They also said they believed the culture of church and society had changed enough that it would help such abuse from occurring in the future.
The abuse of children in the church was "a catastrophic failure in many respects, but primarily in leadership," Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Feb. 23, near the end of three weeks of public hearings.
Gail Furness, the counsel assisting the commission, asked four other archbishops if they concurred with the assessment, and all agreed.
The commission is wrapping up more than three years of investigation into the Australian Catholic Church's response to child sexual abuse. During the initial hearings Feb. 6, the commission reported on summary data showing that between January 1980 and February 2015, 4,444 people made allegations of child sexual abuse that related to more than 1,000 institutions. The statistics did not differentiate between allegations and proven cases.
"Precisely because we have failed so badly, our society has a right to expect us to do what we can to contribute to a solution, if we can," Archbishop Costelloe said. "I mean, there may be many people who would think that our record and our reputation is so damaged that we have nothing to offer, and I would understand that, but I think that, tragically and unfortunately, we have learned an awful lot about this terrible scourge."
Archbishop Costelloe – along with Archbishops Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Denis Hart of Melbourne, Anthony Fisher of Sydney and Philip Wilson of Adelaide – told the commission about times they had apologized for the church's actions and what steps had been taken in their archdiocese to ensure such abuse did not occur.
But they also spoke of times they had spent listening to victims, often under the protocols set up in the bishops' 1996 document, "Towards Healing."
One of the recurring questions in three weeks of public hearing has been how the abuse could have happened on such a massive scale without people being aware of it.
"Part of the difficulty that we've had in responding to this crisis about sexual abuse was simply based on the fact that people just didn't know and understand what they were dealing with," said Archbishop Wilson. "I don't think they really understood the nature of sexual abuse of children and the effect that it had on the children."
"I think there were people that were just like rabbits in the headlights," said Archbishop Fisher. "They just had no idea what to do, and their performance was appalling."
Archbishop Costelloe reiterated earlier testimony that, in the past, the church "was a law unto itself, that it was somehow or other so special and so unique and, in a sense, so important that it stood aside from the normal things" that would exist in society. That kind of culture often trickled down to priests in parishes, he said.
Archbishop Hart said bishops operated differently in past decades.
"They just sort of floated above it, and it just didn't – you know, the awful reality of these crimes didn't make contact with them," he said. "I don't understand why, but I do know that the way we act now is very, very different, the way we consult, the way we consult with people in various areas and relate to the people ... very little comes up to me that hasn't been reflected on by a group, the people in social welfare or in evangelization or whatever."
"Your Honour, I've given evidence before about people in my situation who just couldn't believe that a priest would do these terrible crimes," he added. "I'm not one of them. And I think that illustrates the mindset. It doesn't excuse it, but it illustrates what the mindset was, that it was just out there and it was left out there. That's a serious failure of responsibility."
Archbishop Fisher spoke of a trilogy of sex, power and theology, and said "our understandings of all three have changed quite dramatically."
He said many people believe more change is needed and spoke of the Second Vatican Council idea of "authority as service, leadership as service, not as an elitist class who are above accountability, transparency."
Archbishop Coleridge said church structure "is changing, albeit slowly."
"For instance, if you take Pope Francis, one of the things that he is dismantling, I think, is the papal court and the monarchical model of the papal ministry," he said. "I think this was a hugely powerful thing in the past, and it did confer upon the bishops, even in this country, certainly in Europe, a rather princely style, which could become autocratic.
"Power in itself can be creative; it can be destructive," the archbishop added. "The call to serve is the call to use power creatively. Clericalism isn't just power; it's power used destructively."