Rivers of Tears

By Robyn Douglass

The roll call of shame makes for miserable reading. Close to 12,000 witnesses; 3,500 institutions, nearly 60 percent of them “faith-based”; every Christian denomination in Australia; every branch of church activity, from youth groups and choirs, to schools and orphanages run by churches.

Australia launched a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2013. It’s a commission of inquiry with powers like a court to hear evidence and make recommendations to the government of the day. It has held public hearings in major cities and country towns. It has convened more than 4,000 private hearings with people who wish to tell their story, or that of a family member, in a supported environment and away from the glare of publicity.

Justice Peter McClellan, commission chairman, told the National Council of Churches in September that there was a waiting list of 1,500 people, and the commission still receives about 40 applications daily.

The Anglican Church of Australia drew front-page headlines again in late November when hearings moved to Brisbane. The inquiry centred on abuse by two teachers at a prestigious Anglican boys’ school in the 1990s.

It was a doubly sour episode for the Anglican Church. The Most Rev. Peter Hollingworth, Archbishop of Brisbane from 1989 to 2001, was appointed governor-general in 2001, effectively the head of state in Australia as the Queen’s representative in a ceremonial role. As a churchman, he had been popularly acclaimed as a powerful advocate for the poor. But he was forced to retire in 2003, two years into his five-year tenure, because of public anger about his perceived inadequate response to allegations of child abuse at the school while he was archbishop.

Appointing a churchman as head of state is a novelty Australia is not likely to repeat.

Hollingworth’s successor, the Most Rev. Phillip Aspinall, promised that any child who was abused at an Anglican school was entitled to a full refund of fees. These days, such schools cost upward of U.S. $15,000 per year.

The commission will make its final report in 2017, but there have been already been interim reports, including a report in September on the redress for abuse victims. While the Anglican Church has a system in place for redress and compensation, the commission has recommended a single national system of compensation, overseen by a government body to which survivors of abuse from any institution could apply.

The national body would make a finding of how much is due to a survivor for injury, and would recommend medical or psychiatric treatment, which the institution would then be obliged to pay. A single national body and scale of amounts would mean uniformity, but the survivors who seek financial redress would not have to deal with the institution that enabled the abuse, nor have the case dragged through a court, unless they initiate civil litigation. The commission estimates the total cost of the scheme to be around $3 billion.

It’s a neat solution, but there are no immediate prospects of its success. And it exposes a weakness at the heart of the national federation that is the Anglican Church of Australia.

Anne Hywood, general secretary of General Synod, told TLC that the idea has wide endorsement but that so far it has not been supported by the federal government and is supported by only some state governments, let alone the faith-based and other institutions involved.

In the Anglican Church alone, 23 dioceses are substantially used to making their own rules. Australian dioceses fiercely defend their right to independence as organizational units, and the ability to run their own proceedings.

There is general agreement, she said, “that consistency is in the interest of survivors.”

The church is faced with the dilemma of how to support a national scheme, and what to do in the interim, “bearing in mind that national scheme may not even happen,” she said. “The federal government has not committed to it.”

For the Anglican Church, simply being answerable to a national body would be a significant change of culture.

Amid the flood of practical matters, matters of law, responsibility and redress, the crucial matter is not to forget the individuals whose lives have been so deeply scarred by the evil of some adults.

Archbishop Phillip Aspinall asked to make two final comments in his role as a witness before the commission.

Aspinall said he had been struck by the observation that apologies were crucial, because “it is about transferring the sense of blame and guilt that survivors feel and live with for years and years and years. … What an apology does, if it is done well, is transfer the blame and guilt to the perpetrators and to the institutions which failed the survivors.”

He added: “My sense of why this hearing is so important and valuable to the survivors is that this has been an occasion of the transfer of guilt, and I certainly hope that’s true for the survivors, that they feel a little less burdened and the institutions feel much more burdened, because that will assist in their process of healing.”

For the future, “even though huge changes have happened over the last 14 years in the Diocese of Brisbane, we are nowhere near finished this work. I think it will take another 14 years, if not longer, to get everything in place that should be in place at the required level to ensure that the protection of children is where it should be,” Aspinall said.

“It takes enormous effort, sustained over a very long period, to create the kind of culture of awareness about the impact of abuse and the kind of culture of vigilance that will stand any chance of preventing abuse in the future.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s my responsibility: to sustain that effort and concentration into the future. That’s all I want to say.”

Image: “Cases of child abuse in the church” by Christian Seebauer, via Wikimedia Commons

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