This week, the second phase of the Faith-based Redress hearings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care wraps up. Sam Brooks was in the room to witness a quiet reckoning with an almost unbearably painful history.
Roughly 40 people sit in a windowless, grey room above Danny Doolan’s, a bar in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket. The mood is sober. A group of elderly men sit in quiet contemplation on the left of the room. Lawyers file in and out. It’s a deceptively muted setting for a historic examination of one of the most shameful strains of New Zealand’s history.
Announced in 2018, the Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care prompted more than 400 submissions from survivors, advocates, iwi groups, and others. The inquiry is investigating why people were taken into care, what abuse happened and the effect of that abuse. There is a focus on Māori, Pacific people and people with disabilities – communities substantially over-represented among those who have suffered at the hand of the state.
Many of the hundreds of submissions advocated for expanding the scope to include non-state care. The current phase of the inquiry is focused on the experience of survivors seeking redress (such as compensation or counselling) for abuse in the care of faith-based organisations. The witnesses include representatives from the highest level of the Salvation Army, and Anglican and Catholic Churches. These witnesses have responded to survivors’ evidence, and outlined past and current redress policies and processes. This necessarily involves apologising and accepting past failures, personal and systemic.
The day I attend, last Wednesday, comes after a dramatic string of appearances. Three Anglican archbishops recognised the abuse that had taken place within their church, and apologised for it. The week prior, Archbishop John Dew also apologised for the abuse that had taken place within the Catholic Church, saying “We offer no excuses for their actions, or for ours, that have caused you harm.”. On the day I’m there, the witnesses are Brother Peter Horide, a delegate for the Marist Brothers, and Virginia Noonan, the director of NOPS (the National Office for Professional Standards) which responds to complaints of sexual abuse involving clergy and members of religious congregations.
Today the audience includes survivors, advocates, Marist brothers, and even a Cardinal. None are in formal religious clothing. At a glance, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a member of the Church and a survivor.
The concept of systemic failure is not in question here. The Catholic Church alone has in excess of 1,100 complaints lodged against it in New Zealand, and that is just a preliminary figure. The question here is where the system failed, how to offer redress, and how to prevent these failures from occurring again.
The person who immediately stands out most is a woman in a patterned coral top, with pink pants, who spends most of the hearing sitting up the front. She cheerfully chats to people in the adjournments, all jovial smiles and buoyant tones, settling nerves. I later find out that she’s the security guard.
During the adjournments, the gallery mills around, drinking the provided tea and coffee. A woman, dressed in simple black, stands sentinel, keeping watch over everybody in the room. She’s a wellbeing advocate.
Emotions largely run under the surface throughout, with very rare breaks above surfaces. A woman that I chat to during the adjournments, who mistakes me for someone who reviewed her art poorly in the past, leaves at one point, calmly followed out by another wellbeing advocate. The difficulty here is that both Horide and Noonan are largely discussing historic claims dealt with by members who have departed the system. They’re talking about the failings of a system that includes them, but not necessarily their own personal failings.
The language is clinical. The one time the hearing itself, rather than its audience, expresses anything close to an emotion – scepticism – is when Jane Glover, assisting counsel for the inquiry, responds to a historical equivocation of a Brother in a document discussing a survivor’s complaint: “As denials go, you must presumably accept that that’s not especially vehement.”
A document that comes up consistently is A Path to Healing, which outlines the Catholic Church’s system of response to complaints of sexual abuse. The document, first introduced in 1993 and updated every three years since, specifically excludes physical abuse. There are four key principles: looking after people, the sanctity of personal relationships, fairness and natural justice, and responsibility.
As laid out in the document, ex-gratia payments may be offered to complainants. In Brother Horide’s initial evidence, he states that the cumulative estimate for the Marist Brothers’ ex-gratia payments is approximately $540,000 over 57 cases, with most payments within the range of $8000 and $12,000. Towards the end of Brother Horide’s questioning, Glover addresses the meaning of these ex-gratia payments, and how they relate to compensation and obligation.
Jane Glover: The final question or issue that I wanted to explore with you is something that you’ve mentioned quite a few times as we’ve gone through, and that’s the nature of this ex gratia payment and what its purpose is, and you’ve described it as a token, you’ve described it as a symbol and you’ve described it as an acknowledgment, and you’ve said very clearly that you wanted to step away from any characterisation of that as compensatory or meeting an obligation?
Brother Peter Horide: Yes.
Jane Glover: You say that the reason for this, this part is taken from paragraph 51 of your written statement, that the Brothers recognise that no monetary amount could compensate a person for the harm and trauma of being abused. I wanted to explore that idea with you. How do you know that no monetary amount could compensate, or even partially compensate perhaps?
Brother Peter Horide: I don’t. I accept that I don’t know.
Jane Glover: You haven’t obviously then asked survivors about that?
Brother Peter Horide: Survivors at different stages of this process can have a number of ideas that they present to us. Those ideas we may be able to match with or we may not. It’s possibly part of the process of the Path to Healing, the Path to Healing for the person is actually where our philosophy is based and the Path to Healing is what I refer back to if we’re thinking in these terms. Once we start talking about quantums and amounts and that conversation is starting to be had, it’s very hard to have the Path to Healing conversation run concurrently with the dollar conversation. That’s my experience of the recent times, but also anecdotally before that.
Glover asks one final question: “So as you’ve seen it so far, the Path to Healing process is really quite divorced from ideas of compensation and obligation to a survivor?”
And Horide’s final answer, such as it is: “There are some paragraphs, I can’t recall them, I haven’t got them in front of me right now, but there are some perhaps in A Path to Healing that do speak about the ex gratia but [if you] look at the total document and the spirit of it, it isn’t focusing on that.”
However, it’s the last question posed to Noonan, the following morning, that is perhaps the most revealing. Not of the hearing itself, but the systemic issue that this commission is attempting to resolve, and the issue that various congregations have not been able to successfully address.
Noonan says: “We have very high expectations of behaviour from our clergy and religious, and particularly our leaders within our church. Any divergent from that does have very negative impacts on the church as a whole.”
Katherine Anderson, assisting counsel, clarifies: “For the reputation of the church?”
Noonan, not necessarily disagreeing: “For people’s confidence in our leadership – in our people.”
Yesterday, at the conclusion of the Faith-based Redress part of the hearing, SNAP (Survivor Network for People Abused by Priest) leader Christopher Longhurst closed with this indictment: “None of this will ever be helpful when what is written in policy and what is practised are two entirely different things.
“We are talking about child sexual abuse in religious communities and institutional abuse and its cover-up, past and present. This needs to stop and the people who enabled this need to be held to account and the mechanisms that caused this need to be dismantled and the victims and the survivors that suffered this need to be properly compensated.”
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