catholic church george pell
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The High Court of Australia will today consider the appeal of convicted child sex abuser George Pell. Its decision could leave Pell in prison, free him, or send him back to the Victorian Court of Appeal.

In a post-Pell era that has left the Catholic Church with empty pews, a terrible reputation and $1 billion to be claimed in compensation by child sex abuse survivors, Crikey takes a look at what’s changed — and what’s still to come. 

The Church still investigates itself

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that churches not investigate themselves over complaints of child sex abuse and instead rely on independent oversight bodies.

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So the Catholic Church established Catholic Professional Standards Ltd to oversee the implementation of national safeguarding standards. 

The body states it “operates as an independent entity” — a line Kathleen McPhillips, a religion sociologist at the University of Newcastle, says is far from the truth. 

“It’s funded by the church and bishops. Most people there have worked for the Catholic Church,” she told Crikey.  

A spokesperson for Catholic Professional Standards Ltd told Crikey: “It is absolutely correct to say that we would not exist without the funding of the church, however we have been specifically established to operate as an independent entity which is functionally independent of church leadership … There are no clergy on the CPSL board.”

A huge problem flagged in the royal commission was clericalism — the idea that those ordained in the church were set apart from ordinary people — which increases the risk of child sex abuse. Not allowing the church to investigate itself would counter the power of clerics, McPhillips says.

“But instead, they’ve done exactly that. The church can say they’re meeting the recommendations, but in a dangerous way they’re replicating the very things the royal commission said they shouldn’t.” 

As the St Kevin’s College abuse scandal has revealed, mechanisms are still in place to keep the church protected and the vulnerable silent. 

Confessions about offences still aren’t reported

If a predator — especially one in a position of power within the church — admitted in confession they had abused a child, you would hope the church would take that confession straight to the police. 

Instead, Catholic priests around the country have baulked at the idea, arguing they should not have to break the confessional seal. 

It’s a refusal that Peter Johnstone, national convenor national convener of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, finds ridiculous. 

“The Vatican has come out with a new interpretation of the Seal of Confession which is stricter than ever, saying that even [when regarding abuse of] a young person information can never be used outside of the confession,” he told Crikey.  

“We’re talking about the safety of children … If someone came to a priest in confession and said, ‘I’ve planted a bomb in the Cathedral right before Easter Mass,’ I don’t know of any priests who wouldn’t go to the police.” 

State laws have been tightened in Victoria, NSW, SA and the ACT to make failure to report offences a crime. 

Despite flagrant disregard for these state laws, Johnstone believes there has been a change in how child sex offences are perceived within the church.

“There no doubt has been a shift. I don’t think there’d be priests who would dare argue child sex offences are a moral issue,” he said. The church had previously recognised sex offences as a moral, not criminal issue

“There is a much better education within the community and church as to the criminality of sex abuse,” he said.

Despite recognising child sex abuse as the serious issue it is, survivors are still waiting on compensation from the Catholic Church under the National Redress Scheme — with many institutions still not signed on to the scheme.

The church is still ruled by old, celibate men

Women and laypeople — that is, ordinary people who have not been ordained into priesthood — should be more involved in decision-making to limit clericalism, abuse and cover-ups, the royal commission found. 

As Johnstone put it, “Would you invest in a company run only by older, celibate men?”

But to date no changes have been made and no quotas set. Pope Francis has ruled against allowing married men to be ordained (despite a massive priest shortage). He also turned down a request to allow women to be deacons, meaning the ordained are all celibate men. 

“There’s a provision in canon law which says only the ordained may be responsible for governance … So, it’s a sexist provision, it’s an autocracy,” Johnstone said. 

In fact, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference recently disbanded its Office for the Participation of Women and Council for Australian Catholic Women. So much for progress. 

Asked if Pell could get away with the things he got away with some 20 years ago today, McPhillips said he could. 

“As St Kevin’s example showed us, there are still systems in place to protect the reputation of the institution instead of the children … we can’t be confident that in Catholic organisations children are safe.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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