My Dear People
When I became a priest so many years ago, it was God’s love for me and, in turn, my love for people that inspired me to follow the call to a way of life that would seem counter-cultural in today’s world. I knew from my own experience the fulfilment and joy that a life of faith lived out in Christ’s Church could bring, and I wanted to share the gift I had discovered. To be here 52 years later, knowing the damage that some members of the Church which I now lead in Wollongong has caused to the lives of many innocent people, particularly children and their families, breaks my heart.
Priests, religious brothers and sisters, and other persons in positions of authority and trust within the Church, are mandated to bring hope to people. It is our task to bring light to darkness, peace where there is strife, and love where there is pain and hatred. Shamefully, some have used that power against the most vulnerable within our communities, and through abuse they have shattered the lives of many. It is a corruption of the Gospel the Church proclaims.
During the Royal Commission, victims and survivors have courageously come forward to share their stories, each case representing a personal account of an indefensible crime against their dignity. Statistics revealed this week have shown that 11.7% of the priests in our Diocese between 1952 and 2010 had claims of abuse made against them. Most devastating is that each data point represents a life, or many lives, that have been shattered. It’s not just a number – it’s a child, a young or vulnerable person.
In my time here, I have met with and listened to a number of victims and survivors and have personally heard their tragic stories. In recent days, I have also met with some very dedicated people representing our parishioners, our teachers, those who work in our welfare agencies, in social justice, in aged care and my fellow clergy. It was a meeting with great emotion, depth of feeling, hurt and dismay, as they told of their sense of betrayal and of having also been let down by the perpetrators, Church leaders, and the culture that has enabled this.
There is no doubt that these findings will rock the Church in Australia for generations to come. It is not just the sexual abuse, but a connected spiritual abuse that remains a poisonous consequence. It troubles me deeply, knowing that these crimes, these sins, have also potentially closed hearts and minds to being open to the fullness of life in God.
So, as the leader of the Catholic Church in Wollongong, I again say, how deeply sorry I am for the past failures that have left so many so damaged. The story of our Church will, and must, include this chapter. It must not be denied or hidden. For the dignity of those who had their trust severely broken, and for the sake of the future of those who will seek hope in Jesus, the Church must honestly acknowledge this failure and re-commit to doing everything in its power to see that such things never happen again.
I wish to assure you and the wider community that the Diocese of Wollongong is committed to the protection of children and vulnerable people and to addressing with sensitivity and determination any concern or allegation brought forward. We already meet all mandatory reporting obligations in relation to the Police, the Ombudsman and other child protection authorities. We also have mandatory child protection training as well as strict screening processes for those wishing to be involved in ministry. These are just some of the steps we have taken to ensure a safe culture which we all want and expect.
The measure of our commitment will ultimately rest on the effectiveness of our actions. There needs to be an ongoing process of cultural change and continual improvement as we seek to be truly open to the wisdom of the Royal Commission and so ensure greater protection for children and vulnerable people into the future. I am grateful to our parishes, schools and agencies for the important work they have been doing, and are still doing, to make our Church a safe place.
I, along with all who exercise leadership in our Diocese, continue to strongly urge any person with a complaint of abuse to come forward to the police through the Police Assistance Line on 131 444.
I am mindful that as the Royal Commission continues over the coming weeks, it may be a difficult and even distressing time for many. I encourage you to talk to each other or seek advice from a trusted counsellor. Should you feel that other pastoral support or counselling would be of assistance to you, please contact the Diocese on 1800 225 922 and the appropriate support can be arranged.
I believe it is in the midst of great turmoil and despair that God can work – where Jesus can transform and renew, where the Holy Spirit can bring hope and make all things new. And so it is my prayer that the Church will emerge more humble, more just, and more compassionate. It is also my prayer that we do not turn away from God who remains the light of the world, and that our Church remains the Body of Christ, a wounded body that is rightly humbled, but one where we all gather around the same table to draw on God’s limitless love and mercy.
We pray for the victims and survivors and their families and friends. We pray for the Commission; that it is a source of justice and peace to all those affected. We also pray for the many men and women, the vast majority in our Church communities, who have dedicated their lives to loving God and loving others, who have also been deeply betrayed.
Finally, I invite you to pray for me and all the leaders of the Church as we commit to doing everything in our power to see that such things never happen again.
Jesus, Light of the world, source of love and hope that can heal the deepest wounds, hear our prayers.
Most Rev Peter W Ingham DD
Bishop of Wollongong
10 February 2017