Australian bishops apologize for Church's failure in sex abuse crisis

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Days before Australia's Royal Commission on institutional sex abuse begins their final hearing into the Church's response to their abuse crisis, the country's bishops have issued several statements expressing sorrow for past failures, and committing to do more to protect children.

"Deeply mindful of the hurt and pain caused by abuse, I once again offer my apology on behalf of the Catholic Church," Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, president of the Australian Bishops' Conference, said in a Feb. 5 letter to the faithful of Australia.

"I am sorry for the damage that has been done to the lives of victims of sexual abuse. As Pope Francis said recently, 'it is a sin that shames us.'"

The archbishop made issued the statement as Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse begins its final three-week review of how the Catholic Church in Australia has responded to sex abuse allegations. The commission was established in 2013, and investigates the handling of child sex abuse allegations by religious groups, schools, government organizations, and sporting associations.

Australia's sexual abuse crisis has been one of the most shocking and widely known in the Church.

In his statement, Archbishop Hart noted that during the coming hearing many of the country's bishops and Catholic leaders will give their testimonies, explaining what the Church has done so far to change "the old culture" that had allowed abuse to continue for so long, as well as what is being done now to protect and safeguard children.

Again referring to a statement made by Pope Francis, the archbishop urged the entire Church to "find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated."

In a similar message Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said he personally has felt "shaken and humiliated" by what the Royal Commission has uncovered.

"The Church is sorry and I am sorry for past failures that left so many so damaged," he said. "I know that many of our priests, religious and lay faithful feel the same: as Catholics we hang our heads in shame."

So far the findings have been "harrowing," Fisher said, explaining that the commission has heard the "distressing and shameful cases" of sexual abuse recounted by "courageous survivors" dating back to the 1950s.

Numbers garnered from the various testimonies gathered show that claims of child sexual abuse have been made against 384 diocesan priests, 188 religious priests, 579 religious brothers, and as many as 96 religious sisters since 1950.

Claims have also been made against some 543 lay workers in the Church, as well as another 72 persons whose religious status "is unknown."

Among religious institutes, 40 percent of the members of the St. John of God Brothers in Australia have been accused of child sexual abuse. More than 20 percent of the Christian Brothers, Salesians, and Marist Brothers have face accusations.

In March 2015 Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, testified before the commission for the third time after allegations resurfaced in 2014 claiming that he moved known pedophile Fr. Gerald Ridsdale, bribed a victim of the later-laicized priest, and failed to act on a victim's complaint. Before his appointment to the Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal Bell had been Archbishop of Sydney

Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges with no guilty verdict, Cardinal Pell voluntarily offered to testify again and, not being able to make the long flight to Australia, participated in the hearing via video-conference in Rome.

On Feb. 7, the Royal Commission will resume its public hearing on the current policies and procedures the Catholic Church in Australia has put into place regarding child protection and safety standards, including how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse.

During the hearing, Archbishop Fisher and others will be participating in a panel to discuss not only what went wrong with the Church's response in the past, but also what can be done better in the future.

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In his statement, Archbishop Fisher noted that unlike previous hearings which focused primarily on individual cases, this one will address "the big picture" with the participation of "expert witnesses" alongside both Church leaders and lay people, some of whom hail from his own archdiocese.

The commission will now focus on two primary issues: the factors led to the all the abuse cases in the Church as well as the Church's failures to respond adequately, as well as what the Church has done and plans to do to address the problem, including by changing her programs, policies and structures.

Part of the discussion will also be dedicated to a better discernment of priestly and religious vocations, as well as the formation and supervision of those already in active ministry.

Archbishop Fisher noted that both "claims and alleged perpetrators" are referred to in the commission's report, and that no distinction is made between claims that have been proven and those that haven't. Neither does the report distinguish between claims substantiated by the Church in an internal investigation from those accepted by the Church without any investigation.

While statistics show that "the overwhelming majority" of sexual abuse took place in the 1950s-70s, and that abuse accusations have "declined very considerably" since, Archbishop Fisher said, "we are not complacent when it comes to child safety and to ensuring a child safe environment in the Church."

"We recognize our responsibility to ensure that all measures are in place to prevent this happening again. We also recognize that there are abuse victims who are yet to come forward and perhaps never will," he said, noting that to date, claims have been made against seven percent of priests ministering in the three dioceses of greater Sydney since 1950.

Archbishop Fisher noted that the coming weeks of the commission's final hearing on the Church's response "will be traumatic for everyone involved, especially the survivors."

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However, "confronting as it will be, I remain determined to do all we can to assist those who have been harmed by the Church and to work toward a culture of greater transparency, accountability and safety for all children."

The archbishop voiced his conviction that when "the humiliation and purgation through which we are presently passing" is over, the Church will be more humble and compassionate Church in the area of abuse.

Archbishop Fisher voiced his gratitude for the steps already taken and acknowledged the various parishes, schools and agencies working to make the Church "a safer place."

With media attention on the hearing expected to be high, with some reports "confronting," Archbishop Fisher welcomed those who feel "upset or demoralized" by the coverage to speak with their parish priest, and for priests to speak with their dean or bishop. He noted that counseling services will also be available for those who need it.

He urged anyone alleging abuse to contact the police, and asked for prayers "for all those involved in this hearing for wisdom and compassion. Above all, please pray for the survivors and their families at this most difficult time."

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