Homily on Royal Commisson - Fr Richard Leonard SJ
The grace to be ashamed
In 2014 Pope Francis welcomed survivors of clerical child sexual abuse to the Vatican. At the end of his address to them he said, “We ask that [Jesus] look at us and that we allow ourselves to be looked upon and to weep and that he give us the grace to be ashamed.”
I had never thought of shame as a grace, a gift of the Holy Spirit, but I do now. In fact I have come to see it is one of the first graces the Spirit gives to those who want to “get it” in regard to the systematic, criminal dysfunctionality of the Catholic Church as we realise how our community harboured sexual predators and covered up their crimes.
It was not hard to be ashamed last Friday, 15 December, when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its final report. The public summary of the final report tells us that this Commission handled 41,770 phone calls, 25,774 letters and emails, held 8,013 private sessions, went for five years, heard 11,988 allegations in relation to 3,566 different institutions, has so far made 2,559 referrals to the police and other authorities, and has cost in excess of $250million.
All but two of the recommendations of the Commission have been welcomed by the Catholic Church. One major one is the introduction of uniform laws in every jurisdiction in regard to child protection, which will enshrine a National Working with Children Register and wider professional disclosure laws. Another is the establishment of an Office of Child Safety, which will independently investigate and determine accusations of and issues around abuse and assess compensation. A third recommendation welcomed by the Church is that a federal redress scheme where victims receive a maximum of $150,000 each, not as compensation but as a recognition of their incalculable suffering. With some 65,000 victims who may be eligible to apply, the Commission estimates that this scheme will cost $4.3 billion over 10 years, with religious and other private institutions required to contribute $2.4 billion.
One of the criticisms of the Royal Commission is that it unduly focused on the Catholic Church. I did not realise until last Friday that the Commission never looked at government schools, the Muslim community, or at media and entertainment organisations. That now looks very odd indeed. However, while they restate that the most common place where a child is sexually abused is, by far, the family home, the figures involving the Church point to a shocking institutional culture. There were 10,661 allegations tabled over the last five years; 4,418 of them relate to Catholic institutions. Since 1950 as many as 384 Catholic diocesan priests, 188 religious priests, 597 religious brothers and 96 religious sisters have had claims of child sexual abuse made against them.
It’s because of this reality that the Commission seems to have gone beyond its remit, recommending that the Australian bishops petition the Vatican on a score of canonical and other procedures. Not surprisingly, the two that have captured the media’s imagination are an end to the compulsory celibacy for diocesan clergy - not because it is claimed that celibacy causes abuse, but because of the clerical culture it fosters - and that the seal of confession should not apply to revelations of child sexual abuse, and that “absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.”
Most Catholics would welcome the change to mandatory celibacy for priests. The Seal is a different matter. Egregious as this particular crime is, a valid argument could be made for a host of other despicable crimes as well, rape, for example, or domestic violence. While I do not doubt that historically this Sacrament has been abused, very few people attend it now, and, the truth is, the attention it is receiving is disproportionate to the impact a change would make to the protection of children. I could imagine some extreme activists confessing this crime to see what the priest or bishop will do. Some clergy might decide to exclude themselves from hearing confessions at all. Already some (religious order) priests only do weddings, baptisms and funerals for friends and family. (I cannot find a recommendation by the Commission that disclosures of abuse made to journalists or lawyers should be included in mandatory reporting, which appears inconsistent.)
Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, has observed, “People say the Church needs to get its house back in order; but I say we have to re-build the house.” Today, like the Pope, I want to allow myself to be looked upon by Christ and simply to weep in anger, grief and shame at the abuse done to kids in our community; at how our first instinct was always institutional self-protection; and what, in every sense, survivors, first, and all of us, have lost.
Rebuilding starts tomorrow. And for that we have never needed each other more than right now.
Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the superior of the Jesuit Community, North Sydney.