Royal Commission calls diocese to account

2016 has been a year of both summation and continuation for child protection in the diocese.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has held Case Study #43 into the diocese (and Marist Brothers) and, as expected, the details of the abuse committed were terrible and confronting. What was less expected, and hard-earned, was the affirmation given by Justice McClellan for the practices of the diocese in responding to those affected by child sexual abuse and the quality of our current child protection systems. While particular gratitude is owed to the dedicated staff of Zimmerman Services, particularly Maureen O’Hearn, the evidence available to the Royal Commission (most of which was not part of the Case Study) reflected the commitment of the whole diocese. Under the stewardship of Bishop Bill, the support of our senior clerical and lay leadership and driven by the determination of the people of the diocese, we have demonstrated that we will not allow the terrible abuse or the failures of leadership of the past to happen again, that we strive to keep today’s children safe from abuse and that we are committed to meeting our enduring obligations to those who were affected by child sexual abuse.

During the last year, Zimmerman Services’ ‘Intake’ process has recorded, analysed, provided advice and support to diocesan personnel and ensured reports were made to statutory authorities in relation to:

  • 220 allegations of child abuse involving an adult abuser. Of these, 27 related to adults who were engaged as volunteers or employees of the diocese.
  • 216 ‘general welfare issues’ for children and families with whom the diocese has contact.
  • 61 instances of abusive conduct between children or ‘peer-to-peer’ abuse, most of which related to ‘sexting’ (the inappropriate or illegal use of electronic devices to broadcast sexualised images or text).
  • 11 instances of children believed to have committed self-harm.

Over the past 12 months Zimmerman Services has:

  • Verified and recorded over 1,100 volunteers’ Working with Children Check Clearance numbers with the OCG.
  • Received and recorded 90 testimonials for clergy visiting the diocese to minister.
  • Completed, commenced or oversighted 55 investigations of reportable allegations or alleged breaches of professional standards.
  • Delivered 12 ‘Introduction to Child Protection’ training days. These days are compulsory for all diocesan personnel in child-related work.
  • Developed and delivered multiple specialist training sessions for a number of schools, parishes, diocesan ministries and CatholicCare programs including St Dominic’s Centre, Mayfield; St Pius X High School, Adamstown; presentations to prospective foster carers; LifeTeen volunteers and parish personnel as part of “Christian Ministry, Integrity in the Service of the Church”.
  • Undertaken child protection audits of ten diocesan schools as part of the Catholic Schools Office COSI program.

The Healing and Support team has had an extraordinarily busy year, actively supporting (on average) 50 persons affected by child sexual abuse per month, having:

  • Attended four criminal trials at the Downing Centre to support 7 complainants and 14 family members.
  • Attended two sentencing hearings for a further 7 complainants and 8 family members.
  • Co-ordinated or participated in 16 support groups including with CAN (Clergy Abuse Network), the ‘McAlinden Group’ and ‘Supporters of Survivors Group’.
  • Supported 13 people who came forward and gave evidence in either private sessions or in public as part of a ‘case study’.

2017 promises to be another testing year. The Royal Commission is not over and the ‘Catholic Wrap-up’ (Case Study #50) is scheduled to commence on 6 February, 2017.  It is possible that there will be further civil or criminal court matters dealing with past crimes and the ongoing demands of protecting today’s children continue apace. 

In 2017, and for as long as required, the diocese will continue to endeavour to meet its moral obligation to support those who have been affected by abuse.

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Sean Tynan

Sean Tynan is the Manager, Zimmerman Services, Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.