SOLICITOR & ATTORNEY
44 Cottenham Avenue, Kensington, NSW 2033 Australia
Telephone: 02 9662 7541 Facsimile: 02 96633856 Mobile: 0419 637705
Principal: Geoff Cahill LL.B. (Hons) Solicitor and Barrister.
OPEN LETTER TO THE
AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS
I write about the issue of sexual abuse. I also write about the future of the Catholic Church. I later provide some details of my personal and professional involvement so that you will be able to assess the worth of my comments.
It is insufficient to merely restate what has been repeatedly stated for the past twelve years. The "Protocol" has been waved incessantly as if it is the answer to every new complaint. As if it washes the hands of moral culpability, and of remorseless inaction. It is just not believable anymore. The public perception is that the Protocol is simply not being applied. This kind of lip service only deepens the distrust. And it will not go away.
The public fall out has caused a serious loss of creditability in the Church. In any commercial corporation the answer would be to simply change the management and prosecute any culpable directors. The Church establishment is entrenched beyond accountability, and immune from recall, by the Faithful. But this ensures that the damage goes much deeper. It attacks the fabric of the Faith espoused by the organised Church. It causes doubt and confusion. It impedes the real purpose of the Church.
Something more is needed. Something positive and substantial. Urgently. It warrants a complete review or renewal of the Church in Australia. The root cause of the problem is not sexual abuse, per se, it is the unaccountable lack of understanding of who comprise the Church, the nature of participation in the Church and its future direction.
Further, the issue goes to the very culture of the ordained servants of the Faithful. It is their induction, their training, how they perceive their relationship with the Faithful (to whom they administer), their emotional welfare and their continuing religious and social education. So many fine priests feel unsure, isolated and forgotten. Many should never have been accepted as priests in the first place.
THE TASK AHEAD
True, the task ahead has a real element of risk. This did not daunt the early trail blazers. Certainly, it will take courage to introduce a meaningful transparent renewal. One which involves broad participation by the Faithful. It is my view that such an enterprise, if sincerely embarked upon, will demonstrate the kind of creditability and leadership needed in the Australian Church.
The Bishops are the ones entrusted with the governance of the Church. It is they who have sought the rank and the exercise of the power. Rightly, it is above their heads that the sword hangs in the balance.
I challenge you to take that extra step.
THE FIRST STEPS
The immediate issue concerns sexual abuse. It is this matter where there is an urgent need to take positive structural and policy initiatives. I recommend urgent consideration of the following proposals:
1. Establish a centrally administered National Compliance Agency (NCA). Its purpose will be to ensure compliance of all aspects of the Protocol. It will not work unless the appointed executive administrator is committed to the task, the Agency is appropriately resourced and transparent, and that it is clothed with the authority to perform its duty. Each jurisdictional area should appoint a compliance operative to co-ordinate with the NCA.
2. Establish an NCA committee and local complementary jurisdictional committees with membership from the Laity.
3. Establish a Grievance Panel in each major jurisdictional area which includes membership from the Laity. Such a panel will maintain confidentiality (subject to complainants), arrange for internal interviews within the Church and referrals to government authorities, as appropriate. It shall report the nature, type, areas and incidents of grievances to the NCA on a regular basis (maintaining strict confidentiality as the parties involved - unless released to do otherwise). If evidence of a criminal offence is forthcoming, the Panel will immediately refer
the matter to the appropriate government authority (it is not the province of the Church to determine criminality). The Panel shall act impartially.
4. There should be a National Protocol which provides for a uniform approach
throughout the Church in Australia (while having regard to any particular obligation provided in differing State legislative requirements).
5. The Protocol should provide that the Church shall not harbour or transfer or otherwise keep secret the whereabouts of a known sex abuser, whether that person is an employee or religious.
6. The Protocol should provide that the Church shall make available to the appropriate government authority its knowledge and records of all known sex abusers.
7. The Protocol should provide that when it is known that a Religious has been guilty by admission or otherwise, that person should be handed up to the appropriate government authorities.
8. The Church develop a liaison with all reasonable associations of the Laity with a
genuine concern for sexual abuse within the Church.
9. While the Church has a civil right to defend itself against any actions by persons claiming damages for sexual abuse, it should determine a publicly known proper or nominal defendant (or defendants in the case of various religious orders or jurisdictions ). It strips the claim that the Church hides behind a veil of secrecy to avoid civil actions.
10. While non-disclosure clauses are most usual in Deeds of Release following a claim (before or in the process of litigation) as a term of settlement of an action, the Church would better advised in the current climate to limit the non-disclosure to the amount of the settlement. This is not then a "hush" provision, in the sense that it has been publicly referred, and it is defensible on the grounds that all actions are individual in nature and effect. This permits disclosure of the grounds of the action in a civil sense. Non-disclosure of a criminal act is not an option (indeed, it would be a criminal act to intentionly be an assessory after the fact or aid or abet a crime).
11. Review the counselling services of the Church. They can leave the Church open to claims of a conflict of interest in certain circumstances. Further, there is always the problem of a lack of informed participation on the part of the possible victims and their families in the internal counselling services offered to them by the Church. This is more particularly the case where there is a possibility of civil actions against the Church.
12. Educate the Religious (from priest to bishop) in an on-going program about the issues of sexual abuse. It is not just the aspect of compassion and duty, but also civil liability, criminality and simple cost factors. But essentially, it really is about the ultimate creditability of the Church - and what it espouses.
[Comment: The money spent on these measures will be far less than the alternative payouts that would otherwise occur. It also reduces the risk of civil liability and hence insurance premiums. That is the money argument. The measures will also provide a focal point of reference, and provide for an untainted certain consistent guideline. It will demonstrate a positive response. This will deflect much of the media attention away from issues of culpability. If the above measures are conscientiously put into place it will relieve the pressures currently being focussed on the office of the Archbishop. It will put the Church on the front foot. This will allow for greater attention on other pressing matters facing the Church in Australia.
Essentially, the Church needs to demonstrate in a real and substantive way its commitment to reform. It is only in this way - by needs not words - that the Church can lay claim to compassion, understanding and union with the Faithful.]
The alternative is to sit tight. Wait for the issue to blow over - but it won't. The public outrage will not abate. This will force governments to consider external measures or sanctions. It could lead to a Royal Commission into the Church. It will certainly place the Church and its activities under greater government surveillance. This may lead to the Church becoming subject to statutory regulation. These are not fanciful outcomes.
Perhaps it is all too much, that things have gone too far, that the will has been sapped - and that it is just too late. Then kindly shut the parish door behind you. But it will not absolve those who had the opportunity but did not take it.
It is now fair that I should identify my involvement. First, I am a father of five children and nine grandchildren. I was one of the first solicitors to file a Statement of Claim in the NSW Supreme Court against a religious institution on the grounds of sexual abuse. Since then I have filed other actions, and provided legal advice or counselling to victims in well over fifty such cases. I have written articles. I was the original solicitor in the Paul Annesse Case (and Ridsdale in Sydney). A product of Waverley College, I have been active in various Church activities. Prior to practising as a solicitor, I was a former NSW ALP General Secretary, inaugural NSW Commissioner for Equal Opportunity and a Chairman of a NSW Government Appeal Tribunal.