ACT News


Weight of responsibility in church council role

It may be in the churches of south Canberra or on a bike cycling the backblocks of the ACT that Francis Sullivan draws strength for what he knows will be a torrid time ahead.

The seasoned Canberra lobbyist has been appointed chief executive officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, a role within the Catholic Church ''managing the issues and ramifications'' of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Former NSW Supreme Court judge Barry O'Keefe, QC, has been appointed chairman of the council.

Mr Sullivan says it will be the most difficult position of his career but one he takes on willingly to ensure the Catholic Church listens and responds to stories of abuse - and tries to prove that things have changed.

''I've said quite openly as a Catholic I'm very disillusioned with the whole thing and I think it's been a scandal,'' he said, of child abuse within the church. ''People don't expect church people to be engaged in this type of behaviour and there has been a history where there has been a cover-up, and that has also been scandalous.''

Mr Sullivan, 56, resigned as secretary-general of the Australian Medical Association to take up the role, one he was sought out for by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

''I took a good week to say yes,'' he said. ''Both my wife and I spent a good deal of time talking and praying about it, because this is a terribly weighty responsibility and I took it seriously.''


Before joining the AMA, Mr Sullivan spent 14 years as the chief executive officer of Catholic Health Australia, speaking for hospitals and aged care services across Australia.

Mr Sullivan says the church's council will ''embrace'' the royal commission, which he sees as an

opportunity to ''clear the air and let the truth come out''. The council's role was not to circumvent any of the commission's processes or even ensure that it did not focus too much on the Catholic Church rather than other institutions accused of child abuse. The council wanted to ensure the church's handling of sexual abuse was ''more transparent, open and compassionate''.

The council will have an office in Canberra, doing procedural work such as sourcing documents for the royal commission and ultimately coming up with its own set of recommendations.

''The royal commission will call for anything it wants and we're open and fully co-operative,'' Mr Sullivan said.

''We'll also try to explain to people the processes that have been undertaken and need to be undertaken so people can realise what's the intentions are - that they're based on the wellbeing of the individuals concerned and there isn't a conspiracy to avoid the truth or avoid responsibility.''

The terms of reference for the royal commission have yet to be released. Mr Sullivan said he did not know if it would result in prosecutions or pay-outs. The council wanted to help bring ''the people who have been damaged in many ways back into the centre stage … and demonstrate that churches are about healing, they're not about division. I think a modern contemporary Catholic thinks that way,'' he said.

Originally from Perth where he was a teacher and later adviser to Labor health minister Keith Wilson, Mr Sullivan has been in Canberra for almost 20 years. He and his wife Susan, a senior executive for Catholic Health Australia, have three children. They belong to the Cathedral parish based around south Canberra and attend church regularly.

Mr Sullivan said his disillusionment with what had gone on in the church was not great enough for him to leave it: ''I haven't contemplated leaving the church. That is probably why I'm doing this. I think you've sort of got to roll the sleeves up when you get an opportunity.

''It's all very fine to be grumpy and spit the dummy, but I wasn't going to do that,'' he said.

When things get tough, he may let off some steam cycling with Team Pill, a collection of professionals including lawyers, dentists, doctors and accountants who ride together in Lycra outfits adorned with pills. And he is under no illusion things will get tough.

''I think it's going to be a very hard time because central to any healing is really listening and to listen you've got to open your heart. So I do take this on with a fair bit of trepidation. It will be the hardest thing I've done in my career, clearly,'' he said.