The Catholic Church will create independent strategies for handling clergy sex abuse complaints by the end of next year in response to widespread criticisms, it has told the royal commission.
In its formal submission, to be released on Thursday, the church says it is happy to contribute to an independent national compensation scheme if that is what the commission investigating child sex abuse in institutions recommends.
But that would take years, whereas the church recognises it needs to act immediately to make its response more open, accountable and independent, according to Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.
"We don't want the legal mindset to contaminate what should be a pastoral response," Mr Sullivan told Fairfax Media.
The council was set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and religious orders after the royal commission was announced late last year to co-ordinate the church's response. It represents 31 Australian dioceses and more than 100 orders.
It proposes wide-ranging reforms, including an independent lay-led board to audit, enforce and report publicly the Towards Healing abuse protocol, which has been criticised for the inconsistent approach by different church authorities.
The council also proposes setting up independent compensation commissioners to determine payments to victims. Besides independence from church authorities, the merit would be to separate the pastoral response – an apology, ongoing counselling and the like – from compensation payments, which increasingly involve lawyers.
Mr Sullivan said Towards Healing had lacked transparency, accountability or independence, but all church authorities would sign up to the independent set-up. "It's a very different world from the one [church leaders] are in now, where they have autonomy and no accountability," he said.
The change was driven by two lessons, Mr Sullivan said. The church now recognised far better the long-term implications of sexual abuse, which needed a long-term pastoral response, and it recognised it needed to take responsibility.
The 207-page submission tackles criticisms of Towards Healing, accepting that it is incomplete and imperfect. It acknowledges that victims have been treated inconsistently, and that the response is not properly independent, but denies that the church does not report complaints to police.
It also denies that the response is just a device to avoid lawsuits, pointing out that most victims face serious obstacles in bringing civil proceedings, which are usually adversarial and traumatic.
The submission agrees that Towards Healing has become much more legalistic, but says that is because of the increasing reliance on lawyers by victims.
The submission acknowledges past failures, saying sexual abuse was indefensible, that the church is "deeply ashamed", that it sometimes failed to believe victims, concealed crimes and moved perpetrators, enabling them to offend again, and failed to report to police. "That behaviour, too, is indefensible."
It also admits that some church leaders gave too high a priority to protecting the church rather than children. "That, too, was and is inexcusable. In such ways, church leaders betrayed the trust of their own people and the expectations of the wider community. For all these things the church is deeply sorry," the submission says.