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Child protection 'a common cause' for Anglicans: Royal Commissioner

Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald addresses Anglican General Synod

By Mark Brolly

September 7 2017Child protection must be a common purpose and a common cause that unites the Anglican Church, a Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Mr Robert Fitzgerald, told the Anglican General Synod in Maroochydore on 4 September.

Mr Fitzgerald said the Synod was meeting at a critical time for the Church and for the wellbeing of children in Australia.

“There may be a day when this Church has to live with difference and not come to agreement on certain matters. There may be certain matters where it is appropriate for dioceses to act differently. But I want to say to you that today is not that day and this is not that issue,” he said.

“The community at large, victims and survivors expect this Church to be able to finally form a nationally consistent approach on these important issues.

“If there is a common purpose and a common cause that unites this Church, surely it must be child protection…

“There is nothing biblical or unbiblical about this matter… the message of the Gospels and the message of Christ is clear: that our preference and our option in terms of care must be to those vulnerable and I say to you that there are no people more vulnerable today than the children and those who have been abused.”

Responding to a question from Bishop Andrew Curnow of Bendigo, Commissioner Fitzgerald said the world would treat harshly those who stood in the “marketplace of morality” but who failed to act in a moral way.

“I do understand that it’s up to you to regain the trust and confidence of the Australian community and I believe that can be done — not easily, not quickly and not without some pain.”

In his speech, Commissioner Fitzgerald said Australians were familiar with the faces of abuse survivors, “ravaged by both time and age but also the impacts of the abuse that they have lived with for much of their adult life”.

“But the truth of the matter is they’re not the faces I see today.’’ he said. “I see... them as children.

“I was recently at my local church (Mr Fitzgerald is a Roman Catholic layman) and they were calling the children forward for the children’s liturgy and I could barely look at the faces of those nine and 10 and 11-year-old children, who had the same aspirations, the same sense of joy, the same sense of hope as those who were abused had and they were the same age. Indeed in the Anglican Church, the average age of the first abuse of a child was when they were 10-and-a-half years old.

“And so it is to me, and it bears heavily on you, those faces and their voices. And they ask three things of you: They say ‘Do you believe me? Do you really believe that the abuse that we now have evidenced happened?’ And the answer must be overwhelmingly: Yes, we do!’ The second is, they say: ‘How could this possibly have occurred?’ And the work of the Royal Commission seeks to understand that. And much of our work has been dedicated to answering that simple question… And the third question they ask of you specifically is: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And that answer must be forthright, it must be clear, it must absolutely be just and fair and it must put right those wrongs that this Church and other institutions have allowed to occur in the past.

“The good news is, I and others believe you can. The question is whether you believe that. Today and over this week, you will prove the answer to that question.”

The Royal Commission ends on 15 December, when its final report will be delivered to the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove. But Commissioner Fitzgerald told the General Synod that its public release would follow its tabling in the Federal and state parliaments, meaning it may not become public until early 2018 - five years after the Royal Commission began its work.

He said the Royal Commissioners had seen 7200 abuse survivors in private sessions (which will continue until the first week of December), conducted 57 case studies involving 114 institutions, heard from more than 1000 witnesses at public hearings and commissioned more than 100 pieces of research, nearly 70 of which had been published.

Nearly 600 people had come forward and told of their abuse in Anglican institutions, including schools, community services, parishes and dioceses. Abuse in most cases went for more than two years. Nearly three-quarters of abusers were male, with 570 perpetrators named.

“Indeed the very religious community, the thing in which these children were raised and their parents were in fact adherents to your Church, became the very barriers that firstly allowed the abuse and secondly failed to allow a disclosure,” Mr Fitzgerald told the Synod.

“The word of the minister was automatically accepted over the word of the child, the status afforded to people in religious ministry blinded community members from seeing the signs of abusive behaviours and gave unfettered access to children in multiple environments. Too often, perpetrators would see the special relationship with God as a means of intimidating, manipulating and disempowering children and victims alike.

“Indeed in many religions, including the Catholic and Anglican, children were told that they were the wrongdoer, that they had committed the sin and that should they tell anybody that they would be punished. And indeed some were forced to go to Confession to confess their sin of having been abused.

“The profound effect of that on a child, both at the time and later on in life, cannot be underestimated,” he said.

This included loss of faith, spiritual confusion and estrangement from a religious community that had been part and parcel of their young lives, family conflicts and breakdowns and ultimately a loss of trust in authority.

“Instead of a belief in a Church and an institution that cared and had values which it upheld, it was replaced by anger, shame and confusion as to the true values of the Church, which seem to have been so compromised in relation to the responses of those who were abused.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald said legal and other advice played a contributing role, putting aside victims' own needs and failing to acknowledge their trauma, all in the name of acting in the best interests of the Church.

“It must be bleedingly obvious to all of us today that that advice was wrong then and wrong now. The Church’s reputation was not ultimately saved, in fact it was demeaned and diminished, and it could have been avoided had a different approach and different questions and had different values been applied…”

Mr Fitzgerald said there was a state of confusion in different churches, particularly around forgiveness and accountability, and a complete misunderstanding that forgiveness, whether given by a man or by God, “doesn’t remove the need for accountability nor does it remove the need for that person to be held to account by civil authorities”.

“Those confusions I fully appreciate were not intentional but nevertheless the confusions in fact acted in many cases to allow the abuser, the perpetrator to escape appropriate justice. Indeed, our criminal justice system for so long was very much in favour of the perpetrator and abuser.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald said the Newcastle case study report would be published “in the not-too-distant future”.

But he said the case study into the Church of England Boys' Society early last year “was perhaps one of the most profoundly disturbing case studies that the Commission has done because of the organised nature of the abuse” and because it was probably the first time the Commission had seen an environment in which abusers operated in the knowledge of other abuse taking place.

“There is little doubt now that CEBS in fact fathered a group of paedophiles that operated across dioceses, across organisations,” he said.

“Equally was the failure of that organisation and the Church to respond adequately. Extraordinarily, for example, the only thing the CEBS National Council did in response to child sexual abuse was to revoke the CEBS national awards given to certain offenders.”

He said CEBS had considered making an apology but decided against it “by which time we had known abuse was not only rampant but organised and crossed diocesan boundaries”.

“How is that possible? How is it possible that an organisation with the knowledge that it then had could take that decision?”

On the case of the North Coast Children’s Home in the NSW Diocese of Grafton, Mr Fitzgerald said there had been an “extraordinary attack on victims by the diocese and lawyers for the diocese”.

“It was only the expose by one particular victim who sustained a campaign against the Church for years and years that it became known. Had that one victim not done that, it is likely that both the abuse that occurred within that home and the response of the Church at the time would have largely gone ignored.”

Mr Fitzgerald acknowledged that later there was a positive response and that settlements were entered into.

He said he had been very pleased to accept the invitation to address General Synod, the triennial national parliament of the Church, when the Royal Commission Chair, Justice Peter McClellan, was unable to do so.

“I have had a long association with the various aspects of the Anglican Church in number of different roles and there are good friends amongst the gathering today,” he said.

Mr Fitzgerald said seven years ago, he had met the Australian bishops in Newcastle - a diocese in which child abuse has been the subject of extended inquiry by the Royal Commission - shortly after he agreed to chair an inquiry into the contribution of the not-for-profit sector, including faith-based organisations.

“In meeting with the bishops and archbishops in Newcastle, it was a positive view... that the role of not-for-profit organisations, including religions, had a very significant role to play in the life of Australia, both economic and social, but also very importantly, the cultural and moral aspects…

“No one, not you nor I, could have predicted that some short time thereafter I would be on this Commission and one of those tasks was to sit on the bench in the inquiry into the Diocese of Newcastle… and for a very different purpose and it is true for a very different aspect of the Church at large.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald said there were cultural issues in the Anglican Church, in which many people continued to hold myths about sexual abuse: that children were not to be believed, that it was exaggerated, that it was an historical event that had passed us by, that once an offender had been found out that they would stop abusing.

“This is simply not true, those myths have been dispelled.”

He said the Royal Commission would make a small number of recommendations specific to the Anglican Church (significantly fewer than for the Roman Catholic Church) but there would be a large number about all religious institutions, including the Anglican Church.

Lifetime access to services for survivors, such as counselling, was “one of the great learnings” of the Commission. Many wanted to reconnect with the faith of their childhood.

“One of the most extraordinary things for me has been to sit with people in their 60s and 70s yearning for the restoration of faith that was robbed from them when they were children. They may not want to reconnect with the formal aspects of Church but many want to reconnect to those things that were important to them as children, important to their mothers and fathers, important to their family life. They struggle with how to do that and I suspect you struggle to know how to provide it.

“We don’t seek to tell the Church how to be a church, we don’t seek to tell you how to run the Anglican Church of Australia, although some of you will think we are and undoubtedly some of your adherents will think that. But what we have tried to do is to provide the evidence by which you will take the decisions necessary and for us to make recommendations to governments that are in the best interests of the community as a whole.

“When the Commission finishes, I look forward to being able to talk more personally about my own learnings and my own feelings arising from this Commission. But that must wait.”

Mr Fitzgerald concluded his address by quoting what inspired him in life, from the Prophet Micah: “To act with justice, to love with tenderness and to walk humbly with one’s God.”

“When the children needed our love most, it was missing. When they returned as adults and sought nothing but justice, we confronted then with injustice and unfairness and when we should have been so true to the cause of the Gospel message, we veered so far away that it’s almost inconceivable to most of us today.

“It is time to right those wrongs of the past. It is time to show that the Anglican Church of Australia, together with the other institutions, is capable of achieving true justice and of returning to the Gospel message which we proclaim.”

* In keeping with the commitment made by the Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier, to the Royal Commission “wrap-up” hearing into the Anglican Church in March, General Synod has adopted several measures to improve child protection, redress and deal with abuse complaints halfway through its business sessions.

Synod has approved rules to protect children that are binding on all clergy and church workers, and include regular independent audits to be published publicly, and the establishment of an independent company to handle complaints and compensation to victims of sex abuse - enabling the Church to join the Commonwealth's proposed national redress scheme - as well as measures to respond to complaints against diocesan bishops, including former bishops.

Archbishop Freier told the Commission hearing in March that he would expend his energy to seek support for uniform child protection measures to be put to General Synod.