The Victorian Inquiry: sinful behaviour, or dangerous belief?

The report of the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations has now been tabled in the Victorian Parliament. Entitled Betrayal of Trust, it is sober reading. It deserves to be read by everyone involved in the leadership of religious organisations in Australia to ensure that the widespread abuses and systemic failures it documents are never allowed to occur again.

If acted upon, its recommendations will see the most fundamental overhaul of the way the churches are governed in Victoria’s history. This is because the inquiry has taken seriously the complex structures and histories of religious institutions in governance, law, and authority.

The report recognises that churches should be free to determine their own beliefs and behaviours in purely religious matters. It also recognises that it is hard to define the limits of what is and what is not a religious matter.

At issue is not the separation of church and state. Rather, the question is the extent to which the state ought to regulate the churches in matters such as freedom of conscience, or freedom to discriminate.

The report has staked out some areas in which the churches should be treated in the same way as any other body – for example, where a religious institution is funded by government to provide what are essentially community services such as health, education and welfare.

But the report hints at a much deeper question for Victorians, one that goes beyond the frontline issues of governance and accountability. This is a question that people of faith must now ask of themselves and of their churches.

Can the churches remain true to their theology, and simultaneously prevent child abuse in the future?

Or, are religious institutions, specifically the Catholic Church, fundamentally unable to protect children from abuse, because of their theology?

Put starkly, were systemic failures in responses to child abuse the result of sinful behaviour, or dangerous beliefs?

The report clearly identifies a culture of secrecy as a dangerous if sometimes well-intentioned flaw in many churches. This culture has manifested itself in the attempt to treat offenders out of public view, to deal with complaints behind closed doors.

At several points the report acknowledges the complexity of Catholic ecclesial structures in particular. It makes the basic point that church leaders – whether bishops or provincials of religious orders – could have placed the injuries of victims and the prevention of abuse ahead of that complexity by a simple phone call or conversation.

Among the most confronting causes of systemic failure identified by the report are the “teachings and beliefs” of the Catholic Church, including canon law. Section 7 of the report treats this area at some length. Nonetheless the report repeatedly points out that as early as 1962 the pope decreed child abuse to be the “foulest of crimes”. There were clear principles in the church’s own doctrine and law that could and should have been used to ensure children were more adequately protected from harm.

Finally, the report repeatedly cites the evidence of Professor Patrick Parkinson, who stated that the church’s “policy of forgiveness” was partly to blame for its emphasis on managing or treating known perpetrators rather than focusing on prevention and justice.

The report leaves unanswered the critical theological question: when is forgiveness required, and when should it be withheld?

Christian theology, centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, recognises that true forgiveness is always costly. True forgiveness walks hand in hand with repentance and is grounded in justice.

Christian theology, attending to the life and teaching of Jesus, requires reconciliation to be put ahead of reputation, the common good ahead of self-protection.

Betrayal of Trust is a milestone in Victorian church history. It demands that profound theological questions be considered by all people of faith.