The Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse has completed its first week of public hearings in Ballarat. They have been heartbreaking, harrowing and revealing. The hearings are focusing on the Catholic Church’s responses to allegations of child sexual abuse and the impacts on the survivors, their families and the broader Ballarat community. The commission’s brief is vast.
The evidence from 17 survivors, as well as testimony from the mother of a young man who committed suicide following sex crimes by a Catholic priest, has exhibited a period of time in the 1970s and beyond in Ballarat that is memorialised as evil. Witness after witness painfully described the brutal bashings and sex crimes they experienced as young boys by trusted and respected Catholic clergymen.
Most of these children were raped by up to three paedophiles. These children were wittingly shared around by a bunch of depraved criminals. But more was to come – when these children tried to tell of their horrors, they were not believed and were severely punished for speaking so reprehensively about God’s holy representatives on earth.
Other evidence at the inquiry repeated earlier allegations that Cardinal Pell knew about what was happening in Ballarat, but did nothing to stop it. Pell was also accused of attempting to bribe one of the victims who had confided in him. According to this victim, Pell was considered a close family friend and a person of integrity in whom he could trust.
Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott seemingly supported Pell by saying that Pell had already dealt with these allegations in an overnight public statement that had been released from the Vatican. In that statement, Pell said he did not bribe a victim, did not ignore complaints, and was not involved in transferring a known paedophile.
The highly injurious and insidious impacts of the original clergy sex crimes continue to this day and they are intergenerational – victims’ parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family, wives, husbands, partners, children and grandchildren are often gravely affected.
But the sources of the harmful impacts on victims and their families extend well beyond the original sex crimes.
First, the church’s response damages victims
I have just completed my doctoral thesis into sexual assault and the Catholic Church – in particular, whether victims are finding justice. As this research has found, the Church’s official processes, the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing, cause trauma to most victims attending these processes, that is additional to that of the initial abuse. For most, the truth of the sex crimes and its impacts are minimised and the truth about the offender is concealed. What are heralded as pastoral processes are mostly highly legalistic in which legal representation for the victim is disapproved of and discouraged.
Second, suicides and premature deaths continue
It is reported that there have been at least 45 clergy sex abuse related suicides and premature deaths in a five-year cohort of children in the Ballarat region. Ten additional suicides have been reported in the last 12 months. One witness at the Royal Commission said that about a third of his grade 4 classmates at St Alipius primary school had committed suicide.
Third, the Church’s hierarchy is protected
There has not been one conviction in Australia for the crime of concealing clergy sex crimes. Such a lack of criminal accountability, or impunity, is highly injurious to the thousands of victims and their families. As my study found, impunity is also enjoyed by more than 80 percent of alleged clergy sex offenders who have evaded criminal accountability. Delay in reporting the offences, the old age or death of the offenders and/or the fleeing of offenders to other jurisdictions have all contributed to such low conviction rates.
Fourth, the Church is immune from suit
Despite assurances to the contrary, the use of the Ellis defence continues. The only legal entity for the church that can be sued is a property trust, the trustees of which cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of the offending priests. Victims do not have access to the civil courts and instead have had little choice but to return to the very church that protected their offenders. Based on my research, these hostile and legalistic processes deliver very little. Victims feel silenced by these processes and are forced to sign a deed of release preventing them from ever suing the church or any of its clergy.
Finally, the Federal Government refuses to manage a redress scheme
In January, the Royal Commission recommended that a national redress scheme for victims of institutional child abuse be established and that it be run by the Federal Government. The institutions where the crimes occurred would pay for the scheme except where the Federal Government would be a “funder of last resort” for those whose institution doesn’t exist anymore.
The Federal Government bluntly rejected this broadly researched and well-thought-out recommendation, saying such a scheme would be too time-consuming, too complex and too costly. Coincidentally, the week before this flagrant Government announcement, Cardinal Pell was visiting Australia from Rome.
This rebuff by the Abbott Government means that if the estimated 65,000 survivors of child sex crimes in this country wanted compensation, they would need to go back again to fight the institution where the crimes occurred – a severely retrograde step. Victims would need to rely on the very internal complaints processes of the Church that helped trigger the Royal Commission in the first place.
The harmful impacts on clergy sex abuse victims and their families are multidimensional in their source and compounding in their nature. The Abbott Government is blatantly refusing to implement a critical pathway to justice. It smacks of interference with the work of the Royal Commission and also delivers the final kick in the guts to victims and their families.
Judy Courtin is a lawyer and doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Law, Monash University. She is examining sexual assault and the Catholic Church – in particular, whether victims are finding justice.
This article first appeared in The Drum.