The push for a royal commission, at federal or state level, or both, into child sexual abuse from within the Catholic Church may well become irresistible to politicians. One can see that by the speed with which NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell switched from opposing to ordering an inquiry. Those considering the need, and those vigorously promoting it, must decide early what they can hope to achieve before they commit themselves to an open-ended and expensive process with the potential to cause as many difficulties as it resolves. For the many victims of such abuse, the very exposure of the truth can be a very good thing, helping them on a path to healing and to reconciliation with an innocence and trust that was shattered. The exposure of perpetrators, with what follows from that, is also in the public interest. So is finding reliable information about the scale of abuse, the number of victims and of perpetrators. Probably as important is a critical review of how the church's practices and cultures responded to what appears to have been an epidemic of such abuse, particularly from the 1950s on. It is clear that some officials responded with denial, cover up, active frustration of inquiries, and, often, the removal of perpetrators from scenes of investigation to places where they might well offend again. Later, different parts of the church began to appreciate the size and enormity of the problem, and to respond with more victim-focused approaches, including modest compensation. But some of these measures are still being criticised as too defensive, and still rather more concerned with the church's reputation than with the well-being of the victims. It seems the incidence of abuse is falling, but any incidence at all is too much.
An inquiry can raise hopes that cannot possibly be realised. Unclear purpose has confounded similar inquiries into Aboriginal stolen children, Australia's institutionalised children, and the importation of waifs from England after the war. Is it about truth or justice, the moral law or the statute law? About compensation and restoration to victims whose sufferings continue? A prelude to an apology, intended to close the door, or to open new ones? About a review of the past or a plan for the future? Are the primary objects of inquiry to be bad individuals or bad institutions? Is the state a party? It often, presumably unwittingly, delivered very vulnerable children into the hands of people it ought to have known were abusers. There is a lesson here, from extensive inquiries in Ireland, about the culpable blindness or passive complicity by state officials in abuse and neglect within institutions such as orphanages. In Ireland, too, central Vatican policy said to focus on cover-up became an issue - as it happens, the present Vatican nuncio to Australia was strongly criticised for his refusal to answer questions. Will it be understood that deplorable acts in Catholic institutions are by no means a merely Catholic thing, but have their parallels in almost every other religious organisation, and in other bodies with access to children. It is no defence for Catholic officials to say that others were doing it as well, and that their church is being singled out. But if the purpose of the exercise is merely to prove a sectarian picnic, the fight against child abuse might even go backward.
The sexual abuse of children is horrible and indefensible. But the offence is aggravated when victims are particularly vulnerable children, lacking champions or people prepared to help them. It is aggravated by abuse of power, authority and trust. It is especially aggravated when those abusing the trust are supposed teachers and moral exemplars. Abuse of children has always been officially anathematised within the church and civilised society everywhere - indeed even from before the days when Jesus said that for those who offended against children, it were better that a millstone be tied around their neck and that they be drowned in the sea.
Statistics here and abroad suggest abuse has been widespread, and that, in the Catholic Church as in other bodies, about 5 per cent of those entrusted with the care of children seem to have abused that trust. Even a fraction of 1 per cent is too many, of course. But it should also be realised that the overwhelming proportion of religious, let alone teachers, youth and welfare workers, have not been perpetrators. The outrage and assistance of that number is essential if the problem is to be solved, and this will not happen if everyone is tarred with the same brush. Their organisations might well recognise now how badly they protected those in their charge, and how they could even now do better. Much as the focus must remain on the suffering of the victims, and preventing fresh crops of them, dealing with the issue is one for calm and intelligence, and not merely emotion and revulsion.