the doctrine of infallibility ....
The overwhelming response to details of victim's ordeal made a mockery of church's hardball tactics at royal commission.
It was the gallery’s day. At one end of an immensely expensive room in the Sydney legal district was a squad of lawyers briefed months ago for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
But in the gallery at the other end sat victims and the parents and friends of victims who have been on the case for nearly 20 years. For some it has become their life’s work. And they came from all points on Monday to see what they had managed at last: to put the Catholic Church in the dock.
They made their presence felt. They groaned. They protested. A handful walked out when Peter Gray SC, counsel for the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, began by quoting the “ageless words” of St Mark: “Let the little children come to me.”
Gray laid on the apologies not with a trowel but a front-end loader. He called abuse by clergy and its concealment by the church unbearable, disgraceful, heartbreaking, shattering and devastating. He declared the royal commission, “a watershed in church history and indeed in Australian history”.
The gallery was unmoved. For 20 years the church has been saying sorry and promising to do better. Nothing to applaud here. Nor did the campaigners seem impressed by Gray’s fresh assurances the church would co-operate “fully, without reservation” with the commission.
Isn’t that called, obeying the law?
Various arms of the church have already handed over tens of thousands of documents to the commission. These give, for the first time, a picture of the workings of Towards Healing, the church’s machinery for dealing with most abuse victims.
Gail Furness, SC, counsel assisting the commission, told the hearing that Towards Healing has paid $43m to victims of abuse. The culprits were overwhelmingly not parish priests but members of religious orders.
Schools were the chief danger zone for children. Furness said: “The church authority with the largest number of complaints was the Christian Brothers, followed by the Marist Brothers and then the De La Salle Brothers.”
Their time will come. For the next few weeks Justice Peter McClellan, the former senator Andrew Murray and the psychiatrist Helen Milroy are focusing on the fate of four of the 1,700 men and women who have been through Towards Healing.
Francis Sullivan knows what’s coming. “Community disgust and outrage will again be unleashed,” the chief executive officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council warned an audience in Ballarat’s cathedral a few weeks ago. “Many people will be very angry and will ask ‘how could this happen?’ ”
That the church has plans to abandon the system will not save it from the evidence the commission is about to hear. The council has already conceded in its submission to the royal commission that Towards Healing is opaque in its workings; inconsistent in its outcomes; operates without central oversight; and might be seen as lacking independence as it investigates abuse.
“It is now clearer than ever that the time has come for the church to hand over the determination of victims’ compensation to an independent process,” Sullivan told his Ballarat audience. “We are recommending a national compensation scheme, independent of the church that would determine payments.”
Sullivan doesn’t mean the courts where the church and its insurers continue to play hardball with victims such as Joan Isaacs. She is the first of the four. We know her name and saw her face. Most of this week will be spent examining her case.
When she began to read her statement in a slightly faltering voice the feeling in the hearing room changed. The commissioners lowered their eyes; the lawyers were still; there was absolute silence.
“From 1967 to 1968, I was sexually abused by Father Francis Derriman who was a priest of the archdiocese of Brisbane and chaplain of Sacred Heart Sandgate for those two years. I was aged 14 to 15 at the time of the abuse ...”
And when she finished half an hour later I heard something I have never heard before at a royal commission: applause. McClellan did nothing to reproach the gallery. The applause rolled on. Isaacs said very softly to the room: “Thank you.”