THE Australian Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council has “urged” use of a quota mechanism to give women decision-making roles at all levels of the church after evidence gender played a role in diverse child sexual abuse rates across the country.
A “type” of quota mechanism is needed to promote women to positions of authority in parishes, dioceses and religious orders, despite women making up two-thirds of 220,000 Catholic employees in education, social services, health and aged care and within dioceses, the council found in its final report released on Friday.
It “urged” Australia’s bishops and 150 religious orders to adopt a quota mechanism after damning evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on abuse rates in Catholic institutions, and despite noting “the use of quotas can become counter-productive”.
The royal commission found the Australian Catholic diocese with one of the lowest child sexual abuse rate over six decades from 1950 – Adelaide, at 2.4 per cent – pioneered the appointment of lay women and nuns as episcopal vicars with authority over priests.
“There was a significant cultural difference in that diocese from every other diocese in Australia,” Australian Catholic University Professor Neil Ormerod told the royal commission.
During the same period from 1950 to 2010 about seven per cent of all Australian Catholic priests were alleged to have sexually abused children.
Alleged offender figures for other dioceses and orders over the six decades include 15.1 per cent for the diocese of Sale in Victoria, 13.9 per cent in Lismore, 11.7 per cent in Wollongong, 40 per cent for the St John of God order, 22 per cent for Christian Brothers, 20.4 per cent for the Marist Brothers and 2.1 per cent for the Dominican Friars.
The royal commission heard evidence the appointment of women episcopal vicars in dioceses beyond Adelaide from the 1980s was either not taken up, or fell away, because of opposition from priests.
The Truth Justice and Healing Council final report, commissioned by Australia’s bishops and religious orders, included statements from council members about the impact of the child sexual abuse scandal. It was released without the endorsement of council member and Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven.
Australian Institute of Company Directors chair and council deputy chair Elizabeth Proust said her experience of five years on the council had been “thoroughly disillusioning and has left my faith badly shaken”.
“The abuse, the cover ups, and the apparent lack of care by so many in the church hierarchy (I cannot call them Church “leaders”) has been the lowest point of my life in our church,” Ms Proust wrote in her statement that appeared in the council’s final report.
The abuse, the cover ups, and the apparent lack of care by so many in the church hierarchy (I cannot call them Church “leaders”) has been the lowest point of my life in our church.Truth Justice and Healing Council deputy chair Elizabeth Proust
“We will need to become an even smaller church, humbler, more diverse, with greater leadership by lay people (women and men) before there is any chance of a revival.”
Council member and Brigidine Sister Maree Marsh said governance roles for women are “for the most part non-existent in dioceses and management roles are few” and clericalism, “with its sense of entitlement, exclusivity and superiority”, was “clearly evident”.
In 2016 Pope Francis said clericalism reduced lay people to the function of “errand boys and girls”.
Sister Marsh said clericalism in the Australian Catholic Church kept “others in their place” and included “bullying”.
“It has become patently obvious during the past five years that there is a great divide in the Australian church – theologically and pastorally. The vast majority of people desire the kind of church that is inclusive, humble and service-oriented – not one of privilege, position and power reserved to a few,” Sister Marsh said in her statement.
Truth Justice and Healing Council member and Monash University Professor Rosemary Sheehan said the royal commission’s final report was “shameful reading” and the Catholic Church, “if it is to remain meaningful, must examine its preoccupation with hierarchy, with secrecy, with who is permitted into the ministry, with the exclusion of women from the decisional life of the church”.
Council member and Curtin University Adjunct Professor Maria Harries said she needed to be convinced that “the structures of the church implicated in their permitting of such abuse and the protection of perpetrators will really reform itself”.
“How does the church itself generate the reforms to its clerical, gendered, hierarchical culture and its governance structures in order to ensure we don’t repeat this cataclysmic series of abuses?” she said.
In a statement contained within the council’s final report Professor Craven criticised the royal commission for its “reliance upon ill-defined concepts like ‘clericalism’,” but noted the church had to “closely consider how the laity may work in an enhanced way with clergy and bishops”.
In 2017 Australia’s male religious orders apologised to female religious orders for the harm caused to children and the shame it had brought upon Catholic women, “especially on the women in whose schools and institutions abuse took place”.
The male orders “committed themselves to addressing the causes of male abuse of power”, Sister Marsh wrote in her statement to the Truth Justice and Healing Council.
In its final report the council noted the limited participation of women was consistently raised as an issue at the royal commission and across many parish-based consultations.
“Whether women would have brought a different and important perspective to both personnel decisions and the management of allegations of abuse of children by clergy and religious was a point often raised,” the council said.
In its formal response to the royal commission, released on Friday, Australia’s bishops and religious orders did not specifically address the role of women as decision-makers in the church, but accepted in principle a royal commission recommendation for a national review of church governance, to include “the participation of lay men and women”.
In evidence at a final royal commission public hearing into the Catholic Church in February, 2017, Archbishop Philip Wilson said he accepted women in decision-making roles when he became Adelaide Archbishop in 2001, and “transformed” the roles so they operated “within the system of canon law” by making women chancellors.
Wilson resigned from the position in July after he was convicted of concealing the child sex crimes of Hunter priest Jim Fletcher.
The royal commission was told Adelaide Archbishop Leonard Faulkner appointed women to decision-making roles in the 1980s apparently without seeking permission from Catholic Church hierarchy, and possibly by “working on a loophole” in canon law.
During Friday’s media conference Catholic Religious Australia president Sister Monica Cavanagh said the church “still had a way to go” in recognising “women and their potential”.
In 2017 a landmark five-year study of child sexual abuse within the church found gender was a key factor in the abuse scandal.
“The lack of the feminine and the denigration of women within church structures is one key, underlying risk factor in the abuse,” said study authors and former Catholic priests Dr Peter Wilkinson and Professor Des Cahill.
The risk of offending was much higher among religious brothers with little contact with women, who were educated at male-only schools, appointed to male-only schools and living in all-male communities, the report found.
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