Good News for the Environment

The election of President Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new leader was a great concern for those of us who are worried about the environment and the immanent threat of Climate change. He promised to exploit the Amazon, harvesting the rain forest’s riches, threatening both the destruction of what has been called the ‘lungs of the Earth’ and the indigenous communities that call it home. Loss of forest cover jumped almost 50% during the election campaign, in anticipation of looser environmental regulations.

But on the other side of the world there has come a good news story as a counter to this threat. NASA satellites have revealed that the world is actually a greener place than it was 20 years ago, and this has come from a counterintuitive source in China and India.

The two emerging countries with the world’s biggest populations are leading the improvement in greening the world. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries. In 2017 alone, India broke its own world record for the most trees planted after volunteers gathered to plant 66 million saplings in just 12 hours.

This new insight was made possible by a nearly 20-year-long data record from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a NASA instrument orbiting the Earth on 2 satellites.

Taken all together, the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to early 2000s – which amounts to a 5% increase.

This does not erase the fact that Bolsonaro’s plans threaten to wipe out habitat for thousands of species of animals and plants unique to the Amazon, nor does it justify the displacement of indigenous peoples native to this part of the world. But it does take some pressure off the threat that deforestation adds to climate change in terms of the build up of Carbon Dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.

Given that China and India are generally considered to be places of high land degradation due to overpopulation, though, it is a surprising find to learn that they account for one-third of the greening of the planet in the last 20 years.

Rama Nemani, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, said, “When the greening of the Earth was first observed, we thought it was die to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to more leaf growth in northern forests, for instance. Now, with the MODIS data that lets us understand the phenomenon at really small scale, we see that humans are also contributing.”

China’s contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. The greening seen in India comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

How the greening trend may change in the future depends on numerous factors, both on a global scale and the local human level. Fore example, increased food production in India is facilitated by groundwater irrigation. If the groundwater is depleted, this trend may change.

The hope this trend does present us with is that once people realize there is a problem, they tend to fix it. We human beings are incredibly resilient. We can make a difference.

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The Insect Apocalypse

Where have all the grasshoppers gone? Over that last 2 years I became aware that I hadn’t seen a grasshopper in years. I remember as a child that whenever I crossed a piece of lawn, be it our lawn at home, a park or the bush, that myriads of little grasshoppers would be jumping out of the way of my oncoming feet. I wondered, of course, if this was an effect of climate change and so I asked a friend of mine, who is a biology teacher, what he thought. He suggested that it could just be that the bird population has increased and they keep the insect numbers down. He also suggested that it could be the lack of rain, as insects need a certain amount of moisture to propagate. These suggestions calmed my fears until early this year when articles started to appear in the paper about a decline in the world wide insect population. Not just in the Bee population, which I was aware of, but in the rest of the insect world as well.

A damning scientific report, “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna,” that appeared in Biological Conservation, Volume 232, April 2019, pages 8-27, warns that an ecological disaster faces our world as insect populations are dying out at an alarming rate. Scientists predict that more than 40% of insect species will be wiped out within the next few decades as insect biomass declines in almost all regions of the world at a steady rate of about 2.5% per year. The rate of predicted extinction of namely bees, ants and beetles is said to be eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. On the other hand, houseflies and cockroaches are expected to thrive in the man-made environment, having evolved a resistance to pesticides and other pollutants.

The report blames a combination of pesticide use, intensive agriculture and climate change for this unprecedented die off. The biggest driver in the decline of insects is the loss of habitat and conversion of land to intensive farming, urban development, and deforestation. The root cause of the problem has been the intensification of agriculture over the last 6 years, and the relentless and widespread use of pesticides that coincide with that.

The bumblebee has been officially added to the ever-growing list of endangered species. Once abundant in the grasslands and prairies of the East and Midwestern USA, the bee has now been restricted to protections in the continental US as its population keeps declining at an alarming rate. The loss of bees will have a devastating effect on the human population, as they are key to the process of pollination. But it’s not just about bees, or even about pollination and feeding ourselves – the declines also include dung beetles that recycle waste and insects like dragonflies that start life in rivers and ponds.

So what can we do? Well, there are ways we can all, on an individual level, help to save the often-invisible creatures that support our entire civilisation. The first thing we need to do is stop using so many chemicals. Of course there are bugs we don’t want, but the problem is that other useful insects get caught in the sprays, pesticides and fertilizers we use. There are many tips out there about ecological gardening that is healthier for us and better for the environment.

The second thing we can do is to plant flowers. Even if you live in the middle of the city, having flowers in pots on the veranda is an easy and beautiful way to support both pollinators and insect predators such as wasps.

Thirdly, if you have a big garden, leaving a bit of mess around like leaves lying around or some bushy trees provides shelter for the insects. This also extends to having nature strips and allowing them to grow a little longer before mowing them and let the trees grow a little wilder before they’re trimmed.

Fourthly, don’t demonise insects. They may look like aliens and not as cute as koalas, but on their shoulders our world actually rests.

Fifthly, paying a little more for sustainably produced food and clothing will go a long way to helping minimise chemical overuse.

It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet’s ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends. Allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option.


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Patron of Victims of Modern Day Slavery

On the 8thof February we celebrate the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita. She is the patron saint of those trafficked into modern slavery, because she herself was a victim of slavery.

Bakhita was born in 1869 to a locally important family in Olgossa, a village in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. At the age of seven she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Over the course of the next eight hears she was sold and resold five times in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name. The name we know her by is a compound of the name given to her by the slavers.

Bakhita suffered much brutality during her captivity. On one occasion, one of her owner’s sons beat her so severely that she spent a month unable to move from a straw bed. Her fourth owner used a knife to scar patterns into her skin. She had more than 60 patterns on her breasts, belly and arms.

Her final owner was an Italian diplomat called Callisto Legnani. He and his friend, Augusto Michieli, brought her to Italy where she became nanny to the Michieli’s daughter, Mimmina.

In 1888 Bakhita and Mimmina were left in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice, while the Michielis moved to the Red Sea on business. During this time she was influenced by what she saw of the life and spirituality of the Canossians and in 1890 she was baptised at her own instigation, and took the Christian name Giuseppina Margarita.

When the Michielis returned to collect her and their daughter, Bakhita did not want to leave. Signora Michieli tried to force the issue, but the Canossian superior of the school that Bakhita and Signorina Mimmina had attended in Venice complained to the authorities. An Italian court ruled that since Sudan had outlawed slavery before Bakhita’s birth, then Bakhita had never been a slave in the first place.

Bakhita now found herself in control of her own destiny for the first time in her life. She chose to remain with the Canossian nuns. In 1896 she joined the sisters permanently, and, in 1902, she was assigned to a house in Schio in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life.

During her 45 years in Schio, Bakhita was usually employed as portress (door keeper) of her house, and so was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as ‘la nostra madre moretta’ (“our little brown mother”).

Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order, and she was instructed to publish her memoirs and to give talks about her experiences, and these made her famous throughout Italy.

She died on February 8, 1947. Her body was on display for 3 days and thousands came to pay their respects.

I personally find the life of Josephine Bakhita to be very moving and hope filled. No wonder she was chosen to be the patron of those trafficked into modern day slavery. It is incredible to consider that there are more people living in slavery today than when it was actually legal.

This 8thof February, I have organised a Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane at 7:30 p.m. to celebrate and give thanks for the life of St. Josephine Bakhita. The Archbishop of Brisbane has agreed to be the main celebrant at that mass, and the Sudanese community choir will provide the music. It will be an opportunity to pray for those suffering slavery today, and to raise awareness of the scourge that is human trafficking and modern day slavery. It will also be an opportunity to show support for the Sudanese community who have suffered some bad press in recent times thanks to some gang activity in Melbourne. Bakhita also happens to be the patron saint of Sudan. Please join your prayers to ours on the 8thof February, on the occasion of her feast.

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Self-Interest Versus the Common Good

This year, a global survey across 28 countries called the Edelman Trust Barometer, showed that trust in each of Australia’s four key institutions – government, business in general, the media and not-for-profit organizations – has fallen. Since 2017, trust in government has fallen from 37% to 35%; business from 48% to 45%, media from 32% to 31% and NGOs from 52% to 48%. These were not great figures to begin with, but the slide, which is all in one direction, should give us cause for alarm.

The most recent causes for this include the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; the Royal Commission into the Financial Services (that has brought to public attention examples of the unconscionable behaviour of Australia’s banking and financial service sector); and the outrageous behaviour of our political leaders securing their hold on power and position.

As our trust in institutions declines, so too does our commitment to them. Our relationship with the political system and its parties, our economic institutions and even our Churches has become detached. The salacious reporting of the countless examples of wrongdoing has, for many Australians, extinguished the fire of outrage that would demand change. Instead, these scandals of self-interest have increased antipathy towards the very institutions that we have created to support and be part of our society.

The excessive pursuit of self-interest, whether it be for the accumulation of wealth or preservation of power or reputation, can lead to actions that set aside our moral code of fairness and justice. The excessive pursuit of self-interest is in many ways key to the current state of affairs that dogs our political, economic, social and charitable institutions. It is a condition that goes beyond our institutions and has embedded itself in the community at large. In short, as a society, we are becoming more focused on self-interest over the common good.

Self-interest is, in reality, our instinct for self-preservation. The more fearful we become the more focused on self-interest we get. Gaudium et Spes, one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, expressed the common good as the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.

So the common good holds in tension the fulfilment of an individual’s interest and the interest of the whole.

In 1992, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s document, “The Common Wealth for the Common Good,” said: “Commonly, the greedy grip of consumerism and what we see as our own needs blind us to a wider view of what it takes to make and equitable society where the needs of all are addressed.”

There is a tension within us as a human species – an evolutionary tension – between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group. Charles Darwin noticed this paradox in evolution – that if evolution is the struggle to survive, if life is a competition for scarce resources, if the strong win and the weak die, then everywhere ruthlessness should prevail. But it does not. All societies value altruism. People esteem those who make sacrifices for the sake of others. This, in Darwinian terms, does not seem to make sense at all, and Darwin was honest enough to admit it.

The bravest, most sacrificial people, he wrote, ‘would on average perish in larger number that other men.’ If evolution is driven by the selfish instinct of self preservation, a noble man ‘would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.’ It seems scarcely possible, he wrote, that virtue ‘could be increased through natural selection, that is, by survival of the fittest.’

Even though it contradicted his general thesis, Darwin acknowledged that while natural selection operates at the level of the individual – it is individual men and women who pass on their genes to the next generation – civilizations work at the level of the group. As Darwin put it:

“A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (‘The Decent of Man,’ by Charles Darwin, p.166)

So yes, we have evolved a strong instinct for self-preservation. If it were not strong, we would have died out as a species a long time ago. But for our species to survive, evolution has found the need for an alternative tool, and that is an altruistic concern for the common good. This happens when our minds create an identification with the concerns for the group as a whole so strong that it defeats the constant temptation to be solely concerned about my own self-interest. Any group in which all the members can trust one another is at a massive advantage to others.

This, as evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has argued, is what religion does more powerfully than any other system. It is God who teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, heed the unheeded, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and temper justice with compassion.

This is the central drama of civilisation. Biological evolution favours individuals, but cultural evolution favours groups. There is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-interest or concern for others. Selfishness benefits individuals but is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.

When the media constantly bombards us with the moral failure and betrayal of trust of our key institutes, we lose confidence that working for the good of the whole will in fact benefit us individually. When that happens individuals turn back to putting greater trust in self-interest. As a society we grow more selfish and as stated above, in the end this is disastrous to the group.

When, on the other hand we see an altruistic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, like the national apology by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to the indigenous people for the stolen generation, or the recent apology by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse, the opposite takes place. Trust and concern for the good of the whole group increases and we let go of our focus on self-interest.

So there is hope. Clearly institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good. The common good is fundamental to the functioning of our society. Being attentive to the common good, we need to renew our commitment to sound institutions and to judgements based on more than individual self-interest.

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The Media Fuelling Racism

I did not believe, until recently, that there was significant racism in Australia. I am a migrant myself, born in the Philippines of Spanish blood, and immigrated with my family when I was 11 years old, in 1972. At that time, when I went to school, my classmates were predominantly white Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Celts, with a handful of Italians who were labeled ‘wogs.’ They didn’t quite know what to do with me. The fact that I’m white skinned made them think I was an Australian. The moment I opened my mouth to speak and they heard my accent, however, the look of horror on their faces said it all. But I took this to be the typical bullying and banter that goes on in school. I didn’t really believe, in this day and age, that Australians were racist.

Even seeing Pauline Hanson appear on the news for the first time, with all her vitriol, it struck me as an aberration that would be laughed off by most Australians. It has been sobering to see the rise of the One Nation party and hear the rhetoric in politics and the media. I’m saddened to say that my eyes have been opened to the truth.

I would still hope that most Australians are not tainted with the brush of racism, but there is certainly a problem when we don’t see politicians or the media doing anything significant to address the deep undercurrent of racism which exists in this country — a country, incidentally, which was founded on the erasure of a people — and the role the media plays to fuel the racist status quo. What I believe we are seeing today is Australia unpacking its structural racism.

For those of you who didn’t catch it, earlier this year Sky News chose to conduct an interview with a noted fascist and vocal figure in the Far Right movement in Australia, Blair Cottrell. Not only has Cottrell described himself as a ‘fascist’ in a now infamous video of him and a few of his brethren abusing a street performer following their ill-fated ‘flag march’ back in June, but he’s also called for pictures of Hitler to be hung in classrooms across the country. He has been continually front and centre at Far Right rallies and has a noted criminal record including stalking and arson.

This was who Sky News felt would make a good interviewee on the Adam Giles Show. He was engaged by news director Greg Byrnes and then interviewed by Giles himself. The interview was a warm and collaborative one where Giles quizzed Cottrell on whether he felt he spoke for ‘ordinary Australians’ then engaged in a nice bout of race-baiting over the alleged ‘African gangs’ crisis in Melbourne.

The fact that Giles — both the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and an Aboriginal man — felt compelled to collaborate with a fascist figure on air raises serious questions about just how far right an Aboriginal person, looking to climb to the upper echelons of the Liberal Party, must aim to be.

When the controversy hit, former minister Craig Emerson had to tender his resignation and sponsorship dollars were lost before Sky News got the picture, but when they did, they did moved on it. Byrnes issued a statement of wrongdoing on behalf of the station, Giles’ show was suspended and Cottrell has been banned from appearing on Sky News again.

But Cottrell is just a figurehead, performing a role not unlike the one Pauline Hanson has played within the political field over two decades. People in this country can just point at them and say ‘they’re the real racists’, then when these figures are dealt repercussions for their views, many end up thinking that that’s the job done.

Yet over the years Pauline Hanson’s racism and xenophobia, not only got absorbed by the federal Liberal Party and turned into policy, but the media normalised all of it. Her original battle cry of ‘Swamped by Asians’ merely shifted to targeting Muslims then Africans. What’s worse is that the Labor Party then adopted similar ‘stop the boats’ election campaigns in a bid to win back the votes of the disaffected. They had an opportunity to educate and embrace and instead, they retreated into White Australia Policy security.

If this goes on, what guarantees have we got that the views of Cottrell also won’t be normalised by politics and the media? Sky News may sanction him now, but the ABC has previously welcomed him with open arms. This is after years of the media — including the conservative Sky News — painting the views of Cottrell and his brethren as somewhat neutral yet different – as the concerns of ‘ordinary mums and dads‘ – as just one side of the coin with anti-racist activists as being the other, therefore framing anti-racism as an extremist ideology and not what should be a given in a civilised society.

For far too long, the media has been complicit in maintaining the very conditions which allow the likes of Cottrell and Hanson to become ‘figures’. They will fuel history wars, demonise the migrant communities, target Aboriginal activists, objectify and ridicule women while ensuring at the end of the day, the Murdochs and Packers of the world still have hefty pay cheques.

What is required is a massive cultural shift within all of the mainstream media — from the demonisation of vulnerable groups of people, to education and proper news reporting. And right now, there is no evidence this shift is ever going to occur.

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Sexual Exploitation and Aid Agencies

While the media has focused a lot on institutional sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, just how wide spread this activity is in other organisations in a position of care for the vulnerable has not yet been reported widely. However, in July of this year a UN report came out presenting shocking revelations of the endemic nature of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by members of aid agencies and peacekeepers throughout the world perpetrated on the most vulnerable – the recipients of their aid and care.

That aid agencies and peacekeepers have been involved in such activities should not be a surprise. The 2010 film, ‘The Whistleblower,” first made me aware that such exploitation takes place. The film was inspired by the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who was recruited as a UN peacekeeper for DynCorp International in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. It tells the story of how Bolkivac, while there, discovered a sex trafficking ring serving (and facilitated by) DynCorp employees, with the UN’s peacekeeping force turning a blind eye.  Bolkovac was fired and forced out of the country after attempting to shut down the ring, but took her story to the BBC News in the UK and won a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against DynCorp.

The July, 2018, UN report, suggests that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision, and a wide range of organisations have been implicated.

The term ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ could apply to a wide range of acts including: rape, sexual assault, other forms of sexual violence, transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex, exploitative relationship, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. The different kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse against children are listed as: child rape, sexual assault, solicitation of child prostitution, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. From the statistics available and the research available, this is abuse that is largely perpetrated by men. Victims were mainly girls aged 13 and 18 years, who reported far-reaching consequences of the abuse on their lives: pregnancies, abortions, teenage motherhood, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, lost educational, skills-training and employment opportunities and social exclusion.

The 67 allegations documented by a 2002 West Africa assessment report listed 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping battalions across three countries in West Africa. The research conducted for Save the Children’s 2008 report revealed that in emergency contexts in South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti, a wide range of organisations were implicated in abuse.

Fieldwork revealed cases of abuse associated with a sum total of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations. These include civil humanitarian agencies such as those delivering food and nutritional assistance, care, education and health services, reconstruction, shelter, training, and livelihood support, as well as military actors providing peace and security services.

It also showed that a broad spectrum of different types of aid workers and peacekeepers were implicated in the abuse. For example, staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers, were identified as having been involved. Participants also implicated a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ people.

No corner of the aid sector appears to be immune. The problem is a collective one. Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK said, “this is not the occasional bad apple that we are dealing with here; it is a structural and systemic problem that we have to deal with through proper integration.” Watkins further said, “Although the problem appears pervasive, the exact scale of Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector is currently impossible to define. We heard repeatedly that there is under-reporting, based both on research and anecdotal evidence.”

The UN Secretary General acknowledged in his 2017 Special Measures report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, “we feel certain that not all cases are reported”. Practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the “tip of the iceberg”.

In terms of the impact, ‘Rape Crisis and Equality Now’ stated that in addition to the “degrading, harmful and traumatic experience in itself,” sexual exploitation and abuse contributes to a context that is conducive to the objectification and exploitation of women and girls, where sexual violence is condoned and excused. It also forms part of the framing of sex-based inequality, reducing women’s and girls’ rights in multiple contexts and contributing to and reinforcing the environment for further abuse and discrimination against them.

The UN report states that there is little understanding of how sexual exploitation and abuse impact the effectiveness of aid programmes, and the ability of aid organisations to deliver support to beneficiary communities. A senior and experienced specialist in the aid sector told investigators in confidence that the way the communities being served view aid agencies is everything… “we fail at almost all levels above our programmes to quantify the impact this has on the quality of our programmes, or our ability to actually deliver them to their intended audiences.”

The impact of the sexual abuse and exploitation of intended beneficiaries of aid—relief aid in particular—obviously and clearly falls directly upon the victims and survivors of that abuse. In the vast majority of cases, such people will be desperate, already traumatised by disaster, conflict, loss and separation from family and community, and suffering from deprivation of the basic physical necessities. In many forced displacement scenarios, it seems criminal exploiters swiftly target new refugee encampments.

The distribution of shelter, food, water, etc. to vulnerable people can provide potential abusers with powerful levers of influence under the imprimatur of an international aid organisation. In addition to the actual abuse is the impact on the relationship between the beneficiary community and the aid organisations trying to deliver effective assistance

Hamer people around Turmi (Lower Omo Valley – Ethiopia)

(presumably including dignified and secure facilities for women and girls and protection from trafficking); the impact of abuse-related loss of trust and confidence on aid effectiveness (let alone other aid strategy objectives) has not been even considered, let alone assessed, as far as UN investigators are concerned.

Collective ineffectiveness in combating sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers inevitably damages and constrains the aid sector as a whole. I am sure, of course, that the vast majority of aid sector workers are innocent of such conduct. However, everyone is tainted by such scandals and the inability, as yet, to have confidence in the systems to deal with, let alone prevent, such behaviours.

In recent months, the MeToo movement has helped bring to light the extent to which sexual abuse pervades workplaces and society at large. The international aid sector is not exempt, and we should not expect it to be. But sexual exploitation and abuse is ultimately an abuse of power and the aid sector is one of extreme power imbalance. Those receiving aid in humanitarian crisis situations are some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people in the world. The sector as a whole needs to confront the fact that, although the exact scale remains unknown, sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It is endemic, and it has been for a long time.


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The Right Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

For this month’s article, I wanted to share in full the just released conference communiqué from the Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry Conference that was held in Melbourne on the 27-29th of August 2018. I believe it is an appropriate and challenging response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the final report being published on the 15th of December, 2017. The communiqué is addressed to the Christian churches, stating that, “we are at a tipping point,” and that “recovery will depend on engaging in a thoroughgoing reformation of theology, structures, governance, leadership and culture.”


An ecumenical conversation on the task of rebuilding and renewal for Australian churches following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was conducted at a University of Divinity-hosted conference on Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry from 27–29 August in Melbourne. The conference was the first ecumenical gathering of its kind to discuss the way forward for the churches in Australia.

The Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry Conference was sponsored by four leading Catholic religious institutes – the Franciscan Friars, the Passionists, the Redemptorists, and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers – along with the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, Yarra Theological Union, Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers, Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers, and a number of private donors.

The conference featured fifty presenters and panellists drawn from Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe, and
the United States, and was attended by approximately 270 delegates, including church members and leaders, academics, clergy and religious, ministers and church workers, survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates, and groups advocating church reform.

To the Church and the Australian Community

This communiqué is addressed to survivors of child sexual abuse in church institutions, to members of the Australian Christian churches, and to Australian church leaders, including the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Religious Australia, and the leadership of the National Council of Churches of Australia (NCC).

Above all, this communiqué is an appeal to the whole Australian community, including all members of faith communities, because participants believe that health and integrity in ministry and the rebuilding and renewal of our churches should be of the utmost concern to all Australians, whatever their beliefs.

A brief synopsis

The sessions discussed the following topics: the causes and dimensions of the tragedy; the collateral damage to ecclesial communities; the ongoing pastoral care needs of victims, their families, and affected communities; theological Implications; implications for church governance and leadership; Church law; implications for ministry (including formation for ministry and professional supervision for those in ministry); the international and multicultural dimensions; and supervising the perpetrators.

The conference expressed its solidarity with the many thousands of men, women and children who had been directly and indirectly harmed, and strongly condemned ongoing denial by some church members of the truth of what has happened.

During the conference, delegates acknowledged and thanked survivors of child sexual abuse for their courage, resilience, and their testimony before the Royal Commission, and affirmed that they will continue to stand in solidarity with them. Conference delegates expressed sorrow for the many lives that have been lost due to child sexual abuse, and concern for all those who have not felt able to come forward with their own stories of abuse, and for those of our Aboriginal sisters and brothers who have been abused in church care. The conference also acknowledged the brave “truth-tellers”, whistle-blowers, journalists and the media for their courageous role in bringing these criminal acts and their institutional cover-up to public attention and forcing Australian governments to act.

Describing the criminal sexual abuse of children by clergy, religious, and church personnel as a national tragedy, the conference resolved that it is essential for Australia’s churches to fully implement all the Royal Commission’s recommendations pertaining to them. But the conference also called for the churches to go beyond the minimum standards of implementation in the Royal Commission’s recommendations, to undertake thoroughgoing reform of theology, ministry, governance and leadership, and in so doing to return to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. Survivor Joan Isaacs told the conference that it was time for the churches to “get back on the donkey”.

Opening the Health and Integrity Conference, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity, Professor Peter Sherlock, said the conference provided a focussed opportunity for the University to identify both immediate and longer-term actions. One outcome will be the creation of a new goal in the University’s Strategic Plan commencing immediately, to pursue the dual themes of health and integrity in church and ministry.

Where are we, and how did we get here?

In his address, Emeritus Professor Des Cahill of RMIT University, told the conference that the Royal Commission’s final report was the most thorough and credible report that has ever been produced on the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions. “Due to the Royal Commission’s unparalleled moral authority, Australian governments are moving quickly to implement its recommendations”, Professor Cahill said.

Professor Cahill said that the image of religion had been severely damaged by the child sexual abuse crisis,
and that the Royal Commission had demonstrated that many religious institutions were not in good shape. He described the Australian Catholic Church as ‘a shipwreck’ and described the performance of the Australian Catholic Bishops in taking almost nine months to formally respond to the Royal Commission as ‘appalling and abysmal’. Professor Cahill said deep cultural change was needed in the churches, going beyond professional standards and child safety mechanisms. He argued that the Catholic Church would need to completely rethink the sacrament of reconciliation in light of the Royal Commission’s findings, its theology and praxis of priesthood, and its theology of gender and sexuality. He also called for the conference to adopt a wider focus than child sexual abuse, to include the abuse of vulnerable adults, including seminarians, novices and the sexual assault of female religious by priests.

Collateral damage to ecclesial communities

The Health and Integrity Conference heard that there is grief and pain everywhere throughout the Australian churches as a result of the criminal sexual abuse of children. Beyond the damage to the victims themselves, pain has also been caused to many of those who live and work inside the church.

Dr Megan Brock RSJ, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar, spoke of the “post-Royal Commission feelings of exhaustion and numbness experienced by many of us”, and the strain experienced by those whose task it was to deal with abuse cases and clean up the mess.

“I am aware that many individuals who work in religious and pastoral ministry, including priests, brothers, nuns, pastors, teachers and social workers, feel betrayed by their colleagues who perpetrated the abuse, and their colleagues who failed to respond with integrity and justice”, Dr Brock said. “Some will also be questioning the dysfunctional and sometimes abusive church structures within which they have had to live and work.” These included adult female and male religious who have themselves experienced sexual abuse in the Church.

Theological implications

In his keynote paper, Rev Professor Richard Lennan, an Australian priest who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College in the United States, warned that any church that proved unwilling or unable to learn the lessons of the Royal Commission “will disqualify itself from a continuing place in Australian society”.

Professor Lennan said the Royal Commission had brought distorted aspects of the Catholic Church’s culture into relief. “When the Royal Commission defined clericalism as the idealisation of the clergy, and by extension the idealisation of the Church, it was describing a form of idolatry”, he said in his keynote paper. “Idols cannot ever give life; they can only be a distortion of what God enables.”

“While taking up the specific recommendations of the Royal Commission will certainly help the church to become a more transparent and authentic body”, Professor Lennan said, “the renewal of integrity in the church requires more than individual pieces of reform: it requires broad and deep cultural shifts in the church. To achieve this, it will be necessary for the Church to embrace an overarching approach to change”.

Governance and Leadership

The Health and Integrity Conference heard that, in many areas, the Christian churches lag behind secular society in providing ethical governance and leadership, and that the creation of healthier institutions lay in adopting governance models that are transparent, accountable, inclusive of all the People of God, and genuinely dialogical, participatory and collaborative.

Susan Pascoe AM, President and Chair of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and Chair of the Community Directors Council, told the conference that although most of the churches have signed up to the National Redress Scheme and many have issued apologies to victims, to date there has been limited public recognition by the churches of the need for governance and cultural reform.

“Abuse survivors, many of whose lives have been irretrievably damaged may take some convincing that genuine reform is on the way,” Ms Pascoe said. But Ms Pascoe said the voices calling for change in response to the child sexual abuse crisis have enormous power, and the Church was at a “tipping point”.

Noting that Basic Religious Charities are currently exempted from meeting the reporting obligations and governance standards of other charities and not-for-profit organisations under the 2013 Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Act, Ms Pascoe said it was “reasonable to expect church bodies to operate on comparable, or equal governance standards as corporate, government and not-for-profit entities”. She said they should also be subject to the same, or a comparable, regulatory regime.

Canon Law

The conference heard that structural changes in Catholic canon law are “absolutely necessary”, although these should build on what is already positive in canon law. In his keynote paper on Catholic Canon Law, Professor Rik Torfs, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, argued that the 1983 Code of Canon Law still carries traces of an outdated ‘perfect society’ theology that is contributing to the survival of the culture

of clericalism in the Church. These aspects include the view that the Church is self-sufficient and independent of the civil law (canon 22); the fundamental distinction between the clergy and the laity (canon 129); and the lack of separation of the powers of governance (legislative, executive and judicial), which are concentrated in the hands of the pope and diocesan bishops (canons 135, 331, 381). Professor Torfs also said it was of the utmost importance that canon law procedures were made more transparent and more accountable.


In relation to formation for Ministry, Janiene Wilson, who has taught seminarians and laity at the Catholic Institute of Sydney for 25 years and worked as a clinical psychologist with clergy and religious for 25 years, told the conference that Catholic seminary formation had been underpinned by a ‘faulty anthropology’, meaning “a purely theological understanding of the human person drawn entirely from scripture and tradition, without reference to science”. In the Catholic Church, Ms Wilson said, “Ministry has traditionally been something done to a passive laity, and now we have a two-tiered model of ministry. Ministry is identified with clergy, and the laity for the most part are passive recipients”. She called for a renewed understanding of ministry based in an ecclesiology of communion.

In relation to the Royal Commission’s recommendation that all persons in religious or pastoral ministry should receive mandatory pastoral/professional supervision, Dr Alan Niven of Stirling Theological College in the University of Divinity, expressed concern that the supervision response put in place by the churches could fail because of marginal resourcing and lack of cultural and strategic support. He argued that professional supervision needs to be re-framed. It is not something external to ministry, so much as a form of pastoral care for those in ministry, a theological discipline, and a form of ministry in its own right.

Conference resolutions

  1. We the People of God say ‘NO’ to child sexual abuse and to the institutional circumstances that led to its cover up, and we demand the removal of any conditions which put children and vulnerable adults at risk.
  2. The criminal sexual abuse of children in religious institutions has been a national and international tragedy. We hope for personal and community healing, we express solidarity with the victims of child sexual abuse, their families, and affected communities, and pledge to continue to learn from survivors and their advocates.
  3. We affirm that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been a gift to the entire Australian community, including the churches, and that it presents the churches with a unique opportunity for revisioning and renewal. The churches share a common guilt and shame in relation to child sexual abuse. They must accept the Royal Commission’s recommendations in full. But they must go beyond minimum standards of implementation, to embrace a thoroughgoing reformation of their theology, structures, governance, leadership and culture, and in so doing return to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
  4. We affirm the profound importance of the Royal Commission for survivors of child sexual abuse and their families, as an event in the life of the Australian churches, as an event in the life of the Australian nation, and internationally. We thank the Royal Commission for exposing the truth about child sexual abuse in the churches and other Australian institutions, including the dimensions of what has occurred, and we condemn the ongoing denial by some church members of the truth of what has happened.
  5. We affirm that as part of accepting responsibility for the immense damage they have caused, the churches must take responsibility for the lifelong care and support of all those whose lives have been harmed by child sexual abuse in church institutions. This goes beyond the notion of “redress”. It is vitally important that locally- focussed healing services for victims, their families, and affected communities be supported and financed by the churches at the national level. Ongoing care should be based on the principles of trauma-informed practice, meaning that it should be holistic and survivor-informed. The churches should urgently review their processes for responding to ensure that victims are not re-traumatised when they seek support and redress from the Church.
  6. Child sexual abuse is also an ongoing tragedy, including in church-run institutions internationally. We affirm that the Royal Commission presents Australia with a unique opportunity and responsibility to contribute through thought-leadership, and church and government action, to international efforts to address the scourge of child sexual abuse and its institutional cover-up.
  7. We affirm that the Church is in constant need of conversion and that theological reflection is essential to sustain the church in its mission and help free it from the distortions of the past. We call on all the churches to engage in a process of fundamental theological and interdisciplinary reflection about the causes and implications of the child sexual abuse crisis. We call for new theological approaches to the body, sexuality, gender and the child, that are informed by contemporary experience and scientific understandings.
  8. We reject clericalism in all its forms. We note the intervention of Pope Francis (20 August 2018) in his “Letter to the People of God”, which states that: “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives”. We demand an end to those values in our church culture which are antithetical to the values of the Gospel, including the patterns of silencing and domination which have characterised so much of the response to child sexual abuse in our churches.
  9. We affirm that any restoration of trust in the churches will be dependent on a commitment by our church leaders to contemporary ethical standards of good governance based on the principles of transparency, accountability and inclusivity. There can be no theological excuse for dysfunctional or unhealthy governance structures and practices. We call on the National Council of Churches of Australia, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Religious Australia, and all Australian church members and leaders—national, diocesan, and local—to take concrete steps to create more participatory churches. It is essential that the laity in general, and women in particular, enjoy full equality in the Church, including in church governance.
  10. Through the disaster of child sexual abuse crisis and the experience of the Royal Commission, the churches have been called to a renewed understanding of ministry. We therefore call on the churches to engage in theological and pastoral reflection and research, informed by the social sciences, into healthy and effective models of religious and pastoral ministry for the 21st century and best practice models of initial formation and ongoing support for persons in ministry.
  11. We affirm the importance of increased funding by governments and churches for research into the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We recognise the benefits which will flow from the creation of specialised research institutes—centres of excellence—that will inform improved teaching and practice in governance and ministry. We call on each of the churches to consider providing seed-funding to create an ecumenical centre 
for pastoral supervision under the auspices of the University of Divinity. The Centre would provide training, accreditation, professional development, and best practice professional/pastoral supervision. It is suggested that a steering group be established to work towards implementation of this proposal.
  12. In order to protect children and communities, prevention of offending is essential. This must include adequate treatment and help for offenders, so they do not re-offend. We call for more research into the origins and underlying factors of child sex offending in order to maximise the future protection of children and vulnerable adults.
  13. We call on all Australian churches to participate fully in the national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse on 22 October 2018.
  14. We affirm the need for monuments, rituals and archives to preserve documents and record the voices of victims and their stories. The churches should also consider instituting a shared National Day of Remembrance and Bearing Witness, to be held perhaps on the anniversary of the release of the Royal Commission’s report on
15 December 2017, to ensure that the testimony of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse continues to 
be heard, to be an occasion on which each church reports publicly on its progress in implementing the Royal Commission recommendations and what it has done by way of reforming its governance and culture to respond positively to this national tragedy, and also to be an occasion to celebrate those righteous truth-tellers who refused to keep silent about the abuse and those who have worked in the interests of victims and child safety.


We give thanks to those religious leaders who attended the Health and Integrity Conference, including bishops and leaders of religious institutes. We affirm the power of conversation within and between churches that creates a respectful space for constructive action for reform in response to the child sexual abuse crisis.

We look forward to an even broader multi-faith conversation. We undertake to repeat this conference in some form, in solidarity with survivors, and to build on the interest groups and networks of church leaders, theologians and social scientists, researchers, practitioners and faithful which have been established and/or confirmed over three hope-filled days in Melbourne in August 2018.

— Professor Maria Harries AM, Emeritus Professor John Warhurst AO, Professor Peter Sherlock, Dr David Leary OFM, Stephen Crittenden.

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