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Conference urges Australian Churches to reform

A Christian conference has called on churches to urgently reform following the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

September 3 2018A Christian conference in Melbourne has called on Australia’s churches to urgently reform their structures, governance and culture in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The three-day ecumenical Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry conference tackled the task of rebuilding and renewal for the churches after the Royal Commission.

Held on 27-29 August, the conference was hosted by the University of Divinity and sponsored by several leading Catholic religious institutes.

Church members and leaders, academics, clergy and religious, ministers and church workers, survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates, and groups advocating church reform all attended.

The conference heard of the grief and pain throughout Australian churches as a result of the sex abuse of children, and described the issue as a “national tragedy”.

It expressed solidarity with the many thousands of men, women and children who had been harmed, and condemned the ongoing denial by some church members of what has happened.

Churches are still often failing to respond to the needs of victims, their families, and communities, the conference heard.

The conference urged Australia’s churches to fully implement all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Divinity, Professor Peter Sherlock, told the conference the University would take a number of measures.

One outcome would be the creation of a new goal in the University’s Strategic Plan to pursue the dual themes of health and integrity in church and ministry.

Emeritus Professor Des Cahill of RMIT University, told the conference that the Royal Commission’s final report was the most thorough and credible report that has ever been produced on the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions.

“Due to the Royal Commission’s unparalleled moral authority, Australian governments are moving quickly to implement its recommendations”, Professor Cahill said.

The Health and Integrity conference called on Australia’s churches to exceed the minimum standards of implementation in the Royal Commission’s recommendations, to undertake thoroughgoing reform of theology, ministry, governance and leadership, and in so doing return to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

The conference further called on the churches to engage in a process of theological and interdisciplinary reflection about the causes and implications of the child sexual abuse crisis, as an essential first step in the task of reform.

Revd Professor Richard Lennan, an Australian priest who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College in the United States, warned that any church that proved unwilling or unable to learn the lessons of the Royal Commission “will disqualify itself from a continuing place in Australian society”.

Professor Lennan said the Royal Commission had brought distorted aspects of the Catholic Church’s culture into relief. “When the Royal Commission defined clericalism as the idealisation of the clergy, and by extension the idealisation of the Church, it was describing a form of idolatry”, he said.

“Idols cannot ever give life; they can only be a distortion of what God enables,” Professor Lennan said in his paper.

“While taking up the specific recommendations of the Royal Commission will certainly help the church to become a more transparent and authentic body, the renewal of integrity in the church requires more than individual pieces of reform: it requires broad and deep cultural shifts in the church.

“To achieve this, it will be necessary for the Church to embrace an overarching approach to change”.

Susan Pascoe AM, President and Chair of the Australian Council for International Development and Chair of the Community Director’s Council, told the conference that although most of the churches have signed up to the National Redress Scheme and many have issued apologies to victims, to date there has been limited public recognition by the churches of the need for governance and cultural reform.

“Abuse survivors, many of whose lives have been irretrievably damaged may take some convincing that genuine reform is on the way,” Ms Pascoe said.

Noting that “Basic Religious Charities” are exempted from meeting the reporting obligations and governance standards of other charities and non-for-profit organisations under the 2013 Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Act, Ms Pascoe said it was “reasonable to expect church bodies to operate on comparable, or equal governance standards as corporate, government and not-for-profit entities”. She said they should also be subject to the same, or a comparable, regulatory regime.

The conference called on Australian churches to initiate reform with the following principles:

 *take responsibility for the lifelong care and support of victims, and ensure victims are not retraumatised when they seek support and redress from the Church;

 *reject clericalism in all its forms;

 *commit to contemporary ethical standards of good governance based on the principles of transparency, accountability and inclusivity;

 *ensure laity, and especially women, can take their rightful place in all aspects of church life, including governance;

 *participate fully in the national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse on 22 October 2018;

 *consider instituting a shared National Day of Remembrance on the anniversary of the release of the Royal Commission’s report on 15 December 2017, to ensure that the testimony of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse continues to be heard, and to be an occasion on which each church reports publicly on its progress in implementing the Royal Commission recommendations and reforming its governance and culture.

The National Day of Remembrance should also be an occasion to celebrate "those righteous truth-tellers who refused to keep silent about the abuse and those who have worked in the interests of victims and child safety".