NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Victorian counterpart, Daniel Andrews, were the first to sign up their respective states to the national redress scheme following the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. No other state and no territory has followed their lead at this stage.
Then, last Tuesday, Berejiklian and her Attorney-General, Mark Speakman, announced NSW’s full response to the report. In short, NSW has adopted the overwhelming majority of the royal commission’s recommendations.
In view of the substantial coverage by the ABC of child sexual abuse in general and the royal commission in particular, it might have been expected that the public broadcaster’s journalists would respond positively to NSW’s prompt action.
But this was not the reaction of Nick Grimm when he covered the matter on the ABC’s The World Today last Tuesday. Instead, Grimm cross-examined Berejiklian on one of the matters where her government has not embraced the royal commission’s recommendation with respect to what the Catholic Church terms the seal of the sacrament of penance pending discussion at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
The royal commission recommended that provisions covering the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse to authorities should not exempt people in religious ministry from reporting knowledge or suspicions on the basis of information disclosed in a religious confession.
This despite the fact evidence presented to the royal commission suggested that pedophiles were unlikely to attend confession and that clergy had not heard a penitent confess child sexual abuse.
The royal commission focused instead on evidence received from several case studies that victims had disclosed child sexual abuse to Catholic priests during confession.
It was this finding that led to an outburst by journalist David Marr on the ABC’s Insiders on December 17 last year.
He maintained that “if a child comes to confession and says that they’ve been raped”, a priest “would not take that child’s case further because of the seal of confession”. Marr described this (alleged) outcome as “barbaric, just barbaric”.
This is a profound misunderstanding of the sacrament of confession, which covers a penitent confessing their sins to a priest and receiving forgiveness in return for undertaking a real or spiritual task. Since a child who has been sexually assaulted has not committed a sin but is the victim of a crime, the secrecy provisions of the sacrament of penance do not prevail.
Writing in Eureka Street last Tuesday, Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan referred to comments made by canon lawyer Ian Waters, who appeared before the royal commission to explain the sacrament of confession.
Waters has written that “it is simply quite incorrect to say” that whatever a priest is told in a confessional will never be revealed by him to anyone. Secrecy applies only to “sins of a penitent confessed by the penitent to the priest during a celebration of the sacrament of penance”. It does not apply to a pedophile’s victim.
Waters made a similar comment on ABC television’s The Drum last December.
Moreover, as Brennan has pointed out, if pedophiles were to confess, they were more than likely to “present for confession in a confessional behind a veil where neither the victim’s identity nor theirs would ever be revealed”.
The focus by the likes of Grimm on the sacrament of penance provides yet another example of ABC journalists focusing on the Catholic Church as if child sexual assault is overwhelmingly a product of Catholic clerics and Catholic institutions. It isn’t. Offences by Catholic clerics in this area are overwhelmingly historic crimes of the late 1960s, 70s and early 80s.
What’s more, as royal commission chairman Peter McClellan pointed out on the last day in his job, child sexual abuse continues today and victims “sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far (exceed) those who are abused in institutions”.
Robert Fitzgerald, who was a member of the royal commission, obtained front-page coverage in The Sunday Age on March 11 for his recent address in Melbourne.
Fitzgerald, a practising Catholic, criticised the Catholic Church for its response to clerical sex abuse. He was reported as saying that “nearly 62 per cent of all people who notified the royal commission of abuse in a religious setting were abused in a Catholic institution”.
Now this is a shocking figure, if it is meaningful. But the claim has meaning only if it is comparable with non-Catholic institutions.
The fact is, in the 20th century, Catholics were about 25 per cent of the Australian population.
However, since the Catholic Church ran its own systemic education system, Catholics must have accounted for about 80 per cent of children educated in a religious setting in Australia.
Also, Catholics had a much higher percentage of orphanages and hospitals than like institutions that operated in a religious setting.
I raised this point with Fitzgerald in correspondence. It turned out that he was not able to demonstrate that his 62 per cent figure was meaningful.
In reply, Fitzgerald acknowledged that “regrettably there are no historic prevalence studies in Australia but we (the royal commission) recommended such be undertaken in the future”.
The royal commission sat for five years with hundreds of staff and a budget of about $350 million. But despite the fact it devoted significantly more time to the Catholic Church than to any other institution, it did not drill down into the statistics in its possession to analyse what they meant.
Rather, it recommended that some other body should do this research sometime in the future.
As Brennan has written, the royal commission did not discover “how much more likely was it in the past that a child would be abused in a Catholic institution than in a non-Catholic institution”.
He added that it “would have been helpful to have the answers to these questions”. But we don’t.
In the meantime, it is to be expected that more and more ABC journalists, along with some others, will approach the Berejiklian government’s important initiative on protecting children with the false assumption that pedophilia is overwhelmingly a crime committed in Catholic institutions.