By Gordon Campbell, from an original article here on scoop.co.nz >>

Apparently, PM Jacinda Ardern has chosen to exclude faith-based institutions from the government’s promised inquiry into the abuse of children in state care. Any role for religious institutions – eg the Catholic Church – would be only to observe and to learn from any revelations that arise from the inquiry’s self-limiting focus on state-run institutions:

[Ardern] said the primary role of the inquiry was to look at the state’s responsibility….She said any religious institution with concerns needed to look at the issue, ask what they have done about the issues and their own history.

Such a narrowing of focus would be unfortunate, for a whole variety of reasons, and not merely because a more wide-ranging commission of inquiry in Australia found a high prevalence of children in care being sexually assaulted within religious institutions.

Sexual assault is only one dimension of the abuse of children in care. Certainly, the state’s responsibility with respect to children in care differs somewhat when the children concerned are within (a) religious institutions and (b) state-run ones. Yet it is not as if the state’s responsibility ends entirely at the church gates. As Ardern herself pointed out to RNZ, “the state’s reach in this country often went beyond state institutions, and the inquiry would look at the full process.” However, Ardern added, “the primary role of the inquiry was to look at the state’s responsibility.”

Well no – at least it shouldn’t be. Primarily, this isn’t a technical exercise undertaken to “look at the state’s responsibility.” The “primary role of the inquiry” should be to provide justice and relief to the victims, and the fencing off of an abuse inquiry on the basis of where it occurred, historically (state-run yes, faith based, no) seems arbitrary, and done for reasons of political convenience. That’s disappointing in a PM who has made so much of her desire to put the wellbeing of children first.

Yes, as Australia has shown, it will take longer and be more expensive to conduct a more inclusive inquiry. Their inquiry took five years, ran to 21 volumes, and made 400 recommendations, including calls for an end to priestly celibacy, and to the secrecy of the confessional.

The [Australian] commission urged the Australian Catholic bishops conference to ask the Vatican to reform canon law by removing provisions that “prevent, hinder or discourage compliance with mandatory reporting laws by bishops or religious superiors. We recommend that canon law be amended so that the ‘pontifical secret’ does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said.

It also said the conference should urge the Vatican to rethink its celibacy rules. The commission found that while celibacy for clergy was not a direct cause of abuse, it elevated the risk when compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious figures had privileged access to children.

In December, the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart responded that the seal of confessional secrecy cannot be broken, but that he would encourage any penitent child abuser to self-report their actions outside the confessional so that the police could be alerted. [Hart did not address the issue of whether the Church was colluding by offering spiritual absolution to abusers, while leaving children vulnerable to relapses by the perpetrators, by not reporting their actions to the authorities.]

One can see why – for its own convenience – the Ardern government might want to limit the scope of the inquiry that it has in mind. Yet it can hardly claim the moral high ground when doing so.

Fencing off the issue

History cannot, and should not, be fenced off in the way our government seems to have in mind. After all, some voices within the Catholic Church in New Zealand– in the era of Pope Francis at least, and with the fallout from two decades of priestly child abuse scandals in mind – apparently want to have the Church’s own institutions included within the scope of the inquiry:

Bill Kilgallon, who is in charge of handling the complaints for the Catholic Church in New Zealand, said he was disappointed the inquiry would not cover religious institutions. He said there were a lot of benefits to having a wide-ranging investigation covering many groups.

“You find some issues in common, some issues that are different, and you get a much better picture of what we need to do to prevent abuse happening in the future.” Mr Kilgallon said expanding the scope of the inquiry would also encourage more people who were abused to come forward.

Exactly. If the wellbeing of the victims is to be the main focus, the scope needs to be expanded. Ultimately the separation is an illusion, anyway. How state care and religious-based care differed – but also interacted – has to be an integral part of explaining how these systems of child abuse evolved, and were hidden, for so long.