The Catholic Church has set up a new body to liaise with the Royal Commission’s abuse inquiry, but its make-up has raised questions over its capacity to deliver truth.

A leading world expert on clerical child sex abuse told RNZ that if Te Rōpū Tautoko remained top-heavy with Church officials it would “only do the bidding of the bishops” and would have no credibility.

Published in Radio New Zealand

Dr Peter Wilkinson, a former priest who acted as adviser to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, made his comments after the group was formed last month to provide a co-ordinated response to the commission from all its dioceses, religious orders and institutions in New Zealand.

The seven-person Te Rōpū Tautoko body was announced by the Church hierarchy after the government extended the terms of reference of the Royal Commission’s state abuse inquiry in November to include faith-based institutions.

A similar group, the Truth Justice and Healing Council, was established by Australian bishops to do the same job in 2012, when the government across the Tasman announced its own abuse inquiry, which released its findings in December 2017.

That 12-person group was made up three clergy and nine Catholic professionals, including a psychiatrist and a number of academics with expertise and understanding of trauma.

It was chaired by former Supreme Court judge, the Hon Neville Owen. Its chief executive was Dr Francis Sullivan, former secretary general of the Australian Medical Association.

In contrast, Te Rōpū Tautoko is made up of six Church officials, including heads of religious orders in which there have been accusations of covering up abuse, and just one layperson – chairwoman Catherine Fyfe, who specialises in human resources management.

Dr Wilkinson said the Catholic Church now risked losing any credibility it had left if it decided to respond to the Royal Commission in a less-than-genuine manner.

“One thing that the New Zealand hierarchy will have to understand, and quick, is that despite what they may think, they probably have already lost a great deal of their credibility,” he said.

“If they try to duck and cover, use the ‘bad apples’ defence, heap all the blame on their predecessors, insist that it is the media who are the cause of their troubles, or try to obfuscate, they will end up like the bishops here in Australia, who have lost all trust – from ordinary Catholics, from the general public, and from the politicians.”

He also warned of dire consequences if the bishops established a body to liaise with the commission that was top heavy with Church officials.

“It will only do the bishops’ bidding, it too will have no credibility,” he said.

“Whoever is appointed its CEO has to be a person of complete integrity, courageous, and capable to standing up to the bishops.

“This person, and the members of the Council who support that person, must also be persons of courage and integrity.”

Other members of Te Rōpū Tautoko are Bishop Charles Drennan, from the Diocese of Palmerston North, Sister Katrina Fabish of the Sisters of Mercy, Deacon Danny Karatea-Goddard from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference Secretariat, Fr David Kennerley, head of the Society of Mary, Brother David McDonald, head of the Marist Brothers, and Sister Jane O’Carroll, of the Marist Sisters.

Dr Wilkinson questioned to what extent Te Rōpū Tautoko would be allowed to engage authentically with the commission, given the Church’s history of secrecy and the practical directives found in the Catholic Church’s Catechism about revealing truth.

The Catechism states that “the right of communication of the truth is not unconditional” and that concrete situations required judgement on “whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it”.

It also states: “The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language.

“The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”

Church response

Media spokeswoman for the Catholic Bishops Conference, Amanda Gregan, said the institutional interests of the Church and the common good would not be conflated as a way to rationalise the non-disclosure of information.

Nor would “privacy” concerns for victims be used to justify withholding information damaging to the Church.

“Tautoko’s belief and modus operandi is that it would be scandalous not to engage in its work guided by truth,” she said.

The spokeswoman defended Te Rōpū Tautoko’s make-up.

“The purpose of Tautoko is to co-ordinate and manage cooperation between the Royal Commission and the Catholic Church represented by the NZ Catholic Bishop’s Conference and the religious order superiors,” she said.

“The chairperson has responsibility for the overall leadership of the group without limiting the collective responsibility of all members of Tautoko. As chair of Tautoko, Catherine Fyfe is an experienced chairperson and brings a broad knowledge of Church governance and operations.”

A bishop’s view: ‘the interests of victims are paramount’

Bishop Michael Dooley, speaking in a personal capacity as bishop of his own Dunedin Diocese, told RNZ he believed Te Rōpū Tautoko would carry out its functions without obfuscation and that the Church must put the interests of victims above its own institutional interests.

“Sadly, there is much evidence from other parts of the world that the Church has sought to protect itself rather than the vulnerable children and adults in its care,” he said.

“The institution cannot be more important than the protection of the people in its care. To follow the Gospel is to act justly, so we cannot deny people justice without denying our faith…

“There are times when it is not appropriate to share information for the protection of others, but the Royal Commission has the right to know and the authority from the government to ask questions and to receive honest answers.”

He said the Royal Commission had broad powers to request and review all information the Church held pertaining to abuse allegations and that Catholic institutions were preparing to make files available to the commission.

“Earlier this month, Te Rōpū Tautoko reminded dioceses and all religious communities of the Catholic Church in New Zealand of their obligation to retain and preserve records of potential relevance to the Royal Commission,” he said.

“Our guiding principle is clear – that the interests of known and yet-to-be-known victims are paramount.”

Bishop Dooley said the Church was negotiating a way of providing information to the commission that didn’t compromise “any ongoing confidentiality provisions” under the Privacy Act.

“We are conscious of our obligations under the Privacy Act, particularly around the possible identification of victims or any ongoing confidentiality provisions,” he said.

“Te Rōpū Tautoko will be engaging with the Royal Commission to work through how we can provide information to it in a way which keeps victims’ identities safe.”

He said he felt shame that abuse was not stopped when noticed by “some Church authorities”.

“These criminal actions carried out by agents of the Church cannot help but affect our mission,” he said.

“This will obviously be a long and at times painful process for us as bishops, but we are committed to being as open and honest as possible.

“We have put in place safeguarding measures and are making every effort to ensure a culture of safeguarding in the Church today.

“In addressing our past, we must not assume that we have all the answers from what happened.”

He said new members of Te Rōpū Tautoko could be appointed as the needs of the body became more apparent.

In his annual speech to the Vatican’s Curia last month Pope Francis thanked the media for exposing the global sex abuse crisis and encouraged survivors to speak out.

“The Church asks that people not be silent… since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth,” he said.

By Michael Hall
Published in Radio New Zealand
1 January 2019