Bruised: Mari Palomares, Carmen Kapfenstein, Monsignor Tony Doherty and Barrie Lum.

Bruised: Mari Palomares, Carmen Kapfenstein, Monsignor Tony Doherty and Barrie Lum. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

As Catholics around Australia are warned to prepare themselves for shock and shame from now until Christmas, one of Sydney's biggest congregations may be better prepared than most.

It is understood hearings starting in Sydney on Monday into the church's controversial Towards Healing protocol for dealing with victims will explore some of the most harrowing stories yet before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

A group of parishioners at St Mary Magdalene church in Rose Bay have been meeting since the commission was announced a year ago to share what parish priest Monsignor Tony Doherty describes as their confusion, horror and disgust.

''The trust people put in priests, Catholic schools and parishes is deeply bruised. Lots of people say that their churches are empty,'' said Monsignor Doherty, who estimates 700 to 800 people attend his Sunday Mass and who marked 50 years as a priest in August.

About a year ago, when the NSW government inquiry into the Catholic Church in the Hunter and the royal commission were announced, he realised he could no longer think of child sex abuse in the church as a few isolated cases. He felt ''profound shame'' that something so ''absolutely heinous'' could have happened.

The group he offered to give a ''safe space'' to ''put words around their disgust'' attracted just over 30 people at its peak.

Roderick McLeod, a human services professional in his mid-40s, got involved because ''I was finding it increasingly difficult to balance these innate beliefs with what I was hearing in the press'', he said. Calling himself a Catholic became challenging ''when most people's response was, 'how could you possibly be a Catholic with what has been going on?'''

Others have sought to move into action for change, including Australia's former top public servant John Menadue, AO, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

Mr Menadue said sexual abuse within the church ''makes me feel very angry and determined that I will do what I can to change the situation''. He convened a group of 15 who wrote to the commission criticising the church's autocratic structure, its lack of accountability and ''time-warp'' culture of male clericalism. The group called for greater involvement of lay faithful in the selection and removal of priests.

Mr Menadue welcomed Pope Francis' decision this week to set up an advisory panel of experts on sexual abuse but said it was unclear to what extent it would address the problems of church structure and governance, the male clerical culture and canon law ''which in most cases precludes the reporting of abuse within the church''.

Steven Spaner, Australian co-ordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Pope needed to take stronger action.