The inquiry announced this week into sexual abuse by clergy and community leaders provides a timely opportunity to heal historical wounds and ensure children are safer. However, unless the inquiry is informed by a deep understanding of the unique culture and doctrines of religious organisations, it may do more damage than good.

Most people are genuinely bewildered at the churches' apparent inability to confront the systemic sexual abuse of children by priests and other religious leaders. In the face of overwhelming evidence and public dismay, the churches appear paralysed and insensitive to public sentiment by insisting on ''in-house'' solutions that fail to meet the test that justice be done and be seen to be done. The reasons for this are complex and go to the very nature and theological basis of the churches.

The teachings of Christ demand a commitment to justice, but there is a strong emphasis on forgiveness and the belief that people can change if they are truly repentant. This emphasis on reconciliation rather than retribution means churches are more likely to seek conciliation in the belief and hope that people will change, rather than punishing them and also denying them an opportunity to ''sin'' again.

....The sanctity of leaders in the church is also another barrier to their capacity to confront their crimes. Ordination is a sacrament in the Christian churches; leaders are ''called'' to ministry and conferred with authority to lead their congregations in mission and service. In the past this authority was often unquestioned, which gave ordained people enormous control over the actions and attitudes of their flock. It also meant some people were afraid to question, lest they incur God's wrath. In the hands of a perverted person such power was sometimes abused, and the victims felt powerless to speak up or take action.

....Sexual abuse of a person by another is wrong, sexual abuse of vulnerable children is reprehensible and sexual abuse by people in positions of authority and trust are acts of complete betrayal. The law is very clear in its sanctions on sexual abuse and people who are found guilty are brought to justice, whoever they are. What the law has been unable to do is build the bridge between retributive justice and restorative justice, to enable healing to occur and at the same time ensure that perpetrators are fully held to account.

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