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Churches in Australia urged to reform ‘governance and culture’ in the wake of child sex abuse

14 September 2018


CHURCHES in Australia have been challenged to “embrace thoroughgoing reformation of their structures, governance, and culture” by an ecumenical conference held in Melbourne.

The conference, Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry, sponsored by the University of Divinity and four RC religious institutes, focused on the rebuilding and renewal of the Churches in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

In a communiqué issued at the close of the conference, Churches were called on to take responsibility for the lifelong care and support of survivors, beyond the notion of “redress”. Clericalism should be rejected, and the laity and women should be supported to “take their rightful place” in all areas of church life, including governance.

The Churches should also commit to contemporary ethical standards of good governance, based on transparency, accountability, and inclusivity. “There can be no theological excuse for poor governance structures and practices”, the communiqué said.

The Churches have also been asked to consider holding a shared National Day of Remembrance on 15 December, the anniversary of the release of the Royal Commission’s report in 2017. This would ensure that “the testimony of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse continues to be heard, and to be an occasion on which each Church reports publicly on its progress in implementing the Royal Commission recommendations and reforming its governance and culture.

“It should also be an occasion to celebrate those righteous truth-tellers who refused to keep silent about the abuse and those who have worked in the interests of victims and child safety.”

In the conference opening address, Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, a senior consultant on clerical sex abuse in the RC Church, praised the commission for its report, describing it as the “most thorough and most credible report on religious institutional sexual abuse of children ever produced”. He noted that its “unparalleled moral authority” meant that Australian governments were accepting its 405 recommendations, including restrictions on the seal of the confessional.

He criticised Roman Catholic bishops in Australia for taking almost nine months to make a formal response to the commission’s report. This could only be described as “appalling and abysmal”, he said.

Deep cultural change was needed in all the Churches, he continued. The focus needed to be on “the underlying cultural and associated issues within church organisations”, and not just on professional standards and child-protection mechanisms.

The Roman Catholic Church also needed to “re-vision” its theology of gender and sexuality “around relationality, mutuality, and reciprocity, not gender complementarity”, he said. It would be women who would save the RC Church, which had no choice but finally to “grasp the nettle and include women in its decision-making processes and in priestly ministry”.

Women priests, bishops, and now archbishops, in the Anglican Church, had “greatly diminished Anglican clericalism,” he said.

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