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The new Catholic Council is hardly 'independent'

By Angela Sdrinis - posted Monday, 17 December 2012


The Catholic Church has announced the appointment of former NSW Judge, Barry O'Keefe to head the newly formed "Truth, Justice and Healing Council" which will co-ordinate the Church's response to the Royal Commission. The establishment of the Council has to be an improvement on the Church's handling of these issues to date and certainly the removal of Pell as the Church's spokesperson is a good development for both the Church and for victims.

However the Catholic Church in establishing this Council has fallen into the same trap as it did with the establishment of the "Melbourne Response" and the appointment of Peter O'Callaghan as the "Independent" Commissioner who was appointed to inquire into abuse allegations.

Mr O'Callaghan has been brought undone by both his and the Church's insistence that he was independent. How could anyone believe in O'Callaghan's independence when he was commissioned by the Church, paid by the Church and required to administer the processes of the Church. The assessment of many victims who went through O'Callaghan's investigations was that Mr O'Callaghan's role was in part to run interference for the Church and as far as possible to protect the Church and it's people. This also seems to be the assessment of Victoria Police who in their submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Criminal Abuse Allegations by Religious and Non Government Organisations (the Inquiry) spoke of a perceived conflict of interest on the part of the "independent" Commissioner and generally spoke of problems within the Church processes including alerting suspects of allegations which resulted in a loss of evidence and appearing to dissuade victims from reporting to the police.

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Mr O'Keefe needs to be very careful that he does not find himself in the same boat as Mr O'Callaghan with his reputation tarnished by his association with an organisation which until now has had no insight into the enormity of its betrayal of victims and ordinary members of the Church. At the press conference which announced Mr O'Keefe's appointment he said in response to a question regarding the independence of the Council, "It is independent. We were appointed by the bishops but barristers and judges learn very early in their careers to be independent of their clients. Judges do it, barristers do it. This council will do it".

This is a surprising comment from a former Judge. Judges of course act independently but Mr O'Keefe is not in a judicial role here. He too, like O'Callaghan, has been appointed by the Church and is presumably being paid by the Church. Further, lawyers do not by and large act "independently". A lawyers' role is in fact to acton a client's behalf in the most partisan way possible provided this is within the law and within the scope of a lawyers duty to the Courts.

It is also staggering that O'Keefe would suggest that the Council is independent. How can a body which has been established by the Church to co-ordinate it's response to the Royal Commission be independent? Ultimately the Council is funded by the Church and is carrying out work for the Church. O'Keefe should have acknowledged that this body is clearly a part of the Church processes and that on this basis the Council cannot be regarded as "independent". The Council can however do its best to ensure that the Church provides full co-operation with the Royal Commission and Mr O'Keefe can do his best as Head of the Council to ensure that this occurs.

Whether or not Mr O'Keefe and the other worthy people appointed to the Church's Council will be able to achieve this remains to be seen. Prof Parkinson was an expert who was appointed by the Church to review its "Towards Healing" processes (the national body which deals with sex abuse allegations within the Catholic Church and its religious orders) and essentially had a falling out with the Church over some of its processes. In evidence given to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Sex Abuse Allegations by Religious and Non Government Organisations, Parkinson described the situation as follows:

I guess that brings me to the rift I had with the Catholic Church over these issues. When I was asked to review Towards Healing in 2009 and 2010, I came across some cases which worried me deeply with one religious order. They worried me deeply because they were cases which had all arisen since 1996, 1996 being the watershed because Towards Healing was published then, and it contains significant promises to the Australian people about how the church will respond to these things. One of the things it says is that those who have abused their power will not be given back the power that they earlier have abused. Even from what I had read - from the submissions and some documents which were given to me in the course of those submissions - I could see that there were priests who had never had the power taken away. Settlements had been made with victims, and they continued in ministry, in two cases in Samoa and in another case in Rome."

Mr O'Keefe and the other members of the Council will be walking a tight rope as have other experts and individuals who have been appointed by the Church to deal with the thorny problem of sex abuse within the Catholic Church. No doubt the Church has again appointed people who are sympathetic to it. Indeed O'Keefe has already confirmed that he and presumably the Council have a view on the confessional and the inviolability of the confession and it's OK that they should have these views. What is not OK is to pretend that in some way this Council is or can be independent of the Church.

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About the Author

Angela Sdrinis is a Partner at Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Angela Sdrinis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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