As the first anniversary of the close of the Royal Commission into Insititutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse nears and abuse survivors seek a way forward, Ballarat’s Catholic Diocese is also counting the cost.
While recent reports reveal the Melbourne Diocese has had to sell church assets and property to meet the cost of redress and civil compensation claims against the church for historical child sexual abuse, thus far no Ballarat Diocesan property has been sold in order to fund the compensation.
However, Ballarat Diocesan business manager Andrew Jirik said while no services have so far been affected, the payments were starting to impact the Church’s capacity to provide new or additional services.
He said many settlements had already been paid, or will be paid, and the money was coming from Diocesan reserves, not from parishes or property.
“These reserves, which include the Mulkearns Estate, are being depleted,” he said. The estate of the former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, was pledged to victims in September 2016 upon his death
The former bishop was blamed for the sexual abuse of hundreds and condemned for not properly handling complaints about abuse in his diocese.
Mulkearns apologised while testifying before the Royal Commission, saying he was “not sure if he knew child abuse was a crime when he was in charge of the Ballarat diocese, but he knew it was wrong.” Upon his death in April 2016, Mulkearns left almost all of his estate to the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat.
The Mulkearns Estate, which includes a Fairhaven property valued at more than $2 million, “comprised of reserves built up over the 144-year history of the Diocese, primarily from the generosity of Catholics through donations and bequeaths,” although some bequeaths “came with very specific instructions as to how they could be used,” Mr Jirik said.
Diocesan income also includes distributions from the Catholic Development Fund and levies on parishes, and this, minus administrative costs, forms part of the reserves, but funds for education and social services (CentaCare) are separate.
Mr Jirik said the Ballarat Diocese had not had an increase in civil suits or claims since the launch of the Commonwealth Redress Scheme in July or the National Apology to victims and survivors of Insitutional Child Sexual Abuse on 22 October 2018, saying “it was due to the manner in which the Diocese of Ballarat has handled and settled claims either through the Towards Healing process, or directly with victims via their lawyers.”
He said the fact they were “open to revisiting claims that have previously been settled” in some circumstances, had also helped.
Mr Jirik said in terms of “appropriate responses” from the Church, and the commentary about the “Ellis Defence”, Bishop Paul Bird (and Bishop Connors before) “had nominated himself as the defendant in civil claims for child abuse, as has the Archbishop of Melbourne.”
Mr Jirik said The Christian Brothers had “shut their books on any new intake in Australia”, and had progressively moved its schools into a corporate structure.
It will become a lay-led incorporated organisation but would still continue the mission of founder, Edmund Rice, but “’in a generation, there will not be a Christian Brother alive in Australia,” he said.
Mr Jirik is becoming fatigued by the questions he is continually asked around “the financial cost of the abuse” and specifically “how much money the church has paid out”.
“For some victims (certainly not all), they will not be content “until the church has gone broke,” he said. And, while he understands this sentiment, Mr Jirik says action is being taken and the ‘ Church’ “is hurting and suffering in other ways, such as declines in attendance.”
“A generation ago, more than 40 per cent of Catholics attended mass regularly, now it is around 10 per cent,” he said.
Data from the 2016 census reveals Catholicism remains the largest religion in Australia, at 5,291.8 (22.6 per cent) of the population and while those reporting no religion increased noticeably from 19 per cent in 2006 to 30 per cent in 2016, the number of those identifying as belonging to a religion was still in excess of 50 per cent.
Mr Jirik said while the data signified “religion remains very important to society, it is the ‘grass roots’ level of the church that has suffered and is suffering.”
“In the parishes, we are seeing a disengagement,” he said. “I see this through the continual decline in mass attendances; and anecdotally through the increased average age of those regularly attending mass.”
“Over the past 30 years we’ve seen a year-on-year decline in mass attendances,” Mr Jirik said. “And, while the Church will, over time, earn back the trust of its members and the community, the engagement at a grass roots level may never recover.”
“This will have a permanent impact on the finances of the parishes and their ability to deliver on their mission as part of ‘The Church’,” he said.
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