It did not take much time for the assertion of one ABC presenter to be disproved by another.
In an aggressive interview with senator Eric Abetz on Wednesday, Radio National Breakfast presenter Hamish Macdonald declared “at the ABC we’re not allowed to express opinions as hosts of programs, as journalists”. This comment surprised Abetz, who responded that he wished “that were true”. But Macdonald insisted on the veracity of his comment.
It did not take long for the Tasmanian Liberal Party senator to be proven correct. On Wednesday evening, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering concluded with a two-minute rant by its host. The program is presented as an entertainment show that examines the news. But there was nothing entertaining in Pickering’s rant to camera. He took full aim at the Catholic Church in Australia in general, and acting archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly in particular, over the church’s teaching on the seal of confession.
Put simply, it is Catholic teaching and practice that Catholics can confess and repent for their sins and be forgiven provided they enact a form of penance. No priest is allowed to report what he heard in confession — this is known as the seal of confession.
Pickering focused on the decision announced by the Liberal Party government in South Australia to introduce legislation requiring priests to break the seal of confession if they happen to hear an admission of child sexual assault.
O’Kelly told ABC Radio Adelaide “politicians can change the law but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ”. He added that the proposed law “does not affect us”.
In other words, O’Kelly, a bishop who reports directly to Pope Francis in Vatican City, restated the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.
Pickering fired up, expressing the forceful opinion that confession is a “sacred seal” that the “Catholic Church has used to protect serial child abusers”.
What was the evidence for so serious a charge? Pickering declared that “Rockhampton priest Father Michael McArdle confessed 1500 times to molesting children to 30 different priests over a 25-year period” — that is, more than once a week for a quarter of a century. According to Pickering, his penance was “to go home and pray”. That is, 30 priests gave precisely the same penance over 25 years. Quite a coincidence, to be sure.
How do we know this? Well, McArdle pleaded guilty to 60 child sex offences in 2003 and was sentenced to a prison term of six years. In an affidavit that he gave to the court, he alleged that he had confessed the offences, which occurred between 1965 and 1987, to numerous priests.
There is no evidence that McArdle’s confessions ever took place. Certainly he named no names of his (alleged) confessors. Moreover, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did not take up McArdle’s assertion. However, the word of a self-confessed pedophile is good enough for Pickering.
The royal commission found that most of the sexual assaults by Catholic priests and brothers occurred between the late 1960s and early 90s, peaking in the 70s. In any event, few Catholics receive the sacrament of confession these days. And there is scant evidence that pedophile priests or laity ever confessed child sexual abuse in the confessional.
O’Kelly has said that he never heard a confession of child sexual abuse in 30 years as a priest. Jesuit lawyer Frank Brennan has said the same. Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia’s most notorious pedophiles, told the royal commission that, when a priest, he never went to confession.
Writing in The Australian in December last year, Brennan commented that “pedophiles tend to be secretive and manipulative”.
The issue was raised by presenter Julia Baird on The Drum on June 13. She asked Carolyn Quadrio, a psychiatrist who works in the field of preventing child sexual abuse, about her clinical perspective concerning the importance of confession in the present debate.
Quadrio responded: “Clinically I must say that I’ve got the same experience as Father Frank Brennan … From the point of view of a psychiatrist, I think that people who are abusing children don’t generally go and tell the priest that they’re doing it.”
Pickering asserted that “if O’Kelly has his way, victims could be left without justice while abusers are able to alleviate their guilt and shame”.
He went on to allege that bishops such as O’Kelly “are protecting the predators and doing it in God’s name”. This is an outrageous claim, even from an ABC presenter imbued with anti-Catholic sectarianism.
It is this kind of prejudiced and inaccurate commentary by some ABC presenters that Malcolm Turnbull condemned on 3AW in Melbourne yesterday.
Federal, state and territory governments seem to be subsumed with introducing legislation with respect to the seal of confession.
This has application to the Catholic Church along with some Anglican and Lutheran churches. But it will do virtually nothing to stop child sex abuse in institutions and families (including indigenous families).
In Adelaide, Attorney-General Vickie Chapman has called on all governments to follow South Australia’s lead, saying: “Unless you have a united approach to this, predators will travel, that is the reality. They’ll find sanctuary in areas where they can’t be caught. And it is important that there be a disclosure obligation at all fronts and you don’t leave some frontier of sanctuary for those who are going to predate.” This is a bizarre claim.
There is no evidence that a pedophile, denied the secrecy of the confessional in Adelaide, would travel to, say, Perth, Darwin or Melbourne to confess his sin to a priest who sits behind a curtain. Especially since considered experts of the clerical (Brennan) and medical (Quadrio) kind dismiss such activity as highly unlikely.
As Christopher Prowse, the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, has written: “What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported?”
Prowse raised Macdonald’s ire when he was interviewed on June 12. But at least the RN Breakfast presenter did not begin an opinionated rant of the kind delivered by the host of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (and which Macdonald denies ever occurs).
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.