THE ABC seems to have gone into defensive mode. Journalists at the public broadcaster are paid by the taxpayer to ask questions, but they are apparently discouraged from answering questions posed by taxpayers.
John Barron, presenter of ABC Fact Check, recently said that Tony Abbott can legitimately be accused of breaking a promise even if this comes about as a result of the Coalition’s legislation being defeated in the upper house.
I emailed Barron to check out if this is what he really meant to say and, if so, how he justifies such an argument. Barron advised that he was not allowed to answer questions and referred me to ABC’s bureaucracy for a response.
A similar event occurred this week. Last Monday, Four Corners ran yet another program criticising the Catholic Church in general, and Cardinal George Pell in particular, over the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Despite presenter Kerry O’Brien’s introduction promising that the program, titled In the Name of the Law , contained new evidence, it attracted scant attention.
The crime of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, along with other religions and secular institutions, appears to have been rampant from the mid-1960s until the mid-90s. Last Monday, Four Corners cited the names of seven offenders and two archbishops. The latter were Pell (archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 and archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to this year) and Archbishop Denis Hart (who succeeded Pell in Melbourne in 2001).
The program focused on the claims for compensation by John Ellis (who, when a boy, was sexually abused across several years by a priest in Sydney) and Anthony and Chrissie Foster (whose two young daughters were raped by a priest in Melbourne). Both cases are well known due, in particular, to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse.
In addition, the Fosters have appeared regularly on the ABC in recent years. Chrissie Foster’s book Hell on the Way to Heaven was co-written with ABC journalist Paul Kennedy.
During his appearance at the royal commission earlier this year, Pell apologised to Ellis concerning the way his compensation case was handled — this occurred when Pell was archbishop of Sydney. Pell was not in the Sydney archdiocese when Ellis was assaulted. When archbishop of Melbourne in August 1998, Pell apologised to the Fosters “for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered”. Pell was not archbishop of Melbourne when the Foster girls were assaulted.
The argument between the Catholic Church and Ellis and the Fosters has essentially turned on compensation. Initially the church in Melbourne and Sydney set the payment for child sex abuse at the level made under government-run compensation for crime schemes. That is, up to $50,000. Ellis and the Fosters refused to accept the amount on offer. In the event, the former received about $400,000 plus costs and the latter $750,000 plus costs. Church authorities now concede that compensation should have been made sooner and without protracted disputes.
The issue as to how the Catholic Church and other organisations pay compensation to victims of crime is before the royal commission. As followers of the royal commission will be aware, the overwhelming majority of cases concerning sexual assault by Catholic male clergy occurred more than 20 years ago.
In 1996, shortly after becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell set up the Melbourne Response to handle allegations of sex abuse by clergy. The following year, the other archbishops and bishops in Australia set up Towards Healing with a similar aim.
Pell has his opponents within and outside the Catholic Church. Both sets of critics disapprove of his social conservatism, albeit for different reasons. Yet Pell was one of the first archbishops or bishops in the world to set up a procedure for handling sexual abuse within the church. There was one name missing from the Four Corners program, namely Frank Little, who was Catholic archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 until 1996.
Towards the end of Little’s time as archbishop, Pell was one of four auxiliary bishops. He was not responsible for dealing with pedophilia allegations, which were handled by Little direct.
Little, like former bishop Ronald Mulkearns in Ballarat, where there appears to have been a cluster of clerical pedophiles, was not a conservative like Pell, which may explain why he seems to have escaped criticism for the child sex offences that occurred on his watch. External and internal critics of the church prefer to go after conservatives such as Pell and Hart.
Yet evidence presented to the Victorian parliament’s Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations last year indicates Little and Mulkearns turned a blind eye to child abuse and went into denial.
The Four Corners program focused on the crimes of six Melbourne priests but ignored Little. Viewers could have got the false impression that Pell, not Little, was in charge when many of the offences took place. I asked the presenter, Quentin McDermott, why he did not mention Little in his report. McDermott has not answered the question.
Pell and Hart declined to be interviewed on the program — a wise decision. The public broadcaster is hostile territory for conservative Catholics who follow the directives and teachings of the Vatican. In its July 2012 program Unholy Silence , Four Cornerscensored most of Pell’s comments. Moreover, Antony Whitlam QC (a non-Catholic) subsequently identified a significant error in the program concerning Pell. This remains uncorrected on the ABC’s website, close to two years after Whitlam’s report was released.
In November 2012, Lateline permitted Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox to make certain allegations with respect to Pell — despite the fact Pell never had any responsibility with respect to the Catholic Church in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese where Fox worked.
In her recently released special commission of inquiry, Margaret Cunneen SC found that Fox was an “unsatisfactory witness” who lied to his fellow police officers. Yet Fox’s (undocumented) accusations against Pell remain without correction or clarification on the ABC’s website. However, there is no point asking ABC journalists about any of this. They don’t answer questions.