Church groups welcome royal commission into child abuse

Church groups and Christian institutions around the country are in support of the royal commission into child abuse announced by the Prime Minister last night.

The announcement comes after widespread public pressure relating to allegations of child abuse within the Catholic Church were aired in the media this week. ABC’s Four Corners programs last week revealed allegations of one police detective who accused the Catholic Church of a cover-up, and suggested the church had destroyed evidence relating to child abuse cases.

Last night Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her recommendation to the Governor-General for a Royal Commission to inquire into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child abuse in Australia.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement supporting the announcement, reiterating that child abuse is a “serious issue not just for the Catholic Church but for the whole community.”

“While there were significant problems concerning some dioceses and some religious orders, talk of a systemic problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ill-founded and inconsistent with the facts,” the statement reads.

Sydney Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell supplemented the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference statement, saying:

“Public opinion remains unconvinced that the Catholic Church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse. Ongoing and at times one sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty. This is one of the reasons for my support for this Royal Commission.

“I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement. I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered. We shall co-operate fully with the Royal Commission.”

While the terms of reference for the inquiry will take some weeks to set down, the Prime Minister confirmed the Commission will be broader than the Catholic Church, extending to all religious institutions and not-for-profits dealing with children in Australia.

In a brief statement, the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia said it hoped the Commission would “provide an opportunity for healing, justice and reconciliation for all those who have suffered.” The UCA said it was committed to working openly and transparently with the Government on this issue.

In a submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations in September this year, the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania said it recognises that “child abuse has been a blight on religious organisations” and pointed to apologies made on behalf of the Uniting Church as a response to the Government’s 2004 ‘Forgotten Australians’ report, documenting the experiences of children in institutional care.

The Anglican Church of Australia General Synod, Wesley Mission and Australian Baptist Ministries (formerly Baptist Union of Australia) have also welcomed the announcement.

The Anglican Synod’s General Secretary Martin Drevikovsky said he is expecting to hear from the Government and the Anglican Church would do “whatever it can to cooperate and get the best possible outcome for victims, and to avoid these kinds of problems in the future.”

“It appears this is a necessary step from what one reads in the press on how institutions respond to allegations of sexual abuse,” said Drevikovsky. He would not comment on whether a Royal Commission was overdue.

Until 2009 Phil Gerber was the inaugural Director of Sydney Anglican Diocese’s Professional Standards Unit, set up in 2000. He says the Royal Commission is timely.

“I think for those who haven’t had a chance to tell their story, the Commission will certainly help,” says Gerber.

Gerber, who played a key role in establishing the Sydney Anglican Dioceses’ response procedures and prevention policies for allegations of abuse said the Anglican Church around Australia acted decisively to tackle the issue of child abuse within the church in 2004. He says the resignation of Governor-General Hollingsworth in 2003 after revelations he had failed to deal appropriately with sexual abuse allegations made against a church teacher during his time as Archbishop of Brisbane, scared the Anglican Church into action.

Gerber says before Archbishop Goodhew headed the Sydney Diocese in the 1990s, people “tended to panic” when abuse allegations arose. “They tended to be dealt with under ordinary disciplinary procedures, which were cumbersome and difficult to activate. And that meant often nothing much happened at all…It wasn’t dealt with very well at all. I’m not saying they were systemic failures, but certainly individual failures.”

After comprehensive procedures and processes were put in place, Gerber says several historical cases of abuse arose from people now in their 20s and 30s. “It was easier for them to come forward, and they did. But we still got fresh issues, the occasional allegation.”

Gerber says he was privileged to take part in a number of sessions with victims of abuse who met with Archbishop Peter Jensen.

“He would hear their stories, helped them pastorally. It was incredible and quite moving, the effect of having the boss of an institution hear a story and react, say sorry. They weren’t easy. People are deeply hurt. But certainly if the institution and its leaders listen and says sorry, it has a profound effect on victims in my experience.”

A spokesperson from Broken Rites, an advocacy and support group for victims of church-related sexual abuse, said the volunteer-based organisation was receiving more calls from victims since the media-spray relating to church-based abuse began several weeks ago.

“We’re able to assist people in making complaints, and point them in the right direction,” says spokesperson John McNally. Broken Rites encourages victims of abuse to contact them first. “It’s a difficult and confusing process, and we can help find what the wider approach should be.”

The group, funded by donations, has supported victims from the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church but says 90 per cent of the men and women who have contacted Broken Rites Australia have been from a Catholic background.