To the surprise of some, the Catholic bishops of Australia welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement of a royal commission into child sexual abuse.
Australians believe in justice and there is a strong feeling that justice has been denied to victims of sexual abuse. Justice is also owed to the individuals and institutions working to prevent sexual abuse and helping victims and their families.
I welcome the royal commission because it will help victims and help to clear the air. Victims have an absolute right to justice and I am pleased that they have welcomed the royal commission.
It might be helpful to clarify some important points from last week.
Some proposed an inquiry into only the Catholic Church. I opposed this for the simple reason that there is no evidence to suggest abuse is confined to the Catholic Church. I welcome the fact that the commission will consider the problem more broadly across all Australian institutions. If we are serious about tackling this scourge in our society, this is the right thing to do.
As a priest, I have committed my life to looking after people, especially those in need and the vulnerable. The harm sexual abuse causes has always filled me with horror. I am ashamed that priests are among those who have committed such crimes. As a bishop in two cities, I have worked hard to eradicate this evil and to help victims. I am not interested in denying the extent of wrongdoing in the Catholic Church.
The national ''Towards Healing'' protocol adopted in 1996 was a significant improvement in our procedures and has enabled us to make enormous progress in dealing with and preventing sexual abuse. Unfortunately, we have been unable to reassure all parts of the community of this. The commission will identify the truth of competing claims.
The Archdiocese of Sydney published a booklet recently outlining its procedures for responding to sexual abuse and for reporting crimes to the police. These procedures have been met with wide approval both within the church and from outside experts (a copy is available at sydneycatholic.org).
All Australians, and especially the victims, have a right to know where sexual abuse is occurring and its extent today. In NSW in 2010, there were 4886 cases of sexual abuse involving children reported to the police. Is the situation worsening with more reported violations? Has the number of prosecutions increased or decreased?
There has also been misunderstanding over the seal of Confession, causing a diversion from the real issue.
Going to Confession is not getting a ticket to sin. If a penitent is not genuinely sorry and is determined to return to his wrongdoing, then the sacrament is useless; a sacrilege and an insult to God.
Catholic teaching is clear: the seal of Confession is inviolable. The law of the land is also clear. Federal and state laws protect a member of the clergy from being forced to divulge details of a religious Confession, just as it protects clients from being forced to disclose what they discuss with their lawyers.
Religious freedom is protected by the Australian constitution; an essential part of the separation of church and state, which protects believers and faith communities from government dictating religious belief and practice.
Priests are well able to comply with the law about reporting crimes while maintaining the seal of Confession as the law allows. As a bishop, I do not hear the confessions of my priests (except in an emergency). A priest who suspects the sacrament of Penance will be abused by a penitent should not hear such a confession.
All in the Archdiocese of Sydney will co-operate fully with the royal commission. I will give evidence if asked to do so. I welcome the royal commission as an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to victims and our efforts to prevent abuse.
All these important matters will be examined thoroughly by the royal commission and we should now let the work of establishing it get under way.
The story Church respects the law of the land, and the act of Confession first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.