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The truth deserves a commission

Date

Judy Courtin

Sex abuse by members of the Catholic clergy continues to cause pain.

Sex abuse by members of the Catholic clergy continues to cause pain. Photo: Reuters

THE reasons for a royal commission of inquiry into the Catholic Church in Victoria are multiple.

Sex crimes against children and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy are prevalent. There are possibly thousands of victims in this state. Victims were raped and tortured, some by more than one offender. When these brave and terrified children spoke up to get help, they were further punished by being threatened or beaten. They were silenced.

These crimes continue to be deliberately concealed by the church authorities. Vast numbers of documents about these crimes and the offenders are locked away in church buildings.

There is evidence of life-long harm from these crimes for the victims and their families. This harm includes: suicide; attempted suicide; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; alcohol and drug addiction; loss of education and employment opportunities; difficulties with forming relationships; a distrust of authority figures; grief, anger; breakdown of families and a destruction of people's faith. The economic and social impact of these problems is immeasurable.

If a victim wants to seek justice, there exist multiple impediments. The Catholic Church cannot be sued as it does not ''legally'' exist. The dioceses and religious orders cannot be sued as they hide behind a legitimate legal defence. The church and school authorities cannot be held liable as employers of these offenders because canon law dictates that Catholic clergy are not employees. The victim could try to sue the offender, but because child sex crimes are often not reported for decades, the offender may be dead, in a nursing home or most likely indigent, due to the vow of poverty.

Criminal law may bring justice to some, but very few - about 6 per cent of child sex matters reported to the police result in a conviction, and more than half of those are appealed. A criminal trial also causes what is known as ''secondary legal abuse''.

So the victim is left with little choice but to return to the very organisation that protected their paedophile offender. The Melbourne Response (for the Melbourne archdiocese) and Towards Healing (a national process) are comprehensively problematic and abusive for the victims. When the church is investigating its own crimes, there can be no independence.

My research findings do not rely on primary and secondary victims' accounts alone. Eminent senior counsel, barristers, solicitors and non-legal advocates, in both New South Wales and Victoria, universally report systemic problems with both church processes. Echoing the views of the above group of interviewees, one solicitor reported that almost all of his 150 victim clients felt abused by the Towards Healing process - some to the point of suffering post-traumatic stress. These findings are consistent with those for the Melbourne Response.

There have been multiple delegations and calls for an independent inquiry, including author Chrissie Foster and her husband Anthony; Mr Keon-Cohen, QC; Professor Patrick Parkinson, law professor and leading child-protection expert; the Melbourne Victims' Collective; countless other victims; Dr Vivian Waller, legal representative for victims; Labor MP Ann Barker; senior Catholic clergy; this author and many others.

Recently, the Cummins Inquiry recommended a formal investigation into the church's processes, and that ''such an investigation should possess the powers to compel the elicitation of witness evidence and of documentary and electronic evidence''.

With what is becoming a Sisyphean call to hold a royal commission of inquiry into the crimes and cover-up of the Catholic Church, the government can no longer sit on its hands. They must take off their Catholic earmuffs and do the right thing for the people of Victoria.

In relation to the known suicides of men and women who were sexually assaulted by Catholic clergy, the numbers are increasing. There are 35 names of young men who fell victim to Robert Best and Gerald Ridsdale, and my research is uncovering more clusters of premature deaths and suicides in other parishes and with different offenders.

I called on the Attorney-General to hand over the details of these deaths to the State Coroner who has the power, if she is satisfied there are new facts and circumstances, to reopen and reinvestigate these cases in a new light - a far-reaching light that shines on the multiple Catholic dioceses across this state. A primary aim of the Coroners Act is to help reduce the number of preventable deaths.

Eight or so months later, neither the Victorian government nor Victoria Police, who also hold this information, have made an application to the Coroners Court to have these tragic and premature deaths reopened.

As I make my way around Victoria and speak with victims and their families, the numbers of suicides, premature deaths and scarred and ruined lives are mounting. Their prevalence is utterly sickening. Despite these odds, though, these victims and their families display extraordinary courage, dignity and stoicism.

This is more than can be said of the faceless men of the church who hide behind legal defences in order to protect the church's assets, and scurry and scuttle to safeguard their sex offenders, in order to protect the brand name. But such cowardly acts by the powerful and wealthy men of the church will soon fail them as the ever-widening cracks in the marble facade slowly reveal the dirty and tarnished interior.

What victims and their families are telling me is compelling. When I ask them what they need for justice to be delivered they all tell me the same thing - they want the truth to be told. Such truth demands a royal commission. And nothing less than a royal commission will bring the justice that these gallant and worthy people are entitled to and so well deserve.

Judy Courtin is a lawyer and PhD candidate in the faculty of law at Monash University, conducting research into sexual assault and the Catholic Church.

jcourtin@netspace.net.au.

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