FOR many years, religious organisations have grappled with the need to improve the ways they deal with abusive behaviour by their own clergy. In my previous role as director of social justice in the Uniting Church during the 1990s, I worked with my colleagues to develop sexual abuse complaints procedures. In that task I gained an appreciation of just how challenging and complex this issue can be.
The inquiry announced this week into sexual abuse by clergy and community leaders provides a timely opportunity to heal historical wounds and ensure children are safer. However, unless the inquiry is informed by a deep understanding of the unique culture and doctrines of religious organisations, it may do more damage than good.
Most people are genuinely bewildered at the churches' apparent inability to confront the systemic sexual abuse of children by priests and other religious leaders. In the face of overwhelming evidence and public dismay, the churches appear paralysed and insensitive to public sentiment by insisting on ''in-house'' solutions that fail to meet the test that justice be done and be seen to be done. The reasons for this are complex and go to the very nature and theological basis of the churches.
The teachings of Christ demand a commitment to justice, but there is a strong emphasis on forgiveness and the belief that people can change if they are truly repentant. This emphasis on reconciliation rather than retribution means churches are more likely to seek conciliation in the belief and hope that people will change, rather than punishing them and also denying them an opportunity to ''sin'' again.
This means that churches have wanted to believe the best of their leaders and have given them chance after chance, with sometimes devastating consequences. In the past, some churches have avoided the legal systems of the state because they obey another moral framework and they find it almost impossible to marry the two.
The sanctity of leaders in the church is also another barrier to their capacity to confront their crimes. Ordination is a sacrament in the Christian churches; leaders are ''called'' to ministry and conferred with authority to lead their congregations in mission and service. In the past this authority was often unquestioned, which gave ordained people enormous control over the actions and attitudes of their flock. It also meant some people were afraid to question, lest they incur God's wrath. In the hands of a perverted person such power was sometimes abused, and the victims felt powerless to speak up or take action.
I think it is also important in this context to discuss attitudes to women and gay people within religious bodies. Many denominations still do not confer the same responsibility for leadership on women and gays as they do on men. For some this belies a belief that men have authority over women and that because Jesus was a man then only men can be leaders.
For priests, sexual expression with another consenting adult is forbidden. However, in the history of Christianity, priestly chastity was not initially required; celibacy came later with the belief that marriage detracted from ministry. So the sexual codes by which many clergy live are quite different from those in the rest of society and in some instances can lead to distorted behaviour.
Sexual abuse of a person by another is wrong, sexual abuse of vulnerable children is reprehensible and sexual abuse by people in positions of authority and trust are acts of complete betrayal. The law is very clear in its sanctions on sexual abuse and people who are found guilty are brought to justice, whoever they are. What the law has been unable to do is build the bridge between retributive justice and restorative justice, to enable healing to occur and at the same time ensure that perpetrators are fully held to account.
Religious organisations have sometimes failed to fully appreciate that forgiveness is not enough and justice requires repentance and reparation.
The parliamentary inquiry into how organisations have handled sexual abuse in the past has an enormous task. The assistance of some fine legal minds and some theologians will be essential if the inquiry is to break open this issue and engage the churches in reform of their practices.
Unless all parties are able to come to grips with the complexities, I fear that the victims will remain bitterly disappointed and the churches will perpetuate the very activities they know are so damaging.
Bronwyn Pike is the state MP for Melbourne and was a minister in the Bracks and Brumby governments.