FOR decades, allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in Australia were handled in a piecemeal way.
Churches and institutions involved seemed able to deflect criticism, and law enforcers and politicians appeared to struggle with the issues.
Victims and their advocates were told matters were being fixed ‘‘in house’’, but somehow they weren’t.
At times it seemed as if some institutions were waging a war of attrition against their accusers, hunkered behind ancient practices that they believed entitled them to hide dreadful crimes.
Some shifted paedophiles from place to place, ducking and weaving and berating from the pulpit any who dared call their bluff.
And then, suddenly, the dam broke. The defences of church administrators fell away, exposed as the shams they always were.
Law enforcers and politicians suddenly found their missing courage and the army of victims and accusers at last found advocates who would not falter.
Now the churches and institutions are in the spotlight as three separate inquiries – two state and one federal – forensically expose and analyse their acts and omissions stretching back many years.
Yesterday the first of these inquiries, based in the state of Victoria, released its keenly awaited report. The report has been widely praised by victims of clergy abuse for its confronting bluntness.
The Catholic Church, inevitably, has come in for some of the harshest criticism. That’s to be expected, not only for the major preponderance of abuse cases under its wide umbrella, but also because of its extraordinarily persistent insistence that the problems were somehow contained.
In a swipe at the church’s Australian head, Cardinal George Pell, the report said his responses to questions had revealed ‘‘a reluctance to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the Catholic Church’s institutional failure to respond appropriately to allegations of criminal child abuse’’.
One likely outcome from the report will be laws making it a crime to conceal, or fail to report, child sexual abuse. That’s progress, but only if those laws are uniform across Australia.
Meanwhile, the report of the more limited NSW inquiry is expected soon, and the powerful apparatus of the federal Royal Commission is gathering momentum.
If they are wise, more church leaders will start striving to demonstrate that they care more about damaged victims than about the dented reputations of their own organisations.