The Catholic Church says governments see no urgency in establishing child abuse redress schemes as interest wanes after the royal commission. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Church blames fatigue for redress failure

Cardinal George Pell in the Vatican.
Cardinal George Pell in the Vatican.
Credit: Marco Ravagli / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

On December 15 last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed its final report to the governor-general. It had been five years in the making, and, as the head of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the body formed to coordinate the church’s response to the commission, Francis Sullivan was there for all of it.

The church didn’t appoint a sycophant. Sullivan is a man who speaks in good faith about his church’s abuses, and who has become one of its most insistent and credible critics. He is a man who attended each hearing involving the Catholic Church, and who has by now spent hundreds of hours with church victims – mostly listening, he says. A devout Catholic, with a master’s in theology, Sullivan has never been clergy. The bulk of his professional history had been in senior administration – as secretary general of the Australian Medical Association, and before that as the head of Catholic Health Australia.

But after five years and a report containing more than 400 recommendations, Sullivan has grave fears about our country’s willingness to respond to the commission – notably its recommendation for a national redress scheme to be functioning by July of last year. “These days, politicians need a dynamic political narrative,” Sullivan says. “Child abuse isn’t one, unfortunately. Leaders have to show that they’re willing to drive and drive and drive. Many have said they’d be there for victims, but the next day they’re gone. It’s no longer an imperative. The attention in the royal commission waned, there was massive fatigue. I think editorial rooms were fatigued. Attention dropped off unless there was a four-letter word involved: P-E-L-L. Any other case study didn’t get the coverage. Fatigue has been wrought.”

In October last year, the federal government tabled a bill for a national redress scheme, first recommended by the commission in 2015. Then social services minister Christian Porter said institutional responses had been inadequate and the redress scheme was needed. The federal government set aside $30 million for its administration, and explained that in addition to compensation – capped at $150,000 – the scheme would require responsible state and non-state institutions to provide formal apologies and counselling to victims. While Sullivan says the proposed scheme “largely” reflects the commission’s recommendations, there have been two principal problems – the delay in tabling the bill, and the fact it requires each state to sign up to it. So far, none has.

“I just wish the federal government had taken hold of the recommendations back in 2015,” Sullivan says. “If they had, we wouldn’t be talking about this now. But it didn’t get started until last year. The inertia is plain to see.

“To be frank, I thought [last] Friday’s [Council of Australian Governments] meeting showed an incredible lack of resolve. Malcolm Turnbull went out of his way to heavy the states the day before, but then look at the communiqué and find the press conferences about it – it’s vanished. And it always does. July 1 will come and go and most states won’t have signed up. Welcome to the federation.”


Just prior to hosting the state premiers last week, the prime minister made a speech in parliament recognising the work of the commission and pressuring the states to sign up to the redress scheme. It was a speech made only a week after announcing his intention to offer a national apology to survivors. “The scheme will fulfil its promise of justice only if we have maximum participation across all jurisdictions,” the prime minister said. “For this to occur, the states must take urgent action and refer the appropriate power to the Commonwealth in order for them to participate from July 1 … Unless the states agree to participate, institutions within their jurisdictions will not be able to join. Survivors deserve much better, and I urge the premiers in all jurisdictions to prioritise this work and join the redress scheme without further delay.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agreed: “As of today, not a single dollar has come from any of the states or institutions whose names and deeds fill the pages of this report. I say to the institutions and indeed the states: the time for lawyers is over; the time for justice is here.”

Twenty-four hours later, when the COAG meeting’s communiqué was released, this urgency had become a single, platitudinous line about the scheme.

“State governments are very tentative,” Sullivan explains. “South Australia and Western Australia argue that they ran their own. They did, but they were paltry amounts. It strikes me that there’s a lot of positioning going on. SA is heading into an election and doesn’t want to be seen as profligate. Premiers are obsessed with fiscal management issues, particularly Labor premiers – always striving to prove their economic management credentials. That’s cynical on my part – I get that. But we need to understand this situation and why little is moving ahead with the states ... and acknowledge that public consciousness is drifting away.”


In December last year, a lawyer who had represented victims of child sexual abuse expressed concern for them following the conclusion of the royal commission. “It’s like having a favourite aunty who you totally trust and believe in, and they back and support you, and then suddenly they’re not there,” the lawyer said. “There is a risk people will just feel deserted.”

I don’t doubt this, but the commission cannot bear witness infinitely and it’s unhealthy to wish it to do so. Fixation with one’s trauma is also a terrible symptom of it – one that psychologists work with patients to assuage. That said, the often glib insistence to “move on” ignores the fact that formal acknowledgement and reparation – after years of denial and cold legalism – might be integral to an individual doing just that. Porter acknowledged as much when introducing the redress bill last year. 

Sullivan says that finely parsing accountability, or counting dollars, misses the largest point of the royal commission and its recommendations. “There will always be people who baulk at seemingly having to pay for the trauma of the past,” he told me. “I get that. But on day one, the royal commission said of its function that this was the country bearing witness. A part of that is not simply to observe, but to assimilate this past trauma into the national psyche. And that is, fundamentally, what redress is. Arguments of black armband history are too limited an understanding of what the royal commission was about. In a sense, it’s about recognising a communitarian obligation. That’s where I come from.

“It’s not that [Australians] don’t care – that’s too stark – but this whole area of redress, well, there’s no real political pressure there. Victim groups try to keep it on the agenda, but it’s never a sustainable narrative for media and therefore governments. State governments especially can keep it at some distance. An exception to this rule is probably Victoria and New South Wales. Amongst the public some people, perhaps, have numbed themselves to keep away from the horror. It’s self-protective.” 

The prime minister has not set a date for the national apology – saying only that it would occur this year. The question remains of whether it will be delivered in harmony with a functioning redress scheme.

“I actually think a national apology by the PM is important, but I don’t think they should wait for the states to come on board with a redress scheme,” the mother of a child abuse victim from Western Australia told me this week. “That could drag on too long and dilute its relevance. There are lots of people out there who have waited far too long already. The institutions that allowed these crimes to happen, that covered up abuse and denied victims justice, should be made to pay for compensation … not the taxpayer.”

The mother, however, said she appreciated that the concept of redress might be difficult for those untouched by abuse. “In WA we have the bottom falling out of mining, and so people are sensitive about government finance, and I think perhaps people have had enough of hearing about child abuse – at least those who haven’t been affected.”

In a week in which Fairfax Media published the results of its investigation into the Catholic Church’s wealth – estimating the value of its national assets at $30 billion – Sullivan says there is no question about the church fairly paying its victims under a scheme.

 Fairfax Media’s investigation drew attention to an apparent discrepancy between what the Melbourne archdiocese reported were its assets to the royal commission – $100 million – and Fairfax’s evaluation of those same assets at $9 billion. Sullivan tells me: “We did not mislead. We responded to the [legal] notice to produce emphatically and pedantically. [Fairfax’s estimate] is a big figure, and may well be accurate. But it’s not what was asked for. The church is vulnerable to these accusations because of its behaviour in the past. I understand this. But [the church’s wealth] becomes academic because the church will pay its way. The days of the church investigating itself are over. An independent umpire will adjudicate the figures the church should pay, and the church will pay it.”    


That the royal commission existed at all is a small miracle of politics. In 2012, following alarmed claims from NSW police detective Peter Fox that historic church abuse was vastly more prevalent than was popularly acknowledged – and that previous state inquiries into institutional child abuse were too limited in their breadth and power – then prime minister Julia Gillard announced a royal commission to be led by Justice Peter McClellan. “There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil,” she said. “I believe in these circumstances that it’s appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission.”

The then Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, supported Gillard’s initiative, but said the terms of reference should not merely be limited to the Catholic Church. They weren’t. George Pell, as the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, called a press conference and pugnaciously defended the church. “Public opinion remains unconvinced that the Catholic Church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse,” he said. “Ongoing and at times one-sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty. This is one of the reasons for my support for this royal commission. I welcome the prime minister’s announcement. I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered.”

The “truth” Pell was referring to was his belief that allegations against the church were grossly exaggerated. In time, Pell’s assertion would be forensically – and shamefully – discounted. The scale of the abuse astonished Francis Sullivan, he says, and reduced him to tears. The church’s intimate covenant with its followers had been broken.  


Sullivan acknowledges the work being done by the Commonwealth, even if action on the redress scheme was greatly delayed. He says he was impressed that both Turnbull and Shorten appeared at the commission in its final days, and spent time with victims. But he has an unwavering attention to church victims and knows that justice has been an agonisingly long time coming for them.

“I had a very chilling experience early on,” Sullivan tells me. “A victim said to me: ‘Don’t let us down again.’ Part of that challenge was: if you have an opportunity to advocate, do so. They were imploring me to step up and help keep their experience in the forefront of the collective imagination of the community. They had too much experience where the church seemed to keep them at a distance and had tried to manage them rather than genuinely listen to their stories and act on the implications of those stories.”

The royal commission may have ended, but Sullivan’s work is very far from over.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Church blames fatigue for redress failure".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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