Hope for victims in church abuse inquiry
26th October 2012
Updated 30th October 2012
AS Victoria's assistant police commissioner gave condemning evidence against the Catholic Church, sexual abuse victims and their families were brought to tears.
But for once in this shameful saga, they weren't sad tears.
"It was because a senior member of the community was finally sticking up for us. Telling it like it is," one survivor told AAP.
Telling it "like it is" paints a shocking picture.
Victoria's parliamentary inquiry into church sexual abuse has heard one in 20 Catholic priests are child abusers (and the figure could be higher among Christian Brothers), the church has never referred any allegation to police, it's more worried about its reputation than the victims' welfare, is secretive and intimidating, ill equipped to deal with the scourge of sexual abuse and needs a dramatic change in culture.
Assistant commissioner Graham Ashton told the inquiry police had investigated 2110 offences committed by clergy and church workers against 519 victims since 1956, of which 370 were committed by Catholic priests or brothers.
He also pointed out only one in 10 cases of sexual abuse are reported.
For decades, the people who were supposed to stick up for the victims have betrayed them in the gravest way.
"I hear there are good people in the church," says lawyer Vivian Waller.
"Good Christian Brothers and good Catholic priests. I want to ask where are they and when will they stand up and take back control of their church and behave in an honest and compassionate way?
"Because in a lot of these things - moving priests around and the hushing up of sexual abuses - many good people must have remained silent."
Ms Waller has spent most of the last 20 years representing victims of church sexual abuse and currently has 60 clients, with another six waiting to see her.
Around 40 of those clients came to her following the publicity around the 14-year sentence handed to Brother Robert Best last year.
And she fears there will be more.
Not just because, as Mr Ashton told the inquiry last week, it takes an average of 23 years for a victim to report sexual abuse at the hands of a church member.
She agrees with former priest Des Cahill who told the inquiry the situation will get worse because the "underlying problems have not been addressed".
The task of Victoria's parliamentary Family and Community Development Committee as it conducts the inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations is to make recommendations to the state government on how to tackle those underlying problems.
While the inquiry will look at all religious denominations, the Catholic Church is by far its sharpest focus.
In one and a half days of hearings so far, the committee has already heard many recommendations from a handful of witnesses, while it has hundreds of submissions to go through and another six months of hearings.
Suggestions put to the committee include making it a criminal offence for clergy not to report claims of abuse to the police, accepting married clergy, a full disclosure of where offending priests have ended up after being dealt with internally, a compensation scheme for victims and ultimately a national royal commission.
While their hierarchy might not, many Catholics themselves recognise the need for great change in the church.
Catholics For Renewal, a national community-based group of 8000 Catholics, has made a submission to the inquiry and written an open letter to Pope Benedict and Australia's bishops calling for a "renewed church".
They've told the Pope they "seek an open, transparent and accountable church, which respects due process, rejects every form of discrimination, listens to its people, promotes co-responsibility in every facet of its mission and ministry, and is compassionate to its core."
They've also told the pontiff "the church no longer adequately inspires many of our communities.
"Rather, it appears as an institution focused on centralism, legalism and control, with few effective structures for listening and dialogue, and often more concerned with its institutional image and interests than the spirit of Christ."
Catholics for Renewal have called for fundamental change to the church culture.
"The capacity of the church to respond appropriately to the horror of the rape of children by some priests is further prejudiced by a totally celibate, totally male, and increasingly aged hierarchy," they say in their submission.
They've recommended more women be put in decision-making positions in the church and have called for a national code of conduct for clergy, a breach of which would result in removal from the ministry.
They want modern governance of the church, rather than its dysfunctional system based on "discriminatory structures, inappropriate culture and institutional self-preservation".
There's also an overwhelming push among inquiry witnesses to remove the internal church processes of dealing with abuse allegations, such as Towards Healing, and have all claims dealt by civil authorities.
Towards Healing was established by the church in 1996 as an internal counselling process which has been labelled by victims lobby group Broken Rites as evasive and a measure to protect the church from liability.
It took 26 years for one victim to first talk about the abuse he suffered as an 11-year-old. When he did, "I started to dry reach and curl into the foetal position on the floor," he wrote in his submission to the inquiry.
He was then directed to a Towards Healing counsellor whose bullying and lack of compassion, he says, pushed him to the brink of suicide.
"I was so close and that is a direct result of the way Towards Healing, the Christian Brothers and (the counsellor) handled me and my case."
Ms Waller says Towards Healing must be dissolved.
"The church's response since 1996 has actually made things worse. The number of people I've spoken to to who feel traumatised by the process is astounding," she said.
As well as looking ahead to the ways to handle abuse in future, Ms Waller also believes listening to the past is helpful and is confident the inquiry will do some good.
"It's a great relief. The inquiry will hear the truth ... let the Victorian community know what was happening," she said.
"The church has for too long kept this hidden, and a parliamentary inquiry is the first step toward opening these wounds and secrets up to the sunlight.
"It might force some follow-up process.
"The truth will out and so will justice.
"One day I hope it will end."