Interview with ACSL Board Chair, Professor the Honourable Michael Lavarch AO


Sydney-based Board Chair Michael Lavarch comes to his role with ACSL after a career in law, federal government (where he served as Attorney General from 1993-1996) and as a Commissioner of a National Regulator. Michael is a Catholic and a product of De La Salle College Scarborough near Brisbane. His service on the board of CPSL and now ACSL has been Michael’s first experience of working with a Catholic organization. Driven by an ongoing commitment to supporting the rights of those who need protection the most, Michael brings his diverse career experience to bear in this critical governance role.

What is your work background?

I’m a lawyer by training but I’ve had a reasonably varied career. I’ve had stints in private legal practice and served two terms in local government before nine years in the Federal Parliament as a relatively young man from my mid-20s through to my mid-30s. In my final term, I served as the Attorney General in the Keating Government. Post politics, I’ve been the Secretary-General (CEO) of the Law Council of Australia, and a Professor and Dean of Law at the QUT. Most recently I was a foundation Commissioner of the national regulator of vocational education in Australia. Since 1996 I have been a Company Director, in fields as diverse as the national energy market, financial markets and child centred not for profit organisations.

Aside from ACSL, where are you currently working or serving on boards?

ACSL is one of three boards that I chair. Concurrently, I am the Chair of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, which is a non-profit organisation which helps individuals resolve problems with telecommunications providers. I also chair a company called Way Forward Debt Solutions, which is a joint initiative of the four major Australian Banks and the consumer movement, that helps people who are struggling with unsecured debts- credit card debt mostly- to get the debt restructured, obtain some debt relief or negotiate a better repayment terms to get people on their feet. This is a free service for consumers.

My wife- Professor Larissa Behrendt- and I also have a film production company. We have mostly been involved in documentary films with a social justice theme.

What has drawn you to this role on the ACSL Board?

I joined the board of the predecessor organisation CPSL a bit over three years ago.  What has drawn me to this space is a desire to help the Church be, if you like, the best version of itself when it comes to the care of children and the vulnerable. Obviously, it’s a key component of the Church’s mission to provide ministry, education and services to youth and to the vulnerable and to do this in a safe, nurturing environment. Those ideals haven’t always been met, as we know through the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission. The opportunity to assist Church Authorities, and Church organisations to achieve that baseline of being a safe and nurturing place for all, is something that I find a satisfying and compelling.

My passion lies in protecting the vulnerable and those who need support. This obviously is where the Church also has a mission, so in that sense there is an alignment. The failure of the Church to protect and then to listen to those who have been harmed is a repudiation of everything I ever believed the Church to be and it’s up to everyone involved in the Church to ensure that it’s never repeated.

How do you see the conversation around safety and protection for children and adults at risk changing in Catholic communities? What role does ACSL have to play in that evolving conversation?

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was deeply shocking to all Catholics, and the secular community at large. We now have further Royal Commissions into Disability and into Aged Care reporting shortly – these events are changing the level of trust in the community about how institutions operate, and in that sense, all institutions, not just the Church, have seen a weakening of public respect and faith. I think we have to be responsible for trying to build renewed trust and continue the conversations about safety.

I also think there is an increasingly sophisticated understanding in the community about what is necessary in terms of how we support survivors. There is also a greater understanding about the experience of trauma: it is not only a lifelong experience for the person who has experienced trauma, it can actually be intergenerational in terms of its impact on families. The failings of the Church and other institutions means that abuse has not been confronted until decades afterwards. If ACSL can play a role in deepening these conversations, that is valuable.

Essentially ACSL is a future-focused organisation, helping the Church to have systems, practices and procedures in place which collectively contribute to the Church being a safe and nurturing environment. ACSL is not primarily responsible for creating that environment – that responsibility must be at the ground level – but we are here to help the various components of the Church to achieve a safe space. Everyone in the Church has a role to play here. It’s a collective effort.

What do you hope to achieve in your term on the Board?

ACSL is a continuing but new entity – by that I mean it has brought together functions that were housed in different parts of the Church.

As a Board, we have a few immediate priorities. Our initial goal is to effectively make sure that in these functions are brought together, and the benefits of this are secured. This means greater efficiency, and more effective support to the Church by leveraging the knowledge housed in the predecessor bodies and functions.

Secondly, one of the operating imperatives for ACSL is to tap into the expertise that exists across the Church and to build communities of practice so that the larger of the organisations are able to offer a welcoming arm to the smaller and less resourced elements of the Church. Importantly, ACSL now has the Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (MPJPs) involved – there’s a range of service providers under that banner, and they represent a critical area of the Church’s mission, so for them now to be an active member of the company is a big advance.

Thirdly, we will be operating on a risk-based model, so that our energy goes to where there is the greatest chance of weakness or where failures could occur, which put children and adults at risk in harm’s way. Overall, we’re in the capacity building business – our aim is to lift all boats. The very diverse governance of Church entities mean that we need to have relationships with individual Church bodies, be they religious institutes or dioceses or other, and a good operating model will help us to work most effectively.

Underlying all this, our focus needs to be guided by the rights of children and the rights of the vulnerable. We always need to keep their rights and welfare as the guiding touchstone of how we think about the work that we do.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenges for ACSL in 2021? How do you plan on overcoming these challenges?

In many ways I think the challenge of working in an organisation which purports to work across the entirety of the Catholic Church in Australia is that (the Church) is a very big structure, it has many different components to it and very distributed governance. So, it’s a large challenge just recognising that you can’t think you are going to have success in applying a one size fits all solution.

You do need to have a strong understanding of the different priorities of different Church organisations and you then need to work in a way that brings out the best in people.  Working in a large country geographically, where the Church is everywhere (as it should be), is a challenge as well, coupled with the reality that ACSL is only ever going to be a small organisation, with a small full-time team working with the board, so that can be demanding.

Are there any overarching guiding principles or values that guide your approach to your role on the Board?

Our focus needs to be on the rights of children and the vulnerable.  We need to always keep that as a guiding touchstone of how we think about the work that we do. That then has to be combined with understanding the realities of how the Church operates and the range of pressures on the Church.

There are many things to be conscious of to ensure that the company operates in a way that is going to be most effective, so you have to customise your responses to the particular part of the Church that you are dealing with but always guided by our light on the hill, the Christian ideal that we’re here to support those who need our help and to foster safe and nurturing environments for children and the vulnerable.

What can ACSL’s partners and stakeholders expect from the ACSL Board in 2021 and beyond?

Looking forward, as well as seeing the operating model unfold, our partners will see our role in direct complaint management (National Response Protocol), and other complaints response and review processes.

The second edition of the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards expressly deals with the protection of adults at risk. The work on the revised standards will reach an important stage in the second half of the year when the Church leadership will be asked to consider and potentially endorse the new standards.

I think overall people will see that ACSL is an active organisation working with them for that common goal of the Church being the best version of itself when it comes to being a safe and nurturing environment for children and adults at risk.