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Melbourne conference heralds a new era in faith governance

Wednesday 6 December 2017

 
Media and Communications Office
 
In a conference room looking out over the Melbourne city skyline sat an impressive array of faith leaders, community leaders, agency leaders, regulators and experts. Hundreds of people were present, and judging by the array of hijabs, habits, yarmulkes, taquiyahs, and kasayas, there was a strong representation from all major faiths.

Organised by the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University, the two-day Faith and Governance Leadership Conference began on Tuesday 5 December at Victoria University’s Flinders Street Campus. The aim of the conference was to bring together all faith-based communities and together, consider the implications and responses to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria).
 
 
L-R: The Hon Nicola Roxon, the Hon Robin Scott MP, the Hon Marcia Neave AO, the Hon Justice Jennifer Coate, Professor Peter Dawkins AO
 
In the first session, the Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate, a Judge of the Family Court of Australia and one of the six Royal Commissioners, shared crucial and sobering facts about child sex abuse uncovered by the Royal Commission that must be grappled with by all faith communities. ‘At the conclusion of this Royal Commission on 15 December, we will provide that report to Governor General and it will contain our final recommendations on changes to laws, policies, practices and systems,’ said Justice Coate. ‘We are at a crossroads moment in the nation. And every single one of you has a part to play.’

Through the Royal Commission, it became evident that all faith-based communities demonstrated behaviours in a continuum of governance that was ultimately harmful to children, but there’s no one-size-fits-all response. The Hon. Marcia Neave, Former Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Family Violence (Victoria) explained that the actions of faith communities need to be nuanced, with individual communities addressing their problems with tailored responses.
 
 
The Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate
 
Some actions are universally helpful and necessary in creating safer organisations, suggested Justice Neave, like including more women on governing boards and prioritising child safety on all levels of an organisation. Organisations that did so had demonstrably lower rates of abuse and family violence. Hierarchical institutions always pose a risk, as they naturally lead to the exercising of power over vulnerable people. The challenge then, in a hierarchical system, is to consider about how to protect the vulnerable, and teach leaders how to prevent the inappropriate exercising of power.

Through this conference, it became clear how over the last five years, systems of governance in faith-based communities were taken apart, reassembled, and ultimately found lacking. Ineffective governance and cultures of silence and secrecy were crucial factors in enabling sexual predators to repeat problem behaviours.

What also became clear is the magnitude of change that is required from all faith-based communities throughout Australia. With a raft of recommendations and forthcoming changes to legislation, it seems old patterns of governance, no matter how benign, aren’t going to cut it anymore. The question will quickly become one of compliance, and overcoming defensive hurdles to ensure all faith communities are on the same page. And everyone in the room seemed to anticipate some level of opposition from the faithful.

In his response to the Royal Commission, CEO of Truth, Justice and Healing Council Francis Sullivan said the Royal Commission was helpful in highlighting how cultures in faith organisations functioned.

Sullivan pointed out that in the Catholic Church, ‘it was the abuse of power of those at the top and the absolute corrosion of moral leadership that drove the hypocrisy that the Church could abuse children at industrial rates.’ He outlined the absolute need for a culture shift according to recommendations suggested by the Commission, but the first obstacle would be to convince the faithful it was necessary.

‘Faith communities aren’t like other organisations,’ Sullivan continued. ‘They have a culture driven by a belief that they are different, and that they are separate. When the Royal Commission happened, the instinct is often for these communities to become defensive, perceiving it as a threat to their image and to that of their adherents.’ We need to check that reaction, Sullivan argued. ‘It’s not about being reactive, it’s about being responsible and discerning what is right.’

In his response to the Royal Commission, Rabbi Marcus Solomon of Beit Midrash, WA, pointed out that ‘an utter distrust of secular authority leads to disaster and painful consequences. Barriers to disclosure and reporting emerge as a result. We need to become part of a broader community of faiths that operates within a secular authority.’ Rabbi Marcus echoed Sullivan’s sentiments in describing a natural resistance to change in religious communities, but went on to explain, ‘it’s incumbent to accept the truth from he or she who speaks it. In faith-based communities, we’re called to participate within democratic institutions. Within these new governing structures, we are to become leaders and create a better and safer tomorrow.’
 
The conference communicated that the outcomes of the Royal Commission won’t be a momentary blip, and there will be no returning to business as usual. Rather, the recommendations coming from the Commission are intended to forge a lasting culture-shift in every faith-based organisation. Faith communities have always been set apart from the rest of society. In a sense, this conference heralds an end to that exclusivity and ushers in what will hopefully be a new era of accountability and partnership with secular authorities in making faith-based institutions safe places for children and vulnerable adults. 
 
 
Clockwise from top left: The Hon Robin Scott MP, the Hon Nicola Roxon, the Hon Marcia Neave AO, Sheikh Alaa El Zokm, and Brent Watkins
 
Photos by David Johns  
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