Child abuse in churches is not yet history

It’s heartening to see Australian politicians taking a stand around Catholic clergy abuse, but the calls to action this week by Senator Nick Xenophon and Victorian MP Anne Barker don’t quite go far enough.

We now need a Federal Government led, transparent national inquiry and mandatory reporting of all crimes revealed within the Church environment.

The Cloyne report, an independent state report released in Ireland into Catholic clergy abuse last week is the fourth inquiry in six years. All of the reports have been damning, chronicling the repeated failure of the Church to protect children, bring the guilty to justice and make the welfare of victims paramount.

This report, the Cloyne report, however is far more chilling. That’s because for a long time we’d been led to believe that the repeated child sexual assault of children by clergy and Church officers is a historical matter. And that cover ups are an issue of the past.

We had been told that we could largely rest easy because our children were now safe. Nothing could be further from the truth – the Cloyne report found that church officials, as recently as 2008, were failing to report suspected cases of child sexual abuse to civil authorities and protecting paedophiles over victims.

In 1996 the Church in Ireland implemented a policy for the mandatory reporting of all suspected crimes of child sexual abuse. The implementation of this policy should have gone a long way to ensure the safety of children. However the policy was not implemented.

According to the Cloyne report the Vatican issued a warning in 1997 that the new Irish Church policy had not been approved by the Holy See and undermined canon law, the Church’s internal legal authority.

This, it seems, is evidence of an attempt at ongoing cover-up emanating from the Vatican itself. What’s more, the Vatican intervention, according to the report, not only undermined the Church’s policies but ignored the child protection guidelines of the Irish State.

Every child who is abused is one child too many. An abused child is a child whose life is changed forever. A child who will not be free to live the life he/she deserves; an adult left struggling with a legacy so cruel that sometimes, the victim chooses to end the struggle themselves.

Child protection guidelines are instituted to protect children, to keep them safe, to care for them. Failing to adhere to them sacrifices our children. Lives are lost; lives are ruined.

Ireland is a country in which Church and State have long been symbiotically intertwined. In fact, deference to the Church and its tradition and power have been entrenched.

Yet this week the Irish Prime Minister, Edna Kenny accused the Holy See of downplaying “the rape and torture of children”, openly and vehemently questioning its internal processes and status. Kenny, supported by all sides of parliament is calling for accountability and action from the Vatican.

In Ireland as in Australia the protection of children is actually a matter for the State. If the authority of the Vatican and the Holy See can be so vocally brought into question by the premier and parliament of Ireland there is no reason that we cannot see the same call for justice and transparency in Australia.

Whether the public outcry which has followed Kenny’s long overdue call for the protection of children sees a separation of the Church and State in Ireland is not the key issue here.

It is the safety of our children in the Catholic Church, all churches, institutions, organisations, communities, homes and families and how we, as a society can work together to protect our young.

Anne Barker, a Victorian MP is currently in Dublin investigating how a formal inquiry akin to those conducted there, can be opened to investigate Catholic clergy abuse in Victoria.

As she has pointed out only a separate and independent inquiry ensures the documentation, independence and transparency needed for government, parliament and the State to be able to respond appropriately.

The independent Senator Nick Xenaphon has also joined the charge calling for the mandatory reporting of all crimes revealed within the confessional.  But the moves must go much further than that.

The protection of our children must transcend party politics. And it must also transcend the power of institutions. No longer can internal processes be allowed to override those of the State, either in Ireland or Australia. No longer can the Church’s canon law override civil law and criminal justice.

It is time for an open and transparent Inquiry into Catholic clergy abuse Australia-wide, a matter for State, Federal and Territory governments to work together to protect our children and keep them safe.