Churches can’t be trusted to do the right thing

ALMOST six years ago I wrote that then prime minister Julia Gillard knew what she was getting in to when she launched the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I drew on the analogy of former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's warning that the Fitzgerald inquiry was like lifting an old piece of tin under which you were likely to find a dead cat or an angry snake.

Well, the Gillard inquiry dragged plenty of putrid cats out in to the daylight and unearthed some venomous serpents.

I'm sure she had a hint of what was lurking given the endless scandals that bobbed to the surface, and you might wonder how many of those who opposed the inquiry had the same suspicions. The reactions ranged from the moderately cautious to the scornfully opposed with claims from some media worthies that it was a cynical exercise in populism.

How wrong they were.

The inquiry has largely cleaned up our backyard, and now it is time to start landscaping for the future.

Richard "Tommy" Campion was a victim of abuse. He said when Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission he dropped to his floor and sobbed.

For now, the shovel work is left to the Liberal National Party Government that has little, if anything, to be proud of in exposing this national tragedy and national shame.

In October, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will deliver an apology to abused and betrayed children and it will be a measure of his mettle if he can rise above politics and at least acknowledge Gillard's courage. In fact, she should be there so she can look some of the naysayers in the eye.

And it will be interesting to see whether our fractured political system can shoulder our guilt without some ducking for cover and crying "it wasn't me" as happened during the apology to the Stolen Generation.

However, the real test is how we - and the shamed institutions - respond to the commission's recommendations.

To its credit, the Government has agreed to act on 104 of 122 recommendations within its jurisdiction.

One sticky issue is the national redress scheme, with the Government rejecting the recommended $200,000 cap and settling on $150,000. Sorry, it seems, goes only so far.

The other is disqualifying victims with criminal records, which is bitterly ironic since the commission showed that social dysfunction and criminality were often the consequences of abuse.

But the big speed bump is the issue of the "sanctity" of the confessional, something Canberra quickly flick passed to the states.

Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have acted to compel priests to report crimes.

Queensland, which gave in-principle support to ending any exemption from disclosure in religious confessions, favours a national approach and is doing some more beard stroking.

It has been discussing the whole deal with Canberra and the other states, as recently as the Council of Attorneys-General meeting on June 8.

However, since then NSW has backed off and put the issue in the wait-and-see basket.

As a national approach would still depend on individual state legislation, only political skittishness could stop Queensland just getting on with it.

But, I think all the states will eventually bite the bullet and remove this anachronistic remnant of church privilege.

Last month, Archbishop Philip Wilson was found guilty of concealing historical child sexual abuse. (Pic: Darren Pateman)
Last month, Archbishop Philip Wilson was found guilty of concealing historical child sexual abuse. (Pic: Darren Pateman)

Less easily solved is the obduracy of the Roman Catholic bishops who seem determined to shred the last remaining scraps of their credibility by telling priests to defy the law.

Bizarrely, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference told Prime Minister Turnbull that making the practice of one of the Christian sacraments illegal would make no child safer, partly because "perpetrators of this terrible sin very rarely seek out confession".

"By removing the seal, we lose the rare opportunity to point an offender or victim in the direction of the authorities and other assistance," they said.

To which I would say two words: Michael McArdle.

McArdle is paedophile priest who said in an affidavit he had confessed to 30 different priests over a period of 25 years on more than 1500 occasions but was just told to "pray more".

And went on and preyed more.

The treatment of McArdle and so many other child abusers who were protected, shuffled around and even defended at great cost to parishioners will forever speak louder than all the sophistry the bishops the church can muster.

Bishops and priests have declared they would rather go to jail than break the sanctity of the confessional.

The prospective fate of Archbishop Philip Wilson who has been convicted of concealing child abuse shows that can be arranged.

My old mate Tommy Campion - a victim of abuse in the Anglican Church - relates that when Gillard announced the inquiry he dropped to the floor and sobbed uncontrollably.

"My life changed within minutes,'' he said.

All those institutions at fault - the churches included - have the chance to lift Tommy and others from the floor of despair for now and forever.

Terry Sweetman is a Courier-Mail columnist.