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Royal Commission must treat the church like a corrupt police force

The Catholic Church’s cover-ups have all the markings of a corrupt organisation. AAP/April Fonti

The Catholic Church has constructed a white curtain behind which networks of corruption have been allowed to deepen. Professor Patrick Parkinson, a senior lawyer who formally supported the Church’s “Towards Healing” protocols, has likened the church to an organised criminal operation.

Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between the Catholic Church and organised criminality. The Italian organised crime concept of omertà – a code of honour rooted in the cultural importance of a “code of silence” – can be easily seen in the attitude of members of the Catholic Church to allegations of covering up sexual assault.

The Catholic Church has formed a corrupt organisation, and repeatedly promoted systemic practices designed to further the church’s own personal gain. The difference between the church and organised criminal organisations is that the personal gain is not monetary; it is reputational.

Alternatively, it can be argued that the Catholic Church has reached an operational standpoint not unlike that of a corrupt police force. Misconduct is appropriated by those with seniority, and alleged offenders are protected by a code of silence; a white curtain of brotherhood.

Jane Wangmann raised the question of how we would measure a Royal Commission’s success on The Conversation last week. While there are difficulties in empirically measuring effectiveness, success can be witnessed through organisational change.

As seen in a number Royal Commissions into police corruption, such as those in Hong Kong and New South Wales, codes of silence and corrupt brotherhoods have been successfully broken by understanding and targeting the cultural factors that lead to misconduct.

When conducting a Royal Commission interrogation into the practices of organised religion, an understanding of corrupt culture lies not in challenging the traditional religious establishment, but rather the way in which these organisations have ensured that few new recruits speak up about their actions.

While Cardinal Pell has emerged as a figurehead for the Catholic Church’s denial of sexual assault allegations and cultural omertà, it must be remembered that the systemic approach to concealing allegations of sexual assault has existed since before Pell was born. The question thus becomes, how has this cultural practice continued, without internal outcry, for so long? And how can such deep-rooted cultural practices be altered?

The Royal Commission is faced with a difficult task. It must respect religious rights and practices, while simultaneously targeting those practices which have fostered systemic malpractice. This is a time-consuming process. The average time needed to conduct a Royal Commission in Australia is five years.

To ensure the Royal Commission achieves success, its focus needs to be on finding out how such systemic malpractice came to occur. How are the accused protected by their organisation and, perhaps more important, how are the victims silenced? And given the high suicide rate among victims of sexual abuse, what systems need to be implemented to support the victims?

To reach this understanding, the Royal Commission will need coercive powers. The Royal Commission into Police Corruption in the New South Wales Police Service in 1997 showed it is impossible to penetrate a code of silence and protection without coercive powers.

The government needs to be willing to give this Royal Commission unprecedented investigatory scope. Without this, any attempt to break the cassock of silence will be rendered ineffective.

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