9 June 2020

Honour recognises Royal Commission role and a lifelong fight for the vulnerable

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Francis Sullivan

Francis Sullivan headed the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and healing Commission. Photo: File.

For years, as the horror of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse unfolded in the news and on our television screens, a familiar Canberra face also appeared.

Francis Sullivan was the CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, whose role was to oversee the Church’s engagement with the Royal Commission and to develop new policies and procedures to protect children in the future.

He has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours list with an AM for distinguished service to the community, particularly through social justice and legislative reform initiatives, and to health and aged care.

He walked the most difficult of paths as he both officially represented the Church in the Royal Commission and at the same time became a conduit for the anger and despair expressed by victims and ordinary Catholics at seemingly endless revelations of abuse, complicity and internal cover-ups.

“It was clear that the might and power of the institution instinctively worked against the victims,” Francis says. “There was rhetoric that seemed to favour them, but the actions of safeguarding the church spoke more powerfully, even where the welfare of defenceless children was being literally overridden.”

It was an experience that shook him powerfully, forcing him to question everything he thought he knew about the church of which he remains a member.

“It was a startling revelation for me,” he says.

“I began to experience not only the frustration that victims and survivors had but also the horror that an organisation like the Catholic Church would be so craven as to look after itself rather than the welfare of children.

“I expected the church to be on the side of human dignity. I expected the church to stand up for what is right and just, but so often that wasn’t the case. The fact that it would perpetuate a culture of concealment to protect the personalities and reputations of priests and bishops – if that was hard for me then how much more devastating was it for the victims?”

Francis told church leaders early on that he would not defend the indefensible. And it took “about half a minute to realise just how much was indefensible”. The only feasible course, he says, was to be a voice for ordinary Catholics in the pews, schools, hospitals and social services.

“I try to remind people that the Catholic Church is the whole assembly of baptised Catholics, not the institution of the bishops and priests and nuns,” he says. “What’s been so horrible is that everyday Catholics have been associated with the crimes of the institution.”

And so he listened to victims, reached out to their families, spoke to the media consistently and steadily absorbed the consequences of others’ wrongdoing for years, while concurrently liaising on the church’s behalf with the Royal Commission. It was an experience he describes as “physically and emotionally completely draining”.

While his personal religious faith isn’t impaired, his belief in the Catholic Church’s structure has been deeply shaken by the experience of hearing repeatedly how people were abused, ignored and betrayed.

Not long ago, he took time to walk the Camino in Spain, trying to make sense of everything he had absorbed after compartmentalising the experience in order to cope.

“The impact on me personally, I really only understood post-fact because it was such an intense period”, he says. “In some ways psychologically I postponed acknowledging the degree to which it affected me.”

He pays tribute to his wife Susan, “my soul mate and greatest companion” and the Truth, Justice and Healing Council staff, “massively dedicated people who gave so much of themselves, and they too really paid a personal price”.

His commitment to the most vulnerable runs through Francis’s career: as Secretary-General of the Australian Medical Association, chief executive officer of Catholic Health Australia (speaking for 73 private and public hospitals and more than 500 aged care services) and advising on health at State government level, he’s always strived to bring social justice values to his roles.

“I see the service to the vulnerable as intimately connected to my to sense of faith and my understanding of the gospel,” he says. “I think actions speak louder than words. They help to frame your world view and in some ways make meaning out of what otherwise could be mind-blowingly depressing situations.

“You must have optimism that people want to uncover deeply painful things to create a better community. We have to believe that human decency wins through.”

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