power and I think that is a factor. There would be ‘What is going to happen if we do this? What will they think of us. Where will it all lead to’?”

Commissioner Murray is questioning the two priests about the church’s culture of concealment and secrecy.

Murray: “You have to assume that that is a top-down culture or instruction or attitude?”

Murray has put that the only way to change the culture is from the top.

Whelan has just expressed sadness about the attitude that is taught to priests after eight years of the seminary.

Whelan: “When you have done eight years in the seminary you don’t need to know anything more. You have the grace of state. You can do anything you are asked to do. It is arrogantly, sadly, untrue.” 

11.37am The Royal Commission resumes.

Gail Furness has quoted Pope Pius X who said in 1906 that the church was “an unequal society”.

She is now talking about the structure of the church, and some of the issues identified as contributing to the child sexual abuse crisis.

She is now talking about clericalism, referring to “superiors of men”: “Clericalism is the conscious or unconscious concern to promote the particular interests of the clergy and to protect the privilege and power that traditionally has been conceded to those in the clerical state. Among its chief manifestations are an authoritarian style of ministerial leadership, a rigidly hierarchical world view and a virtual identification of the holiness and grace of the church with the clerical state and thereby with the cleric himself.”

We will hear evidence about the church’s “fear of an obsession with sex in the Catholic Church”.

We will hear evidence from Archbishop Mark Coleridge who said celibacy was not in itself a factor, but “its discipline may have been attractive to men in whom there were paedophile tendencies which may have not been recognised by themselves when they entered the seminary”.

Dr Marie Keenan will give a contrary view.

Psychologist Dr Michelle Mulvihill will give evidence that the church’s hierarchical organisation “demands total obedience” which contributes to the development of child sexual abuse.

“Some will give evidence about the partriarchal image of God and the absence of women in decision making in the church. Most witnesses will give evidence that the structure of the church, including the autonomy of bishops and the lack of accountability of that office, as a contributing factor.”

Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone believes the “dysfunctional governance, which he describes as autocratic, male dominated and clericalist” is a key causal factor in relation to child sexual abuse in the church.

Furness said the current leadership of the church will give evidence. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who was Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn in 2010, published a letter on sexual abuse of the young in the church. The archbishop is a member of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

“The council has submitted that there is no direct causal relationship (that) has been established between the obligation to live a celibate life and the inclination to sexually abuse a child,” Furness said.

Furness is about to read part of Dr Marie Keenan’s precis. Dr Keenan is now not giving evidence.

“This section I call the theology of sexuality, which includes mandatory celibacy as it contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions,” Dr Keenan said in her precis.

“Attempts to control sexual desire and sexual activity, in my view, led to sex-obsessed lives of terror in which the body was disavowed, sexual desire was a problem to be overcome and the moral superiority of vowed virginity was presumed.

“The clerical perpetrators in my research could not openly acknowledge the reality of their sexual lives and losses even long before they began to abuse boys and girls.

Attempts to control sexual desire and sexual activity, in my view, led to sex-obsessed lives of terror in which the body was disavowed, sexual desire was a problem to be overcome and the moral superiority of vowed virginity was presumed.

Dr Marie Keenan on Catholic clerical child sex offenders.

“The assumption is that the sexual abuse of a child by Catholic clergy is the result of individual pathology or predisposition, a theory that is favoured by some men in leadership in the church.

“The response often suggests the need for better screening for clergy at the point of entry in order to pick up individuals with a disordered psychological state.

“While it might be important for a lot of reasons, the assumption that it will pick up those men who might come to be accused of the sexual abuse of children is not borne out by available research and clinical experience.

“It is unlikely that clerical and religious men who have sexually abused minors have specifically chosen a profession in the Catholic Church so that they could gain access to children to abuse.”

Anger and overcontrolled hostility was reported as part of the profile of clerical men who have sexually abused minors, Dr Keenan said.

The anger could have come from “a lifetime of submission and attempts at living a life that was impossible to live”.

“My research suggests that the practices of obedience and the absence of personal autonomy in clerical and religious life must be considered significant in the sexual offending of Roman Catholic clergy,” Dr Keenan said.

Dr Keenan has reported an “important finding” that distinguishes Catholic Church offenders and other child sex offenders.

“Several studies have reported that clergy who have sexually abused minors may have experienced sexual abuse themselves in childhood, sometimes by another priest or religious,” Dr Keenan said.

“This is an important finding, and although sexual abuse in childhood can never be accepted as an excuse for sexual offending in adulthood, and many people who experience childhood sexual abuse never abuse anyone, it is important that many clergy who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood had never discussed these experiences until they were in treatment for sexual offending.

“A history of childhood sexual victimisation was found to be one of the strongest predictive variables for clerical men to become repeat offenders. This is an important observation as there is not overall support for this finding in the general literature on other child sexual offenders. Priests and religious who have experienced childhood sexual abuse … were seen as particularly at risk for subsequent sexual offending against minors.”

Dr Keenan found that a lot of priests and religious “constructed their priestly or religious vocation on fear – fear of breaking their celibate commitment and fear of displeasing others, particularly those in authority”.

The priests and religious in Dr Keenan’s study “believed that these problems were compounded by their experiences of seminary life and during their time in formation”.

“In order to understand clerical men who have sexually abused minors, one can come to no other conclusion but that their sexual offending must be understood within the unique context of their lives and ministries as roman Catholic ministers within the church,” Dr Keenan said.

Gail Furness is reading Dr Keenan’s precis of evidence she had planned to give, until she unexpectedly said she would not.

Dr Keenan has raised some real problems for the church and its view, held until very recently, that the child sexual abuse crisis was the result of “a few bad apples”.

The evidence points to an interrelationship between individuals with psychological problems and a church structure, hierarchy, culture and governance that supported and protected them.

“What is important here is the interrelationship between the forces of sexuality, power and power relations, governance structures and clerical structure and their enabling and constraining powers and potentialities on the lives of those men who became the clergy perpetrators,” Dr Keenan said.

“Whilst many within the leadership of the Catholic Church prefer to operate outside of conscious awareness of this fact and prefer to think in terms of individual pathology rather than systemic breakdown, the evidence seems to point otherwise.

Shocking: The Royal Commission has heard staggering figures of crime within the Catholic Church.

Shocking: The Royal Commission has heard staggering figures of crime within the Catholic Church.

“In addition, the church and social culture that prefers to focus blame on individuals, those men who have abused minors and those church leaders who are seen to have failed in their duties in the handling of abuse complaints, may do well to think again and keep the institutional dimensions of the problem in focus, as well as the manner in which the problem is currently constructed in popular discourse.”

Dr Keenan said she was not arguing that individual offenders in the church were not responsible for their actions, “but it is to point to the fact that in trying to understand the problem, and presumably seek solutions, an approach that merely focuses on the individuals who have been named and shamed is to fail in a way that is regrettable.”

Dr Keenan ended her precis with a strong argument for the “institutional” factors associated with the abuse crisis.

11.08am The Royal Commission has adjourned for the morning tea break and will resume in 20 minutes or so when Gail Furness will outline what will happen at the commission in the next few days. This hearing will run for three weeks.

10.50am A statement by Francis Sullivan on behalf of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council is being read.

“The stark reality is that the Catholic Church should never have put itself in a position that sees it at the very centre and major focus of an inquiry such as this,” Sullivan said.

Wept: The Australian Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council spokesman Francis Sullivan pictured after a public hearing into Maitland-Newcastle diocese in 2016. Mr Sullivan wept while giving evidence at a Catholic Royal Commission hearing on Monday.

Wept: The Australian Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council spokesman Francis Sullivan pictured after a public hearing into Maitland-Newcastle diocese in 2016. Mr Sullivan wept while giving evidence at a Catholic Royal Commission hearing on Monday.

“The church’s teaching about the sacred place of children and about the severity with which any offending against that teaching should be met is both famous and fundamental. So for even one child to have been sexually abused by a Catholic priest or religious is appalling to all faithful Catholics, as it is to all within our community.

“The hypocrisy involved in these historic failures is grossly unbefitting a church which seeks to be, and should be, held to its own high standard.”

Sullivan is crying. He has just started crying while reading out that between 1950 and 2010, some 1265 Catholic priests and religious were the subject of a child sexual abuse claim.

“These numbers are shocking. They are tragic and they are indefensible. The data is an indictment on the priests and religious who abused these children. It also reflects on the church leaders who at times failed to take steps to deal with the abusers, failed to call them to order and failed to deal with them in accordance with the law.”

“As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame.”

As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame.

Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council spokesman Francis Sullivan.

Catholics had been profoundly shaken, “to the point of disgust”, Sullivan said.

“However, it is important to understand that today’s church is significantly different from the one that has been the focus of most of the commission’s case studies over the past four years. Once the role of priests and religious was dominant in the life of the church. In the modern era, at both governance and operational levels, the organisations that run the education, health and social services of the church are predominantly lay led.

“This has brought a broader and more sophisticated and professional approach to management. Today, due to the declining and ageing numbers in religious and priestly life, the culture and participation of laypeople in key roles has changed the face of the church.”

Sullivan is telling the commission about a “new independent body to set standards within the church for child safety”.

“Catholic Professional Standards Limited will audit and report on the compliance by bishops and religious leaders. Its board is made up of lay people.”

Sullivan said the audit reports from bishops about their dioceses would be made public.

“In this way the leaders will be made accountable,” he said.

The church is revisiting old compensation claims and payments.

Sullivan said dioceses and religious orders had introduced many new child protection policies and procedures.

“They have improved their processes, taken on new staff, adopted better practices and principles and built new child safe guarding systems in an effort to embed a culture of child protection at all levels,” Sullivan said.

During her opening statement Gail Furness referred to communication between the commission and the Truth Justice and Healing Council about how the commission might refer to child sexual abuse allegations and the numbers involved.

“The term ‘alleged perpetrator’ is used to describe a person subject to an allegation, complaint or claim related to child sexual abuse. The Truth Justice and Healing Council told the Royal Commission that it was of the view that the term ‘named individual’ should be used. In the Royal Commission’s view, ‘alleged perpetrator’ more accurately describes a person who has been the subject of a claim of child sexual abuse,” Furness said.

10.03am The Royal Commission hearing has started. Justice Peter McClellan is presiding, with counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Gail Furness, making her opening remarks which are expected to take 90 minutes.

We are expecting her to provide us with shocking figures about the extent of child sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic Church going back to 1950.

Shocking: Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Gail Furness.

Shocking: Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Gail Furness.

So far, since 2013, the Royal Commission has conducted public hearings involving 116 institutions, ranging from churches to schools, sporting organisations, government departments and welfare groups.

Furness said it was “plain” the commission needed to examine “faith-based institutions” given that 60 per cent of survivors reported abuse in church-based organisations. Of those, nearly two-thirds were complaints relating to the Catholic Church. More than 37 per cent of all private sessions were about the Catholic Church.

The Royal Commission has held more than 6000 private sessions.

Furness said the Royal Commission had undertaken a “comprehensive data survey” of Catholic Church authorities in Australia to establish the extent of child sexual abuse in the church.

“This includes claims made against any current or former priest, religious brother or sister, or any other person employed in or appointed to a voluntary position by a Catholic Church authority,” Furness said.

Between January 1980 and February 2015, 4444 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse to 93 Catholic Church authorities. These claims related to more than 1000 institutions.

The average age when children were allegedly abused was 10.5 years old for girls, 11.6 years old for boys. The average time between the alleged abuse and the date a claim was made was 33 years, which is significantly longer than the average time between abuse and claim in the Anglican Church, according to the church’s 2009 national report on abuse.

A total of 1880 alleged perpetrators were identified in claims of abuse. Another 500 unknown people were identified as alleged perpetrators.

Of the 1880 alleged perpetrators 32 per cent were religious brothers, 30 per cent were priests, 29 per cent were lay people.

Furness has told the Royal Commission that a staggering 40 per cent of members of the St John of God order, which ran a facility at Morisset for troubled boys, had child sex allegations against them.

Maitland-Newcastle diocese does not appear in the top five dioceses with the highest overall proportion of priests with child sex allegations against them. The highest proportion of offenders were in the dioceses of Sale (15.1 per cent), Sandhurst (14.7), Port Pirie (14.1), Lismore (13.9) and Wollongong (11.7).

Furness has told the Royal Commission of problems with the Vatican in relation to obtaining information about allegations made involving both individual offenders and in total. The commission sought information in April 2014 relating to each case involving an Australian priest.

“This request was made to assist the Commissioners in developing an understanding about the extent to which Australian priests accused of child sexual abuse had been referred to the Holy See and, in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Furness said.

“The Royal Commission hoped to gain an understanding of the action taken in each case. The Holy See responded, on 1 July 2014, that it was ‘neither possible nor appropriate to provide the information requested’. The Holy See said it would respond ‘in the future to appropriate and specific requests’.”

Furness is talking about Maitland-Newcastle.

“This is another diocese where numbers of priests and religious have been convicted for atrocities against children. Survivors and advocates have long agitated for an inquiry into that diocese. The findings of the Royal Commission in that case study have not yet been published.”

Accounts in all public hearings involving the Catholic Church were “depressingly similar”, Furness has told the Royal Commission.

“Children were ignored, or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept, or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed, as did cover-ups. Priests and religious were not properly dealt with, and outcomes were often not representative of their crimes. Many children suffered and continue, as adults, to suffer from their experiences in some Catholic institutions.”

Children were ignored, or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept, or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed, as did cover-ups.

Counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness

Furness is now referring to the similarity between the findings of the Australian Royal Commission and those of the Irish report of the commission of investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, published in 2009. It found that the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal and the protection of the reputation of the church and its assets took priority over the rights of children to be protected.

The Royal Commission looked at the Catholic Church Insurance and its operations.

In 2015 the commission required CCI to produce all documents where it had determined prior knowledge on the part of a Catholic Church authority of its abusers.

“The term prior knowledge was based on the definition used by Catholic Church Insurance in its investigations, which referred to knowledge held by a senior official of the relevant church authority,” Furness said.

“The Royal Commission received over 128,000 documents from Catholic Church Insurance.”

Furness said the Royal Commission had made 309 referrals to police in all states and the ACT in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse involving Catholic Church institutions. As a result there have been 27 prosecutions, and another 75 still being investigated. The victim or accused has died in 37 cases and 66 matters are pending.

The Royal Commission received more than 80 submissions in response to an issues paper before the final hearing.

“The Catholic Church’s structure and governance, including the role of the Vatican and issues related to the individual leadership of Catholic institutions featured heavily in the submissions as a factor that may have contributed to the occurrence of the abuse and certainly to the institutional response to it,” Furness said.

“The issues of a rigid hierarchy based on obedience to bishops and to the Pope, and lack of accountability to the faithful emerged as themes. The lack of women in positions of leadership was identified by many as a relevant factor.”

Furness has told the Royal Commission of a number of prominent Catholics, from overseas, who were asked to give evidence, or originally indicated they would give evidence at this hearing, but declined.

Justice McClellan invited two senior members of Pope Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal O’Malley and Professor Sheila Baroness Hollins, to give evidence by video link at the hearing. Each declined to give oral evidence, and preferred to rely on a submission prepared by Baroness Hollins on the work of the Pope’s commission, and her opinion on factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of, or affected the response to, child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions.

In October the commission spoke with the United States’ executive director secretariat of child and youth protection, Deacon Bernard Nojadera. He was later invited to give evidence and accepted that invitation.

Deacon Nojadera informed the commission on January 25 that he was no longer able to participate in the hearing. He declined the commission’s offer to have him give evidence by video link and declined to provide a signed statement.

On July 27 Dr Marie Keenan was invited to give evidence at the hearing. She has conducted and reported on her research into issues related to child sexual abuse within the church. She accepted the invitation and confirmed her willingness to appear and give evidence by video link, Furness said.

On January 31 she provided a precis of the evidence she would give to the commission hearing.

“On 2 February Dr Keenan advised that she did not believe that the forum of the Royal Commission is the correct one to do justice adequately to the research she has done and to all parties involved,” Furness said.

Furness said she would read sections of Dr Keenan’s precis to the hearing today.

A member of the Jesuit order, Dr Gerry O’Hanlon, will give evidence by video link from Dublin on Wednesday night.


Good morning. It’s Joanne McCarthy back at the Royal Commission in Sydney, and the first day of the commission’s 50th public hearing, which is also the final hearing into the Catholic Church. The commission has conducted 15 public hearings into the Catholic Church so far, ranging from inquiries into individual dioceses like Maitland-Newcastle, and orders including the Marist and Christian Brothers. This hearing is almost a who’s who of the Catholic Church in Australia, with some notable exceptions, including the former head of Sydney Archdiocese, Cardinal George Pell. This hearing has more than 60 witnesses, and will look at issues within the church that may have contributed to a disproportionate number of its clergy becoming offenders. It will look at canon law, celibacy, clericalism, governance within the church and its current practises relating to how it responds to child sex allegations.   

To read more about the hearings into the Newcastle Anglican diocese, check the video and links below. 

This story Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse | day one first appeared on Newcastle Herald.