'Shameful past': Archbishops respond to child abuse royal commission findings


The nation's top Catholics have assured child abuse survivors the church has begun working toward meeting the recommendations made by the royal commission's final report.

The Catholic Church is unlikely to change its universal laws despite a royal commission suggesting voluntary celibacy for priests and that the seal of confession be broken to reveal child abuse.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wants Australia's Catholic leaders to ask the Holy See to make numerous changes to its canon laws, including that the "pontifical secret" does not apply to child abuse allegations.

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, said the bishops would take the royal commission's recommendations seriously and present them to the Holy See.

But he said the seal of the confession cannot be broken, even if priests face the prospect of criminal charges for failing to report child sexual abuse.

"My sacred charge is to respect the seal of the confessional," he told reporters on Friday.

"I revere the law of the land and I trust it but this is a sacred spiritual charge before God which I must honour, and I have to try and do what I can do with both."

But Archbishop Hart said if a person confessed "those heinous crimes" to him he would refuse them absolution until they went to the authorities.

He said if a child came to him and told him they had been molested he would see the conversation move outside of confessional and take them to a parent or teacher to see that the allegations were reported.

As for royal commission's suggestion of voluntary celibacy, Archbishop Hart said he would certainly make sure bishops would pass that recommendation on to the Holy See who will make the decision.

While he said he believed there were benefits to the vow of celibacy, he admitted it was a difficult undertaking.

"I believe that there is real value in celibacy where it is walking with every people and with others, as Christ does, and that being supported by prayer and by a relationship which is broader than a relationship of marriage, and that's living as Jesus did. But it's a difficult thing," Archbishop Hart said.

"I think it's a point the commission made was that it's something not everyone can live up to and we have to be sure that in our training and introduction of young people for training in the priesthood that they understand what they are taking on, and if they can't be really motivated, really sure and really helped, it's better they not go forward."

Archbishop Hart reassured people the royal commission findings were being taken "very, very seriously" by the Catholic Church and it had "historically failed children".

"This is a shameful past, in which a prevailing culture of secrecy and self-protection led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families," he said.

"As a bishop I humbly apologise and I commit the church to walking forward with the community, with victims and survivors into a new future where child sexual abuse will be a thing that doesn't exist in our community."

Archbishop Hart said the church was "committed to doing whatever we possibly can because this has to be a top priority".

"No more child sexual abuse anywhere in the world," he said.

Report will not 'sit on the shelf': Fisher

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher has promised the multi-volume final report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was released on Friday, would not "sit on a shelf".

"I will study the findings and recommendations carefully, and then provide a detailed response as we discern, with the rest of the community, the best way forward," he said in a statement on Friday.

Among the recommendations made in the entire volume directed to the Catholic Church was that voluntary celibacy should be considered and much of the church management structure should be reviewed and made transparent.

Archbishop Fisher said he stood ready to address systemic issues behind the abuse.

He said he was appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some members of the clergy and ashamed by the response of church leaders.

"I recognise and understand how this has damaged the credibility of the Church in the broader community, and shocked many of our own faithful," he said.

"If we are to be worthy of people's trust we must demonstrate that the rights of children to be safe, heard and responded to appropriately are always respected."

The report also recommended mandatory reporting laws should not exempt members of the ministry to protect crimes revealed in confessions.

Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe echoed Archbishop Fisher's sentiments, committing to a compassionate and quick response to the abuse.

"There will be no easy dismissal of people's stories, no sweeping of things under the carpet, no cover-ups," he said in a statement.

"We will listen and we will act."

Anglican Church says culture has changed

The Anglican Church admits it has sometimes been slow to grasp the extent and severity of child abuse in its ranks but says a royal commission has already led to changes.

The head of the Anglican Church in Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, says it will make further improvements to its systems, protocols and procedures in response to the commission's final report.

Dr Freier says the church has worked assiduously since 2004 to make the church a safe place for all, especially children, and has made great strides, often in response to recommendations from the five-year royal commission.

"But we admit that sometimes we have been slow to grasp the extent or severity of abuse, and that without the work of the royal commission we would not have been able to achieve this," he said on Friday, ahead of the release of the inquiry's final report.

"There has been a change in the wider culture of the Anglican Church about child abuse as all elements of the church have had to face our failures - a change that, again, was largely due to the royal commission and the church's response.

"Once again, I apologise on behalf of the church to survivors, their families, and others harmed by our failures and by the shameful way we sometimes actively worked against and discouraged those who came to us and reported abuse."

The Anglican Church has been the subject of a number of royal commission case studies that Dr Freier says have been shocking, distressing and confronting.

Church records show 1082 people have made complaints about 569 alleged perpetrators in the Anglican Church in Australia, although that is not considered to be the full extent of offending.

The church's three-yearly national assembly in September introduced binding national standards on child protection for all clergy and church workers and set up mechanisms for it to join a national redress scheme.

- with additional reporting by Louise Cheer

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