Royal Commission has been a major crisis for the Catholic church leadership
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Royal Commission has been a major crisis for the Catholic church leadership

In a recent interview Francis Sullivan, chief executive of the Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council, claimed that the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was "two years too long and 20 years too late." Too long because in the end it suffered from both media and church fatigue; too late because many of the culprits were "either dead or demented".

With the tabling of the final report in December, the question remains just what impact the work of the commission in uncovering high levels of clergy sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up has had on Catholics, particularly those "in the pews". Has their trust in their bishops and priests been eroded and do they think the church is now responding adequately to the crisis the commission has identified?

Some 12 months ago the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) conducted its five-yearly survey of church life in Australia and included a number of questions directly asking church attendees and their leaders on the impact of the commission's work. The NCLS also commissioned the 2016 Australian Community Survey (ACS) conducted by an independent research panel provider. The figures for the NCLS indicate that, broadly speaking, churchgoing Catholics are polarised when assessing the impact of the commission on their trust in the church.

When asked whether "cases of sexual abuse by clergy have damaged my confidence in church authorities", 48 per cent of churchgoing Catholics agreed or strongly agreed, while 34 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Keeping in mind here that for Catholics "church authorities" means bishops and perhaps senior diocesan officials, this is a serious erosion of trust in the hierarchical leadership of the church. Figures from the ACS confirm this trend, with 59 per cent of Catholics more generally having diminished confidence in their bishops. Worryingly for the church, the NCLS figures are higher in those older age brackets (50+) who make up the majority of churchgoers.

 Australian Cardinal George Pell, right, arrives at the Quirinale holtel in Rome in 2016 to testify to the Royal Commission.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, right, arrives at the Quirinale holtel in Rome in 2016 to testify to the Royal Commission.

Photo: RICCARDO DE LUCA
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On the other hand churchgoing Catholics remain relatively kind in their judgments of their own local clergy. When asked by NCLS whether "My respect for clergy has greatly declined as a result of these offences?" only 29 per cent of churchgoing Catholics agreed or strongly agreed. While this is significant, some 70 per cent were neutral or disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal, indicating ongoing respect despite the findings of the commission. Again older Catholics have been more greatly affected. Still, there remains a well of trust in their priests among local parishioners, notwithstanding all the stories that have emerged from the commission.

Despite this, the clergy themselves report increasing difficulties with their ministry, with some 40 per cent noting negative comments from their congregation, from the community at large, increased administrative load, and constraints on their ministry in various ways. In a life already dogged by low morale and an aging population of priests, this cannot help. Increasingly priestly ministry is an isolated and isolating exercise.

Two other significant things emerge from the data. Some in leadership within the church have attempted to portray the abuse problem as overblown by the media. This position has not gained much traction, with only 36 per cent of churchgoing Catholics disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the proposition that "media coverage has been fair", with women more sympathetic to the media than men.

On the other hand, some 66 per cent indicated that they think the church is now taking appropriate steps to address the issue, with only 13 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Again people want to believe that their leadership will act, and act responsibly, to the issues raised by the commission. These figures however drop significantly for the broader Catholic population. According to the ACS data, only 40 per cent of Catholics more generally agreed or strongly agreed that the church is responding appropriately, with 21 per cent disagreeing or strong disagreeing with that assessment.

Illustration: Matt Davidson

Illustration: Matt Davidson

The view from the pews is that the commission has been good for the church, with 48 per cent agreeing that the commission is helping the church prevent and respond to sexual abuse, with 8 per cent being negative towards its work. Catholics are looking for their bishops to take some genuine leadership and work with the commission's findings in addressing the serious problem the commission has uncovered.

The bishops on the other hand cannot presume on the goodwill of the laity to see them through this.

Around half their people feel their confidence in their bishops has been damaged. This is a major crisis in the authority of their office. The bond of trust between the laity and their bishops has been severely impaired. This level of damage may be so high as to not just call into question the authority of individual bishops but of the office itself.

The abuse crisis has been a major de-evangelising moment in the church's history. It has exposed the church to massive scandal and robbed its bishops of any claim to moral authority, all in their effort to prevent scandal and protect the aura of authority the bishops once held. A failure to act can only further undermine trust and further erode the voice of the church in the wider community.

Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, and co-author of the recently reprinted book When Ministers Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches. He would like to thank NCLS for making this data available to him.

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