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Abuse inquiry: we all know the outcome

Opinion Piece

We must already know what the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care will reveal about the Catholic Church in New Zealand. That's because it has been said before, time and time again, across the globe, by many other inquiries into the exact same issue.

Independent inquiries worldwide have already looked into what happened to children, young people and adults at risk in the care of the Catholic Church over past decades. Australia's Royal Commission, England and Wales' IICSA Report, the McCarrick Report and Pennsylvania Report in the USA, Ireland's Murphy Report, and the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child, among others, have all reached the same conclusions — that thousands of cases of clerical and religious child sexual abuse, dating back to the 1950s, were routinely buried by bishops and congregational leaders of the Catholic Church across the globe.

With so many commissions and inquiries, and countless damning news reports and research documents revealing a total inability for the Catholic Church to manage its own affairs with transparency and integrity, why would New Zealand be any different? What happened in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere in Oceania would have happened here too because the Catholic Church is a transnational geo-political organisation with its own structures, policies and legal system operating around the world.

So again, what could possibly be different here? In fact, based on the commission's interim report, New Zealand's situation could be much worse, numbers-wise.

In its final report, New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse will bring forth a series of devastating allegations against New Zealand's Catholic Church. It will reveal the same sordid details that every other report worldwide has revealed, that the Roman Catholic Church in Aotearoa systematically failed to protect children from clergy who were sexually abusing them; that it prioritised its own reputation ahead of the welfare of children and adults at risk under its care; and that its mission and moral purpose were betrayed over decades by those who perpetrated the crimes and by those who enabled them.

Then New Zealand will feign shocked outrage from pulpit, parishioners and public. And we'll all just move on.

But on another level, there is a difference, and a rather perilous one. New Zealand has the ability to present well at face value with policies and protocols, and this is apparently true of its Catholic Church as well.

While it is important for every institution to adopt strict protocols to combat child sexual abuse, New Zealand's Catholic Church appears to now be hiding their abuse behind the window-dressing of formalised policies. Worse, when those policies are not followed, this causes further abuse which layers the cycle of trauma against the victim and even extends it into the larger community.

Catholic bishops and congregational leaders have already told the public how they are “participating in the processes of the inquiry” and “acknowledging those who have been wounded in our care”.

While the first part of this claim is true, the second part is pure rhetoric because survivors are consistently having complaints rejected without apology or recompense by the very church office, the National Office for Professional Standards, which is processing those complaints. The unfortunate upshot is that Te Rōpū Tautoko, the in-house church group concocted to co-ordinate engagement with the Royal Commission, has become the centre of attention, rather than the victims.

Since when has a Church committee worked so closely with an independent national inquiry until now? Call it what you want — protectionism, subjectivism, favouritism, reputation preservation, institutional collusion — it is fraud!

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission will continue to look into what happened in New Zealand between 1950 and 1999. But will it discover where the abuse is still occurring today, and make the necessary recommendations to stop it? Will it unearth the fact that the agencies set up by the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand to address the handling of abuse complaints, instead further bury complaints? Will it demonstrate how the Church's internal structures and doctrines have enabled the abuse? And will it recommend the changes necessary to dismantle those structures?

From a Catholic survivor's viewpoint, that means the Crimes Act would need to be amended so that behaviour such as being secretive about sexually abusing children is deemed to be an obstruction of justice and a crime in its own right. If such does not come to pass, then the commission will have ticked all the boxes and Church leaders will say sorry, again, and we'll all just move on.

But the fact would remain that the Catholic Church, one of the world's greatest claimants to moral authority, will have failed to resolve one of the most morally straightforward problems of our time. In fact, it would remain that problem.

Matthew Epsom

  1. Tony Lee says:

    I have the feeling I must be a bit thick or just totally uninformed around this issue. It seems to me that a person who has knowledge of abuse becomes complicit by not informing the police. That we don’t appear to have a section in the Crimes Act to deal with this complicity is unconscionable.

    Maybe I’m missing something here? Be glad to be educated about this.

    1. Mary Hart, Marlborough says:

      Tony lee, I so agree, we so need to have a section in the Crimes Act to cover this eventually. Whilst, I was not abused by Clergy, I turned to them when it was happening to me. I believed that they would help me, but turning to them, meant I was further punished by the Dominican Nuns who taught me. By the time a week had passed I could no longer hold my pen in my hand – their response every time they passed my desk was to rap me over the knuckles for telling such wicked lies about my father.

    2. Jim Winslow, Wellington says:

      According to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.” In New Zealand, hundreds of predator priests in all six dioceses abused thousands of children whose identities can be found in church records, but because of our legal system, there’s very little that even the government can do until it changes some laws.

  2. Adrian M, Australia says:

    Just the same as the silence of the confessional, which must be broken if there is evil against children told to the priest. That is now a law in some states in Australia and other parts of the world are waking up.

    Similarly, journalists cannot be bound to silence – even if they agreed – if they hear of evil against children. There can be no contract that conspires to conceal crime.

    Even under the common law of contracts, a person cannot be bound to keep a contract if it would take them into illegality or immorality.

  3. Jenny E, Auckland says:

    How can the te rōpū tautoko group be trusted to turn over all the church records? It includes church officials who have already been accused of covering up abuse. Mary McAleese, the former Irish President, informed us that the Vatican contacted her in a bid to get help from the Irish state to bury church records. I wonder if that’s happening in New Zealand too? Apparently the NZ Catholic bishops are claiming to have no control of religious predators in their dioceses, to wash their hands of accountability. This is utter nonsense even according to church law. The bishops have absolute control over who operates in their dioceses. They are totally accountable. Let’s see if the commission will hold them to account. I hope so.

  4. Alex D, Whakatane says:

    What I can’t understand is that the bishops and congregational leaders spend so much money on lawyers to protect their institutions and paedophiles, and to fight the victims and survivors. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if that money was given to the victims and survivors to support their healing instead? It makes no sense to me that the bishops and church leaders would spend so much money to protect their institutions when all that does is bring their institutions into further disgrace.

  5. Roseanne Sheridan, Oamaru says:

    There is mandatory reporting of child abuse, so it would stand to reason that it is an offence not to report it and people who don’t will be held to account, surely. I do believe that the seal of the Confessional can still be maintained in light of mandatory reporting. I say this because a priest in hearing of abuse in the confessional, can withhold absolution if a person is not willing to report their crime to Police, as true repentance would dictate. I acted in protecting a child who I suspected had told a priest in confession of abuse, because she had also told me. In a film, a priest in this situation made a way for someone to find out so a child was protected. If a priest or religious confesses to abuse, then I am certain that the priest can insist they report this and also express concern to authority regarding their ability to practice their role in the Church, without divulging the exact reason. Hopefully the offender would then confess openly and the victims receive support.

  6. Roseanne Sheridan says:

    Also, what would make NZ different from another nation may be our approach and our response. Restorative justice processes are an integral part of Catholic Church social justice teaching and a vital part of our Legal Court Justice system. In being victim-focused, it seeks to bring healing to victims, secondary victims and the community, as well as true accountability for offenders in confronting them with the consequences of their actions. I believe NZ can pioneer the process of healing in giving hope to people.

    1. Tony Lee says:

      I agree that restorative justice is a powerful tool to bring healing. It is not always appropriate. I recall listening to a deposition by an Archbishop in the USA; he stated that he wasn’t fully aware that abuse of children was illegal at the time he was made aware of complaints. This was in the ’80s.

  7. Bhuvan Singh, Auckland says:

    Has the Royal Commission subpoenaed the documents from the Church, or is it just expecting that the church group will turn them over?