Church blames fatigue for redress failure

On December 15 last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed its final report to the governor-general. It had been five years in the making, and, as the head of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the body formed to coordinate the church’s response to the commission, Francis Sullivan was there for all of it.

The church didn’t appoint a sycophant. Sullivan is a man who speaks in good faith about his church’s abuses, and who has become one of its most insistent and credible critics. He is a man who attended each hearing involving the Catholic Church, and who has by now spent hundreds of hours with church victims – mostly listening, he says. A devout Catholic, with a master’s in theology, Sullivan has never been clergy. The bulk of his professional history had been in senior administration – as secretary general of the Australian Medical Association, and before that as the head of Catholic Health Australia.

But after five years and a report containing more than 400 recommendations, Sullivan has grave fears about our country’s willingness to respond to the commission – notably its recommendation for a national redress scheme to be functioning by July of last year. “These days, politicians need a dynamic political narrative,” Sullivan says. “Child abuse isn’t one, unfortunately. Leaders have to show that they’re willing to drive and drive and drive. Many have said they’d be there for victims, but the next day they’re gone. It’s no longer an imperative. The attention in the royal commission waned, there was massive fatigue. I think editorial rooms were fatigued. Attention dropped off unless there was a four-letter word involved: P-E-L-L. Any other case study didn’t get the coverage. Fatigue has been wrought.”

In October last year, the federal government tabled a bill for a national redress scheme, first recommended by the commission in 2015. Then social services minister Christian Porter said institutional responses had been inadequate and the redress scheme was needed. The federal government set aside $30 million for its administration, and explained that in addition to compensation – capped at $150,000 – the scheme would require responsible state and non-state institutions to provide formal apologies and counselling to victims. While Sullivan says the proposed scheme “largely” reflects the commission’s recommendations, there have been two principal problems – the delay in tabling the bill, and the fact it requires each state to sign up to it. So far, none has.

I just wish the federal government had taken hold of the recommendations back in 2015,” Sullivan says. “If they had, we wouldn’t be talking about this now. But it didn’t get started until last year. The inertia is plain to see.

To be frank, I thought [last] Friday’s [Council of Australian Governments] meeting showed an incredible lack of resolve. Malcolm Turnbull went out of his way to heavy the states the day before, but then look at the communiqué and find the press conferences about it – it’s vanished. And it always does. July 1 will come and go and most states won’t have signed up. Welcome to the federation.”


Sullivan says that finely parsing accountability, or counting dollars, misses the largest point of the royal commission and its recommendations. “There will always be people who baulk at seemingly having to pay for the trauma of the past,” he told me. “I get that. But on day one, the royal commission said of its function that this was the country bearing witness. A part of that is not simply to observe, but to assimilate this past trauma into the national psyche. And that is, fundamentally, what redress is. Arguments of black armband history are too limited an understanding of what the royal commission was about. In a sense, it’s about recognising a communitarian obligation. That’s where I come from.


“I had a very chilling experience early on,” Sullivan tells me. “A victim said to me: ‘Don’t let us down again.’ Part of that challenge was: if you have an opportunity to advocate, do so. They were imploring me to step up and help keep their experience in the forefront of the collective imagination of the community. They had too much experience where the church seemed to keep them at a distance and had tried to manage them rather than genuinely listen to their stories and act on the implications of those stories.”

The royal commission may have ended, but Sullivan’s work is very far from over.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Church blames fatigue for redress failure".