When the royal commission sat for the final time, the church was not there. Senior figures were not present. It fell to a layperson to attend, to Francis Sullivan, whose self-critical stewardship of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council has been the only redemption of an institution built on the preaching of forgiveness.
“I think it would have been a real sign of solidarity with the victims if we’d had some members of the hierarchy and senior figures from the church here,” Sullivan said afterwards. “One can only assume they didn’t feel comfortable coming here.”
The absence is terrible and unsurprising. The recurrent theme in five years of testimony at this commission has been abandonment. It is an abandonment of children and of responsibility.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse investigated more than 4000 institutions. There were tens of thousands of victims. The 21-volume report from the commission was delivered to the governor-general on Friday.
The commission’s chair, Justice Peter McClellan, confirmed the greatest number of abusers were hidden in Catholic institutions. This surprised no one. In hearing after hearing, an image emerged of an organisation that not only housed but enabled abuse. Paedophiles were shielded. Victims were disbelieved. Elaborate legal structures were built to deny rights.
When the commission was announced, George Pell’s mind was fevered with conspiracy. He fumed and preened and blamed the press for a “persistent campaign” against the Catholic Church. He insisted Catholics were not the “only cab on the rank”. Later, on the stand, he compared the church’s culpability to a trucking company whose driver “picks up some lady and then molests her”.
The commission’s final report is an extraordinary document, extraordinary for the fact it exists. A redress scheme must now be set up. The thousands of lives hurt by institutional deviancy must not be left without repair. Other changes must be made and are among the recommendations.
But there is one larger change that must also take place. It is not called for in the official documents, but it is urgent and necessary. The church must no longer be allowed to interfere with public life.
In the course of this commission, the church has shown itself to disregard ordinary laws. Frequently, it operated in conflict with them. At the same time, it attempted to control the moral life of the country.
The church maintains undue influence over laws governing euthanasia and abortion and stem-cell research. It collects undue privilege from the tax system and for its shadow systems of education and healthcare. It holds obscene rights to discriminate against minorities. All of this must change.
Politics kowtows to faith, even as faith plays a diminished role in life. As church pews have emptied, the corridors of power have filled with lobbying priests and other defenders of clerical privilege. But this commission proves what has always been true: the church has no claim to superiority and no right to dictate to others. That lesson must be learnt. Our country would be better for it.
The Catholic Church was absent at the final hearing. It was never there for the children it abused, and this last day was no different. Malcolm Turnbull was present, though. He left through a side door.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Church fate". Subscribe here.