Another blow for victims of clergy sexual abuse
Published age.com.au/National Times
July 20, 2010 – 6:59AM
The Catholic Church’s process for handling the victims of sexual abuse by clergy members has left many victims unhappy. Photo: Angela Wylie
The Vatican’s juxtaposition of women’s ordination and child sexual assault as a “grave crime” is another attack on the victims of clergy abuse.
Melbourne’s Archbishop, Denis Hart, has since stated that “the Church is merely clarifying its position” regardiing what it thinks is serious, but this does not mitigate the blow for those people awaiting justice for their ordeals.
The Vatican document further states that any priest seeking to ordain a woman is open to being defrocked. The new Vatican rules for dealing with the crime of child sexual assault have also reviewed the mechanism for defrocking paedophile priests, with the most grave cases being referred “to the Roman pontiff”. While this does speed up the process, the guidelines fall short of making such defrocking mandatory in the case of paedophilia.
Archbishop Hart stated in his Melbourne pastoral letter that the Church had “not always dealt appropriately with offenders” and that any attempt to conceal sexual abuse was unacceptable. However, only a revelation in The Age saying that the Church’s standard letters to victims were misleading and potentially intimidating has opened the Melbourne church to reviewing that process.
Many a victim of clergy abuse has, according to recent reports, been a further victim of the “Melbourne Response” and the “Towards Healing” process, after being left with the belief that accepting compensation would nullify the possibility of any further claims for their sexual abuse.
Sydney Archbishop George Pell has held up “Towards Healing” globally as a model for dealing with child sexual assault cases by the Church. But one does not have to go far to find scores of victims who have felt traumatised by the process, in turn advising fellow victims to pursue any course of action towards justice and support other than that of the Church internally.
While the new Vatican rules have added some positive amendments to the guidelines, the handling of child sexual assault cases still remains an internal Church process under the auspices of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. There is still no obligation for bishops to report cases of clergy child sexual assault to the police or make the hierarchy accountable under canonical law for covering up cases. In fact, canonical trials have perennially been held under the strictest secrecy, with victims often believing that they couldn’t go to the police.
The need to maintain the secrecy of Church trials has been defended by the Vatican “in order to safeguard the dignity of all the people involved”. Yet many victims would feel that their dignity has been betrayed by the process, while the Vatican’s further assertion that “all Christians are required to obey civil laws” has not reaped justice to date.
The new rules extend the statute of limitations in reporting sexual assault crimes another 10 years, up to the age of 38 years, with a loose provision to extend it further in some cases. While this concession is welcome, it fails to reflect a genuine understanding of the real legacy of child sexual assault. The impact of this crime in and of itself, and especially when perpetrated by a moral and spiritual being, leaves many victims unable to speak out. To do so takes enormous courage and solid support and often happens only when the victim reaches their 40s, 50s or 60s.
Sadly many victims never speak of their abuse. Any bar in the way of the victim is one too many, and the Church’s track record is one of endless bars. The statute of limitations should be removed and all victims openly encouraged to come forward, and be heard.
This month, Bishop Bill Morris from the Queensland diocese of Toowoomba gave hope to victims. Not only did he openly admit the Church’s liability in the sexual abuse cases, but he sought to minimise any further trauma to the victims through an apology and the offer of an “expeditious resolution to compensation claims”, proposing a mediated settlement to be overseen by a former High Court judge.
The Catholic Church, in Australia and globally, has a long way to go to follow Bishop Morris’s lead. For it is the needs of victims and the protection of children that is paramount — and the time is long overdue for the Church to focus take real responsibility for the bottom line.