The new ambassador to the Holy See told a Catholic publication that her aim was to change the Vatican’s “narrative” about Australia away from the child abuse royal commission and cardinal George Pell – comments that have infuriated abuse survivors.
In an interview with Catholic Health Australia in September, the newly appointed ambassador Chiara Porro spoke of a recent audience with the Pope, during which she raised the work local Catholic groups were doing on health and education.
She then said: “You know whenever people [in the Vatican] think of Australia they think immediately about cardinal Pell and the royal commission.
“So my aim here is to change that narrative.”
The comments, which have since forced a clarification from the foreign affairs minister, angered abuse survivors, who say Australia’s ambassador, as a representative of all Australians, should be raising the royal commission as often as possible to help avoid a repeat of the horrific child abuse scandal it exposed.
“Our embassy isn’t flying Australia’s flag, it’s flying the Vatican’s flag,” one survivor, who requested anonymity, said.
“The frustration is that the ambassador isn’t just sitting on the fence, but actively working to … change the narrative, to divert the attention away from the negative things that happened in the church.
“It’s so annoying to watch because the ambassador’s job is to try to fix the problems identified by the royal commission.”
The foreign affairs minister Marise Payne has since distanced the government from the ambassador’s comments.
In response to questions on notice from Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Payne said the ambassador’s words did not reflect the position of the Australian government.
Payne said that neither she nor her department had told Porro that, upon arriving at the Vatican, her aim should be to “change that narrative” away from cardinal Pell and the royal commission.
Pell left a senior position at the Vatican in 2017 to face charges that he sexually molested two 13-year-old choir boys in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral in 1996. He was convicted in 2019 and sentenced to six years in prison, but the conviction was thrown out by Australia’s high court in April last year, which unanimously found there was reasonable doubt in the testimony of his lone accuser.
She also told Catholic Health Australia that she had sought the Pope’s views on “how to engage youth, when there is such a crisis of confidence in the Catholic church, particularly in Australia” and how to go about “regaining trust and re-establishing those links”.
In the same interview, Porro acknowledged it was not her role to represent the views of the Catholic church in Australia.
She said her role was to represent “the Australian government” and “all Australians”.
“I’m here to be able to provide that bridge to the Holy See. There’s lots of erroneous reporting [about the Vatican], so where I can try to explain certain things I will.”
The department of foreign affairs and trade was approached for a further clarification of Porro’s comments.
A spokeswoman said the ambassador had not intended to detract from the importance of the royal commission, or suggest that the Australian government wanted to help the church engage Australian youth.
“Rather, she was emphasising that Australia has a broad relationship with the Holy See and that her responsibilities are to put forward the interests of Australia across the breadth of that relationship,” the spokeswoman said.
Australia has had resident ambassadors to the Holy See since 2008.
Porro is the fourth to hold the position, after former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, barrister John McCarthy, and diplomat Melissa Hitchman.
Prior to 2008, the role was typically handled by Australia’s ambassador to Ireland.
Survivors say the department should counsel her about the comments.
“The ambassador should have been pulled into line and told you are not there to work for the church, you are there to work for Australia and the thousands of Australian children abused in the church,” the survivor said.