The Catholic Church’s protocols for responding to sexual abuse claims have failed some victims and are likely to be replaced with a more independent system, according to the layman co-ordinating the Church’s response to the royal commission into abuse.

The Catholic Church has two abuse protocols: Towards Healing, a national system, and the Melbourne Response for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Both have been heavily criticised by victims’ support groups, academics and police.

“I don’t think they’re adequate,” Francis Sullivan, chief executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, told Crikey when asked about the protocols. “Clearly there are aspects of criticism that need to be addressed. There are individuals who have gone through those processes who don’t feel satisfied. There will be a need to hold those processes up against what is seen as best practice and see how they fit.”

The Truth, Justice and Healing Council, formed in January by the Catholic archbishops and religious orders, is made up mostly of laypeople, not clergy. Although it currently has a low profile, the council will play a prominent and influential role as the royal commission ramps up. Its responsibilities include: gathering documents, preparing the Church’s legal submissions, managing all public relations and providing recommendations for reform.

Sullivan, a former CEO of Catholic Health Australia, says he would be “very surprised” if the Church’s current protocols for abuse complaints remain in place following the royal commission. “Increasingly these days, self-regulated and internally managed processes are frowned upon by the community. I would think we might need to look at a more independently administered process … so no one can turn around and argue that it’s self-serving for the Church.”

Sullivan’s statements — which are his personal views — represent a significant break from the public positions of Sydney Archbishop George Pell and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart. Both Hart and Pell have vigorously defended the existing frameworks, while saying they are open to improvements. Pell said when the royal commission was announced:

“I think both procedures are adequate — that doesn’t mean they haven’t been mucked up. They are adequate if they are followed.”

Hart said last month:

“I continue to have confidence in the Melbourne Response, and in the independence, expertise and integrity of the professionals who have responsibility for implementing it.”

The future for Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response, both created in 1996, is likely to be one of the most contentious issues during the royal commission. Victim advocacy groups want the protocols to be scrapped and replaced by an independent system with government oversight. Compensation under the Melbourne Response is capped at $75,000 — an inadequate amount, according to many victims.

Child protection expert Patrick Parkinson, who was appointed by the Catholic Church to review Towards Healing, withdrew his support for the system last year, saying it did not adequately deal with offenders when victims did not go to the police. Lawyer Judy Courtin, who is researching Towards Healing, claims a majority of victims believe the process is “abusive, highly adversarial, legalistic and traumatic”.

During a recent Victorian inquiry into child sexual abuse, Victorian Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton said the Church’s protocols were “fundamentally flawed” and “lack transparency, government oversight, public interest and a rehabilitative focus”. He also said the Church had not referred any complaints to Victorian Police — a claim disputed this week by Peter O’Callaghan, the independent commissioner in charge of the Melbourne Response. According to O’Callaghan, 97 of the 304 complaints made to him by June last year were referred to police.

Sullivan says the Church’s existing protocols are poorly understood — even in the Catholic community. “Most Catholics don’t know what Towards Healing means, what it’s about, what its aims are,” he said. “It’s a big issue.”

The Truth, Justice and Healing CEO told Crikey he would be “gobsmacked” if Catholic church attendance didn’t fall further following the royal commission. But he says it’s time to let in the light.

“The truth needs to be revealed; the Church needs to acknowledge its areas of failing and mismanagement and cover-up,” Sullivan said. “We want to be engaged, we want to openly admit our failures and talk about what we can do better in the future … The Church’s bona fides are on display here and are up for debate.”