I was never a “Boy Scout”. However, I was always taken by their motto which is, I believe, “Be Prepared”. This always struck me as being eminently sensible advice and particularly so when you were facing some challenging event in life. It is with that thought in mind that I am sharing with you some learning drawn from the experience of the Irish Church with regard to ways in which you might prepare for the implementation of an Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry.

I want to begin by considering the role of the media. I am sure that you will find that the media will play an important part in shaping the attitude towards the Inquiry and the Church. Your relationship with the media needs to be carefully thought through. Much damage can be done when definitive statements are made by leaders in the Church that are not supported by reliable evidence. There were many examples of this in Ireland but I will cite just one to illustrate the point.

A church leader was interviewed by a journalist prior to a review being undertaken of safeguarding practice in his community. He confidently asserted that all the allegations known to them had been reported to the police. He stated this as fact even though he had not read the case files nor had his immediate advisors. Once he had done this he had created vulnerability for himself and his community as the review process quickly established that not all of the allegations had been reported.

The media portrayed him as being guilty of a deliberate cover up and trying to mislead the process of public scrutiny. In fact this was not his intention. What he was guilty of was not doing his homework and failing to prepare for what could be reasonably anticipated. Because of this lack of preparation, the impact of public scrutiny was much harsher than it needed to be.

The lesson is simple. When dealing with the media do your preparation and avoid making definitive statements unless you have the evidence to back them up. If mistakes have been made admit to them and cite them as valuable opportunities that have been learnt from.

It is likely that the Royal Commission will bring to light incidents that are distressing and deeply dispiriting to all those within the Church and particularly those who are involved in the safeguarding of children. It is easy to underestimate the negative emotional impact that these events give rise to. Drawing on the experience in Ireland, I would urge you to consciously try to emphasise the positives and seek them out. Commend good practice and seek to address anything that is not so good. Look after yourself and also those with whom you work. Your emotional health and wellbeing will come under pressure and you need to have supports available to you to ensure that you can cope.

I would strongly urge you to adopt a proactive stance rather than a reactive one when dealing with a process of public scrutiny. This is aided by establishing now what the reality of past practice has been in your community. It was frequently the case in Ireland that the person in authority believed that the practice was something other than it actually was. Sometimes this happened because they had been misled by others. On other occasions, it was because they did not want to know what had happened. Whatever the reason, the public and also the lay faithful in the Church will be unforgiving if it is found that those in leadership roles failed to discharge their responsibilities adequately and a child was hurt as a result.

From the Irish experience, it is very important that the reality of what happened is established as soon as possible and prior to the Inquiry process. Be proactive and examine this now. In simple terms, this means confirming who knew what, when, and what did they do about it. What comes to light may be uncomfortable but it is better for it to be known and addressed by you prior to it being forced on you by the statutory process.

The response to the Inquiries in Ireland was frequently defensive and legalistic. This conveyed as a consequence an impression that the Church was not seeking openness and accountability and would not change unless it was forced to do so. This made it more difficult to communicate effectively the many positive developments that were happening in the Church. It helped create a sense that the Church was preoccupied entirely with itself rather than the suffering of the victims of abuse. When Church leaders offered apologies these were not seen as credible because their other behaviours were not consistent with remorse or repentance.

Empathy for the survivors of clerical abuse and a concern for their wellbeing have to be prioritised. Establishing an early dialogue with survivors is vital. In Ireland this was sometimes inhibited by legal concerns which were prioritised over pastoral ones.  Details of abuse will provoke memories in many survivors, whether or not they have dealt with their abuse in the past.  Priests and lay ministers who are gifted pastors should follow their desire to try to alleviate suffering when they meet with it and not wait for specific direction or “a program” to minister to survivors.  That said, programs to minister to survivors should be developed early in the process to meet the needs of those who are triggered by the news reports and detailed stories of abuse.

Again in Ireland, the importance of recognising the suffering and hurt caused to victims and their families in public worship was slow to be recognised and acted upon. The Inquiry process had the unfortunate effect of creating a growing divide between those in leadership in the Church and those who had been hurt. Once this divide was established it was hard to eliminate it. From the outset I would encourage you to seek to prevent this happening through acts of public worship and proactive outreach to victims.
Finally, identify what needs to happen and engage with it now. If you wait for change to be forced upon you, it will be much more difficult to accommodate. Try to be ahead of the public process of scrutiny. Communicate with your community regularly and fully and try to avoid creating a situation where the media is better informed than your own community.

To summarise:-

  • Commit now to being prepared for the process of public scrutiny
  • Encourage  a view of the Inquiry as a potential, positive learning experience that will lead to better practice
  • Do your homework before engaging with the media. Avoid accepting the opinion of others unless supported by reliable evidence
  • Appreciate the potential negative emotional impact that the Inquiry may give rise to and prepare for that situation. Build supports around you
  • Objectively examine past practice now and address anything that is found before it is forced upon you by the Inquiry process
  • Establish or develop further your dialogue with those who have been hurt and introduce ways in which you can reach out to them
  • Draw on your pastoral gifts and avoid a purely defensive approach
  • Be proactive and avoid seeing preparation as something that should be done by someone else. Take responsibility to do what you can now yourself.

As the Inquiry gets underway, I want to urge you to set aside questions that you may have about whether the process is fair, deserved, or perhaps, “scapegoating.”   Focus on these questions and issues can unnecessarily draw attention in directions that are unproductive and perceived as resistance to accountability. A lesson learnt from the experience in Ireland is that lack of preparation and defensiveness can increase the negative impact of intense public scrutiny.  Improved knowledge about what will be brought to light, engagement in the process, and collaboration with the Inquiry allows the past to be accounted for while demonstrating substantive openness and transparency.  The contrast in modes of operation between the past and the present must be apparent, lest the actions of the past be perceived as synonymous with current practice.  In Ireland, we could have been greatly aided if we had understood these principles from the outset.