Bishop Patrick Dunn: Local perspective on child abuse within the church

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Catholics in New Zealand have had to deal with outrage and betrayal says Bishop Patrick Dunn.

Much public comment has been made in this country in the wake of Pope Benedict's letter to the Catholic people of Ireland.

The Pope has strongly criticised the Irish bishops and other church authorities for their mishandling of accusations of sexual abuse.

Pope Benedict's letter to the Irish church and its bishops is unprecedented. He is telling church authorities in uncompromising language that any further mishandling of complaints will not be tolerated.

The Pope has met victims of abuse and expresses in this letter his deep sadness for what they have endured, his praise for their courage in coming forward and his personal resolve to bring them justice and healing so far as is humanly possible.

He tells the bishops and leaders of religious orders in Ireland that they must co-operate with the civil authorities in reporting abuse, and he proposes to send officials with the appropriate authority to the worst-affected areas to assist with the work of healing and renewal.

The most recent suggestion that the Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wanted such complaints addressed in absolute secrecy is astonishing.

At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which formerly was called the Holy Office (and for centuries before that was known as the Universal Inquisition, with the duty to defend the church from heresy).

It is the oldest of the Roman Curia's nine congregations.

The task now of this Congregation is to promote and safeguard doctrine, faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: for this reason everything which in any way touches such matters falls within its competence.

It is mistakenly claimed that in a letter written to bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001 regarding complaints of paedophilia by priests, he required that they be treated with total secrecy and that the police were not to be informed, under penalty of excommunication.

In fact, he made no reference to excommunication. In my 15 years as bishop I have received no such instruction.

What is the situation here in New Zealand?

In the early 1990s, when historical accusations of sexual abuse began to be made to diocesan bishops and heads of religious orders, the New Zealand Catholic Church, with the advice of professionals from a range of appropriate disciplines, formulated a protocol or process to deal with these complaints.

Its priority was to uphold and protect the rights of the victims and their families and to ensure the safety and protection of children.

This protocol has been widely publicised within the church and wider community, and has been revised twice in the last decade to ensure that best practice is observed in accordance with the new insights and understandings that have been gained along the way.

An independent office was established to investigate shortcomings, failures or unsatisfactory outcomes. It is directed by a former Commissioner of Police, who himself is not a Catholic.

When anyone comes to us with a complaint of abuse, our preference is that they go to the police and we encourage them to do so, offering whatever assistance they require.

Occasionally, people do not wish to go through the upheaval of a criminal investigation and choose instead to confine their complaint to church authorities.

In these cases we have had no choice than to respect their privacy, rather than cause them further pain by the prospect of judicial proceedings.

Catholics throughout New Zealand have had to deal with an enormous sense of outrage, betrayal and shame that some of their most trusted pastors, teachers and caregivers have been guilty of abusing the innocence and vulnerability of children and young people.

Clergy who work in parishes and schools have suffered greatly in having to accept that some among their colleagues, while appearing externally dedicated to their respective vocations, have in fact been found guilty of covert sexual predation.

The numbers of abusers may be a small minority of church personnel, but the fact remains that any such abuse is intolerable.

The full text of the Pope's letter is available on the Vatican website and will be of interest to those who wish to know more of the specific initiatives he proposes for Ireland's Catholics.

* Patrick Dunn is the Catholic Bishop of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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