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Catholic Church fails to confront tragedy of 'epic proportions'

The Catholic Church has failed to fully accept the horrific impact of child sexual abuse and its own role in a tragedy of “epic proportions”, a member of the royal commission has said.

In a surprisingly frank speech, Robert Fitzgerald - one of the six commissioners that oversaw the recently completed, five year inquiry - has slammed the church’s approach to abuse survivors, and its failure to tackle practices that contributed to the scourge of abuse and the secrecy around it.

Speaking at a Catholic Social Services Conference in Melbourne late last month, Mr Fitzgerald highlighted the ‘’disease’’ of ‘clericalism’ - the belief that the church’s male-only clergy are mystical beings, accountable to the Pope and to God, not to civil society or church laity.

Mr Fitzgerald, a practising Catholic, described the leadership of the church as "arrogant’’:

"A church that placed its own reputation above the interests of those victims and survivors and did so knowingly and willingly in a way that would cause further harm to those victims.’’

The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, delivered last December, made 400 recommendations to secular and religious institutions.


But already the Catholic church has rejected any changes to celibacy or to the seal of confession.

Archbishop Denis Hart said even if a priest admitted to acts of child abuse during confession, the seal was ‘’inviolable’’. Instead he would encourage the abuser to admit their crimes outside confession.

Mr Fitzgerald, in his speech, described a church divided between those that accepted the evidence of abuse and the need for reform - including a greater role for women - and those conservative Catholics who were "yet to fully understand what has just occurred’’.

He said the church was the only institution he’d ever known to have the answers to such major problems "but refuse in fact to look to those answers, look to those solutions’’.

The scale of abuse recorded by the royal commission across all institutions, secular and religious, was immense, affecting countless, tens of thousands of abused children, most of whom were now adults.

But such abuse was particularly prevalent in Catholic institutions. Nearly 62 per cent of all people who notified the royal commission of abuse in a religious setting were abused in a Catholic institution.

‘’For the church itself it is a greater tragedy; it is a tragedy of epic proportions. Those who believed that this would be something small … have (been) proven to be wrong,’’ Mr Fitzgerald said.

‘’The church must now accept the evidence … the evidence is the church has been found wanting.’’

Mr Fitzgerald said a ‘’confluence of factors’’ had contributed to high levels of abuse in the church, including celibacy, inappropriate teaching of sexual and human development, a lack of women’s voices and a lack of understanding about governance.

A recent six-month investigation by The Age, found the church misled the royal commission by grossly under-valuing its property portfolio while claiming that increased payments to abuse survivors would likely require cuts to its social programs.

Figures extrapolated from a huge volume of Victorian council valuation data obtained by The Age found the church has more than $30 billion in property and other assets, Australia-wide.

Religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, are exempt from reporting financial information to government regulators.

Mr Fitzgerald said the church needed to decide if it was ‘’going to be a church of the gospel or a church of the Roman empire"?

‘’A church that will govern others, or with us’’.

Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan this week conceded the church had made serious mistakes. The council was set up in response to the royal commission to represent the interests of the church.

Speaking at a Senate hearing into a national redress scheme for survivors of abuse - in both secular and religious institutions - he said the church was not denying the extent of the abuse.

‘’There is no question that history is riddled with the movement of perpetrators, with the concealment of their activities, with the blatant secrecy and with that culture in the church. Who's arguing that? Not me.’'

Mr Sullivan said the national scheme needed to be based on ‘’procedural fairness’’ and questioned the proposal for reasonable likelihood to be the test of abuse, not the balance of probabilities.

On Friday, the Victorian and NSW governments said they would sign up to the national redress scheme that will have compensation payments capped at $150,000, not the $200,000 recommended by the royal commission.

Major churches are being asked to opt into the scheme.

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