Royal Commission puts Anglican leaders on notice over national standards

General Synod in September is to consider measures to strengthen child protection in the Church

The Royal Commissioners pressed Anglican bishops and lay leaders on consistent, national standards on child protecction, redress and other matters on the last day of the hearing.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

By Mark Brolly

March 22 2017 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has put the Anglican Church of Australia on notice that it is seeking consistency across all 23 dioceses on issues such as child protection, redress for survivors of abuse and professional standards.

On the last of four days of the Commission’s final “wrap-up” public hearing into the Anglican Church, Justice Peter McClellan, the Chair, and his fellow commissioners pressed Church leaders on the importance of a national approach.

The hearing was told that measures to strengthen the Church’s protection of children would be put to General Synod, its national parliament, in Maroochydore, Queensland, from 3-8 September.

Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier – the Anglican Primate of Australia – Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, Archbishop-elect Geoff Smith of Adelaide, Bishop Sarah Macneil of Grafton, the General Secretary of the General Synod, Ms Anne Hywood, and Mr Garth Blake SC, the Chair of both the Professional Standards Commission of General Synod and the Church’s Royal Commission Working Group, appeared before all six commissioners in Sydney on 22 March.

At one point, after Ms Hywood raised concerns about what would happen if some dioceses did not join the rest of the Church in opting in to a national redress scheme proposed by the Federal Government, Justice McClellan said: “If, as we are now satisfied will happen, there will be a national scheme, it would be disappointing, to say the least – and I could use a stronger word – if a component of the Anglican Church did not participate and join in that scheme. And it is right, you may well have to set up an individual body or a separate body, but if any component part of the Anglican Church stands aside from it, I'm not sure our society would approve. Indeed, I think our society would say very strong things to the contrary.”

Asked by Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Ms Gail Furness, whether the Melbourne diocese would opt-in to an Anglican-structured process, which in turn would then opt-in to the Commonwealth scheme, Dr Freier replied that Melbourne would be likely to do so, though “we would want to honour the choice of survivors to participate how they wanted to”.

“I think we would want to put something in place that gave people the confidence we were going to be fully accountable into the future, not just when the Commonwealth scheme ran its term and closed,” he said.

Speaking on consistency more generally, Archbishop Davies said protecting children was the paramount issue, while consistency was a second-order issue.

“It (consistency) is important, but it is far more important to have children protected,” he said.

“I think the evidence I have heard this week has been the fact that in many dioceses - I can speak of my own - rigorous child protection measures have been in place recently, and we continue to improve them along those principles… I recognise that there has been a failure of the national church to have consistency across the board, but it shouldn't be forgotten… that good work has been done.”

Dr Freier told the hearing: “I think that as Primate I can commit to the Commission that I will expend my best energy between now and the General Synod seeking to gather the support for the proposals which will be about uniform child protection going to the General Synod.

“… It seems to me that we are in a stage where we are wanting to continually improve and develop things, and until we reach a stage we think we have the highest levels, it is more incumbent upon us to keep developing things than simply get uniformity of something which might be an earlier work or a standard that isn't as high.

“I think that we're in an uncomfortable place, as has been widely discussed here at the Commission, but I think the intention is for us to drive the highest standards we can and some of it might be a bit messy getting there. I hope we can get there at our General Synod in September.”

Commissioner Bob Atkinson, a former Queensland police chief commissioner, asked Dr Freier, as Primate, if all dioceses would adopt a common code of conduct and have an identical professional standards legislation regime and identical child safe standards?

Dr Freier: “I think that would be the aspiration that I would hold too and I would hope that the measures we bring to the General Synod will enable that to be the case.”

Commissioner Atkinson: “I am sensing a little bit of reservation there and if that is so, is that because the culture in the church is so strong and the independence of the dioceses is so strong that there can't be a guarantee of that?”

Dr Freier: “At this point, I can only hesitate because we've not reached that point of the proposals being settled that will come to the General Synod, nor the agreement of the General Synod, but it is the fact, as the Commission has heard, there are some mechanisms that each diocese would need to adopt a measure. Even if passed by a very strong majority of the General Synod, which I am anticipating will happen, there are still steps outside of the influence of the General Synod, or the influence that I can be decisive about, apart from confidence I can have within my own diocese. That's the only reason I would hesitate because I think it would be wrong to see steps happening as already being completed when they are yet to be fulfilled.”

Commissioner Atkinson: “Would it be your view, though, that all of the archbishops and all of the bishops would be united in the view of a need for consistency across all three of those areas?”

Dr Freier: “Yes, I think there is always discussion around what shape that consistency will take, as you would expect, but I think there is a strong agreement of the importance of having a consistent approach to child protection.”

Mr Blake, asked by Ms Rachel Ellyard for the Church, whether some “external impulse might be either necessary or useful” for the Church to achieve uniformity across Australia in areas such as professional standards, replied: “I think, from my perspective, I would regard that as a continuing moral failure, if our church requires an external push, either by this Commission or by legislation, to do the right thing. I think we have been on a journey, particularly since 2004, to achieve a nationally consistent approach. I think the strategy of recommending policies and hoping that dioceses would pick them up has now been shown not to be completely successful, although there has been substantial change. Thus, the intention is to take to General Synod a proposal that would bring about consistency in standards of conduct and a consistent minimum standard of training, screening, audit and perhaps other matters.

“As I said, if this requires the Royal Commission or government to tell us to do the right thing, that would only demonstrate that we have really not learnt and we don't have the courage of the convictions which we bring as a Christian body.”

Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald, a lawyer, public official and senior Roman Catholic layman, asked Dr Freier about differences in reporting by Anglican schools to Church authorities across Australia and whether he did not feel “somewhat vulnerable” that he was not fully informed of either incidents that were occurring within those schools or their responses to victims and survivors.

“Look, I think I live with the current arrangements because of their character, but I would certainly be keen to have that reporting in one place,” Archbishop Freier replied. “So I agree with you: there is a weakness and I would be keen to advocate that that change.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald: “And, again, do you think that's a weakness, that you, as archbishop, might come to the conclusion that the Anglican Church should apologise in relation to a particular victim or survivor, and a board could, in fact, not provide that apology? Do you think that's a satisfactory position given what we now know through the case studies and the evidence more generally?”

Dr Freier: “I think, as you put it that way, the answer is no, it is not a satisfactory position, but I am given a lot of confidence that each of the boards are very conscious of their responsibility to respond within their proper responsibilities, and so they assure me that they are attentive and responsive to these matters. But I think in the actual terms of your question, yes, it is a weakness.”

Commissioner Andrew Murray, a former West Australian Senator, then asked about the Church’s on the use of its brand by schools and, therefore, its ability to impose standards.

“As far as I'm aware, the only jurisdiction in Australia where ‘Anglican’ is a protected word in some way is in the State of New South Wales,” Dr Freier said. “In other states there is no protection of that name.

“The entities which have been – say in the state of my diocese, where there has been a long history of fostering independent organisations – they… could argue that they have as much of the inheritance and conception of what is being Anglican as the diocese has, because of their long parallel history. Some of these entities have been operating for almost as long as the diocese.”

Mr Blake foreshadowed legislation to be put to General Synod clarifying confession. He said the 2014 General Synod had passed a canon to ensure that there was no rule of the church that prevented the disclosure of child sexual abuse and other grave matters but its validity had been questioned subsequently, “so there is a determination to revisit that at the coming General Synod to pass it in a way that there will be no question as to its validity”.

“That has also been accompanied by the work of the Doctrine Commission of the church, which has identified that, at least in our understanding of confession, there is scope to disclose a matter of child sexual abuse or a grave offence involving a vulnerable person.

“They are the sorts of exceptions that are being built into this canon to go to the General Synod in September, and I understand from the bishops who attended the recent bishops' meeting that there is unanimous view amongst the bishops that that is an appropriate way for the church to move.

“It will need to go to every diocese for adoption. Given our constitution, because that matter affects a matter of discipline, it must be adopted in each diocese. I understand there is a will to do that. And it would be a matter particularly for the bishop to instruct the clergy of the diocese about.”

Archbishop Davies said it was unlikely that the Diocese of Sydney would adopt the canon because there was no legislation for confessions there.

“It's not common in the Diocese of Sydney to have a private confession like this,” he said. “So matters of child sexual abuse would certainly be reported to the police and the matter would be reported to the bishop, most likely, by a minister, if that occurred, and we would have pastoral ways of doing it along those lines, rather than through the concept of the confessions canon as envisaged by the General Synod legislation.”

Asked about clericalism, Dr Davies said the Diocese of Sydney had more of a problem with lay offenders, “particularly where a layperson would enter the safety of a church environment, become a leader of a youth group or whatever it might be, and then regrettably and ashamedly use the opportunities that they had to engage in terrible conduct”.

“What I think we have seen is that perpetrators or potential perpetrators seek a safe haven where their activities will not be monitored, where inadequate screening of our laypeople in past years allowed people with corrupt motives to abuse young boys, in particular, but also girls.”

Asked by Ms Furness what other factors may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse within the Church, Archbishop Davies replied: “… Forgiveness is corrupted when there is no restitution, when there is no true repentance and I think what has happened in the past is that there has been easy forgiveness, or shall I say cheap forgiveness, whereby a person has been forgiven thinking it is not going to happen again. We were not aware of recidivism as an issue, we too easily forgave. I think at heart people almost didn't believe such behaviour could be engaged in in a church environment, I think it was actually a disbelief with regard to that, and that's why we didn't listen properly to children and when complaints were made, they were not properly addressed, and I've spoken publicly about that and given an apology with regard to that.

“… I was also enraged by the way in which my church and leaders of my church mishandled and, in a sense, further traumatised the survivors of abuse in the way in which they were not believed and the way in which no proper action was taken.”

Commissioner Helen Milroy, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia, asked if the Anglican Church had “an overarching theology of the child… that goes to the ministry with children and how that has developed and the professional development that might ensue after that”. She also asked if there were a consistent curriculum on this in the formation of clergy.

Archbishop Freier said there was not a consistent curriculum but core elements to each theological degree.

Commissioner Milroy: “Do you think there would be some merit in being able to have that broader framework for everyone, really, in the church, so that the child protection issues don't just sit in isolation, but they sit within a broader context for understanding children in the church?”

Dr Freier: “Yes, there would be great merit in that. Again, the means by which that might be achieved is harder to say, and it is paradoxical, because at the time when some of the people who are now recognised as abusers were going through theological training, I think there was far more consistency. People all did a theological program that was approved by the Australian College of Theology and pretty much around the colleges there was one qualification that people completed. Since that time there has been an elaboration of theological education, much more linking with secular universities, or, in my State, we have two accrediting authorities…”

Sydney’s Dr Davies said to Commissioner Milroy: “The consistency issue you raise may not be exactly the same curriculum in various theological colleges, but the fundamental truths which the Bible teaches about the value of the child – and this is children in the church and outside the church – is that they are made in the image of God and that's what spurs us on to the importance of child protection.”

Justice McClellan thanked the Anglican bishops and officials as he closed the hearing, saying: “It won't have escaped all of you that you are significant leaders in different ways in the church – I know there are others – but obviously there are still matters which need to be brought forward and the community will be looking to you as the leaders of the church to bring those matters forward and reach a satisfactory conclusion…”



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