Mandatory national standards needed for all in ministry, Royal Commission tells Anglican Church

Primate expresses deep appreciation to Commissioners as their five-year inquiry ends

The Royal Commissioners warned faith communities that abuse was not a thing of the past. "It would be a mistake to regard child sexual abuse in religious institutions as being historical... While much of the abuse we heard about did take place before 1990, more than 200 survivors told us they had experienced child sexual abuse in a religious institution since 1990. Long delays in victims disclosing abuse mean that an accurate contemporary understanding of the problem is not possible."

By Mark Brolly

December 18 2017 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made five recommendations in its final report specifically regarding the Anglican Church, including a national approach to the selection, screening and training of candidates for ordination and mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry undertake regular professional development and supervision and have regular performance appraisals.

After a five-year inquiry, the Royal Commission’s final report said: “The lack of a consistent national approach in the Anglican Church to responding to child sexual abuse has led to inconsistent outcomes for survivors. Barriers to a consistent national approach include dispersed and decentralised authority, diocesan autonomy, and theological and cultural differences between dioceses. Given these barriers, the Anglican Church should develop a mechanism to not only drive a consistent approach to child safety, but also monitor its adoption in the 23 dioceses and their affiliated institutions.”

It recommended that the Anglican Church of Australia:

  • Adopt a uniform episcopal standards framework that ensures that bishops and former bishops are accountable to an appropriate authority or body in relation to their response to complaints of child sexual abuse;
  • Adopt a policy relating to the management of actual or perceived conflicts of interest that may arise in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse, which expressly covers members of professional standards bodies, members of diocesan councils, members of the Standing Committee of the General Synod, and diocesan chancellors and legal advisers;
  • Amend Being together and any other statement of expectations or code of conduct for lay members of the Anglican Church to expressly refer to the importance of child safety;
  • Develop a national approach to the selection, screening and training of candidates for ordination in the Anglican Church; and
  • Implement in each diocese mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry (bishops, clergy, religious and lay personnel) undertake regular professional development, compulsory components being professional responsibility and boundaries, ethics in ministry and child safety; undertake mandatory professional/pastoral supervision; and undergo regular performance appraisals.

The six Royal Commissioners – NSW Judge of Appeal Justice Peter McClellan (Chair), Victorian Justice Jennifer Coate of the Family Court, former Queensland Chief Police Commissioner Mr Bob Atkinson, Mr Robert Fitzgerald of the Productivity Commission, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia, Professor Helen Milroy and former child migrant and WA Democrats Senator Andrew Murray – presented their 17-volume report, plus Preface and Executive Summary, to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Yarralumla at 11am on 15 December.

Within an hour, the report was published on the Royal Commission’s website.

The Anglican Primate of Australia, Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, said the Church deeply appreciated the work of the Royal Commission. The commissioners and their staff had been diligent for five years, delving into matters that must have been distressing for them as well as for survivors.

“Case studies involving branches of the Anglican Church have been shocking and distressing for Anglicans, and have confronted us with our failings,” Archbishop Freier said.

“The Anglican Church has worked assiduously since 2004 to make the church a safe place for all – especially for children – and we have made great strides, often in response to recommendations from the 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.

“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.”

Dr Freier said General Synod, which met in Queensland in September, introduced for the first time binding national standards on child protection for all clergy and church workers, including independent audits. It also set up mechanisms by which the Church could join a future Commonwealth redress scheme – as recommended by the Royal Commission – and acted to make past and present bishops more accountable.

He again apologised 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 work of making the Church a safe place is never finished and cannot be taken for granted. We will engage with the final report released today to improve our systems, protocols and procedures.”

The Royal Commission said more than 4000 survivors told Commissioners in private sessions that they had been sexually abused as children in religious institutions in Australia. Of those, 594 survivors (14.7 per cent) said they had been abused in one or more of 244 different Anglican institutions.

Of the 23 Anglican Church dioceses the Royal Commission surveyed, 22 reported having received one or more complaints of child sexual abuse between 1 January 1980 and 31 December 2015. Overall, 1085 complainants alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 1119 reported complaints to Anglican dioceses.

“Religious leaders and institutions across Australia have acknowledged that children suffered sexual abuse while in their care,” the report said. “Many have also accepted that their responses to this abuse were inadequate. These failures are not confined to religious institutions. However, the failures of religious institutions are particularly troubling because these institutions have played, and continue to play, an integral and unique role in many children’s lives. They have been key providers of education, health and social welfare services to children for many years. They have been among the most respected institutions in our society. The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least.

“It would be a mistake to regard child sexual abuse in religious institutions as being historical; as something we no longer need to be concerned about. While much of the abuse we heard about did take place before 1990, more than 200 survivors told us they had experienced child sexual abuse in a religious institution since 1990. Long delays in victims disclosing abuse mean that an accurate contemporary understanding of the problem is not possible.

“However, it would also be wrong to say that nothing has changed. In some religious institutions there has been progress over the last two decades. Some of the religious institutions examined in our case studies told us about their child protection reforms. Others remained reluctant to accept the need for significant internal changes.”

The report said early institutional responses of the Anglican Church to allegations of child sexual abuse had revealed multiple failures.

“Before the early 2000s, leaders of Anglican institutions often dismissed, did not believe, or minimised allegations of child sexual abuse against both clergy and lay people… Before the early 2000s, Anglican Church personnel rarely reported complaints of child sexual abuse to police or other civil authorities and, in some cases, those who made complaints to the Anglican Church were actively discouraged from taking further action…

“Before the early 2000s, a common response to complaints of child sexual abuse was to allow the alleged perpetrators to remain in ministry or lay involvement in Anglican institutions, sometimes for years or decades. In some cases conditions were imposed, or were purportedly imposed, on those against whom allegations had been made. However, we found that these conditions failed to adequately mitigate the risks to children, or were not complied with. In some cases, there were further allegations of child sexual abuse.

“At times, clergy and lay people were promoted and progressed through the ranks of Anglican institutions even after allegations of child sexual abuse had been made against them.

“Since 2004, Anglican Church dioceses in Australia have adopted and implemented a range of measures under a professional standards framework to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse, with the intention of achieving a consistent national approach. However, there remain differences in the way this framework operates in each of the 23 dioceses, leading to inconsistent outcomes for survivors.”

The report said a failure of leadership by diocesan bishops contributed to inadequate responses to child sexual abuse.

“In two of our case studies, alleged perpetrators remained in positions where they had access to children after a bishop had received a complaint of child sexual abuse about them, and there were subsequently further allegations of child sexual abuse. These failures occurred in a context where there was a lack of oversight and accountability of bishops, and no uniform process for complaints about bishops’ handling of allegations of abuse.

“In some instances, conflicts of interest arose for diocesan bishops and senior diocesan office-holders in their responses to individuals accused of child sexual abuse. Bishops have close relationships with clergy in their dioceses, which at times clearly affected their response to allegations. Conflicts also arose for senior officeholders as a consequence of their personal and professional interests.”

Aspects of clericalism – the theological belief that the clergy are different to the laity – may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Anglican Church and impeded appropriate responses to such abuse, the report said.

“A culture of clericalism may have discouraged survivors and others from reporting child sexual abuse, including to police. Greater transparency and a more extensive role for women in both ordained ministry and lay leadership positions in the Anglican Church, among other measures, could address the negative impacts of this culture of clericalism.

“In some cases in the Anglican Church there was a focus on extending forgiveness and compassion to perpetrators rather than properly considering the needs of victims. One consequence of a culture of forgiveness, when combined with a poor understanding of child sexual abuse, was that survivors were encouraged to forgive the person who abused them. Similarly, third parties who raised complaints were encouraged to forgive the person they suspected of perpetrating child sexual abuse.

“In addition to these cultural factors there were failures in the selection and screening of people for ordination. Clergy and church workers in the Anglican Church also need professional supervision and support.”

More generally, the report said the sexual abuse of a child was the greatest of personal violations perpetrated against the most vulnerable people in the community and a fundamental breach of the trust that children were entitled to place in adults.

“It is one of the most traumatic and potentially damaging experiences and can have lifelong adverse consequences

“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number. Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.

“The sexual abuse of children has occurred in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. Some institutions have had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children. It is not a case of a few ‘rotten apples’. Society’s major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person.

“The problems have been so widespread, and the nature of the abuse so heinous, that it is difficult to comprehend.”

The Commissioners said a failure to act would inevitably lead to the continuing sexual abuse of children, some of whom would suffer life-long harm. That harm could be devastating for the individual but also had a cost to the entire Australian community. Many survivors would require help with health, particularly mental health, housing and other public services.

On the eve of delivering its final report, the Royal Commission held its last public hearing in Sydney at which it presented to the National Library of Australia an enormous book, Message to Australia, containing a brief, anonymous written message from more than 1000 survivors who attended private sessions with the Commissioners.

Justice McClellan paid tribute to the survivors: “The Commissioners thank each of the survivors who told us their story. They have had a profound impact on the Commissioners and our staff. Without them we could not have done our work. Each survivor’s story is important to us. Their stories have helped us to identify what should be done to make institutions safer for children in the future. It has been a privilege for the Commissioners to sit with and listen to survivors. The survivors are remarkable people with a common concern to do what they can to ensure that other children are not abused. They deserve our nation’s thanks.”

The final report said: “The Royal Commission has now completed its task. Although we document in this Final Report the changes that have already occurred, further necessary and lasting change must come from a resolve by governments, institutions and the entire community to acknowledge the failures of the past and ensure they are not repeated.

“All children have a right to a safe and happy childhood. We all carry the responsibility to do what we can to provide it. We must not fail them.”

On 17 December, the Sunday after the Royal Commission’s final report was released, the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, said most of St Paul’s Cathedral’s almost 300 volunteers and staff had completed child safe training, and obtained Working with Children’s Checks.

“The Season of Advent brings into focus the call to repent and turn to Christ, as we prepare for the festival of his coming into the world as a vulnerable child, born of Mary, and expect his coming again to be our own judge,” Dr Loewe said.

He paid tribute to the courage of survivors of child sexual abuse who came forward to the Royal Commission and expressed repentance for the times the Church failed to hear their stories and prevent abuse.

“We thank the commissioners for their meticulous examination, and lament the part our own church played in turning a blind eye to abuse and failing to safeguard young and vulnerable people. We give thanks that for more than a decade the Anglican Church has worked assiduously to make our churches safe places for all, including providing legal frameworks to facilitate mandatory reporting of abuse, and training of staff and volunteers.

“Working for justice is an important part of the message of Advent: as we await the return of Christ our Judge, we also need to ensure that wherever we are able we help to right past wrongs.

“At our General Synod, and again in our own (Melbourne) Synod, we set up the mechanism for joining a national redress scheme. Financial recompense can never undo the wrongs of the past, but it acknowledges the real cost of suffering and pain, and can help to contribute to the slow journey to healing and reconciliation which we now must begin.”

He thanked Cathedral volunteers and staff for their diligence in completing child safe training and obtaining the checks.

“Many of you commented to me how much you benefited from the resources and training you received: together we can ensure that we can be vigilant and alert and ensure that we remain a safe and welcoming community for all,” the Dean said.

“In this final week of Advent, I pray that we each will be given grace and courage to share in the call to make our church, and the communities of which we are a part, places where the truth is told without fear and justice flourish, where repentance is offered and reconciliation may be sought.”

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney also recognised the courage and strength of survivors in giving testimony to the Royal Commission, as well as the “arduous and distressing task” of the Commissioners and their staff.

“As we welcomed the establishment of the Royal Commission in 2012 under the Gillard Government and likewise the extension of the Commission’s brief in 2014 under the Abbott Government, we welcome the Final Report of the Commissioners,” Dr Davies said on 15 December.

“We recognise the courage and strength of the survivors in giving testimony to the Commission. We are glad their painful stories will be preserved as a testament and a warning that such things should never have happened, and should not happen again. Anglican Church apologies, before and during the time of the Commission, can never adequately express the ongoing regret that these appalling acts should have been perpetrated on vulnerable children. 

“We also recognise the arduous and distressing task it has been for the Commissioners and staff to hear so many horrific stories of sexual abuse in institutions across the country.

“Australia owes a debt of gratitude to the chair, Justice Peter McClellan, the Commissioners, Counsels assisting, and the entire staff of the Royal Commission. 

“We look forward to studying the final report so that we, as the Anglican Church, might examine the recommendations and where there are still things for us to do, we shall attend to these with rigour, compassion and integrity.”

Canberra and Goulburn's Bishop Stuart Robinson said a Service of Lament would be held in St Saviour’s Cathedral Goulburn in the New Year.

“This will give us the opportunity to publicly express our culpability and our grief and to re-state an unequivocal apology to all who have been impacted by this very ugly chapter in our ecclesial and national story,” Bishop Robinson said.

“The Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn commends the Commissioners and their team for their diligence, care, compassion and courage. They have invested five years of their lives into a process that has exposed our sin and complacency and that will, please God, serve both church and community as together we address sexual abuse, bullying and corruption.

“We do welcome all recommendations and are in dialogue with the National Church on implementation strategies. Whilst this will take time, we are locally working on a raft of effective redress programmes and working closely with people have been abused, hurt and disenfranchised.

“And to be clear: we are appalled by the behaviour of church leaders and people in authority wherein ‘little ones’ have been harmed and abused. Such actions are unconscionable and reprehensible. Further, the name of Christ has been sullied through such self-centred activity.

“Our task is to acknowledge our guilt, to repent of our sin and then to work towards reconciliation and wholeness with survivors and their families. We have much work ahead.”