In his final address to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Thursday, chairman Peter McClellan said: “The greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children, in church-managed facilities that we are aware of, were in Roman Catholic institutions.”
That’s true. However, it is also true that the Catholic Church, in the period after World War II, ran many more schools, orphanages and hospitals than any other church. And the Catholic Church in Australia was the first institution to address the crime of child sexual abuse within its own ranks.
George Pell, then Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, set up the Melbourne Response to handle clerical child sexual assault in 1996. His fellow archbishops and bishops established Towards Healing the following year in the rest of Australia. This means the Catholic Church was addressing this crime about six years before the revelations in The Boston Globe about the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and about 16 years before prime minister Julia Gillard set up the royal commission.
As John Ferguson wrote in The Australian on Monday: “It’s fair to say … that after Pell took charge of Melbourne (in 1996) there were significant attempts to deal with the sex abuse scandal, chiefly the Melbourne Response compensation scheme, and the veil lifted on offending under (Pell’s predecessor archbishop Frank) Little.”
As counsel assisting Gail Furness SC told the royal commission on February 16 this year: “The vast majority of claims (against Catholic clergy) alleged abuse that started in the period 1950 to 1989 inclusive.” She added: “The largest proportion of first alleged incidents of child sexual abuse … occurred in the 1970s.” That is, about four decades ago.
It is this fact that explains the reality of the Catholic Church in Australia today. Despite suffering enormous reputational damage because of the royal commission’s public hearings, Catholic institutions enjoy widespread backing.
Many parents, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, want their children educated in the Catholic school system. There is also support for hospitals and related institutions run by Catholic organisations. In short, Australians understand that child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is essentially a historical crime.
This is not evident to anyone who followed the royal commission on the ABC or in Fairfax Media, where the emphasis was on historical crimes in the Catholic Church and not on more recent offending in other institutions.
For example, Peter FitzSimons wrote in The Sun-Herald on July 2 this year that the royal commission was set up to inquire into “child sexual abuse”. Not so — the remit was to example institutional responses to child sexual abuse, not contemporary crimes. FitzSimons then wrote that the royal commission “has accomplished so much in turning a much-needed spotlight into the horrors of rampant sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy over the decades”.
This may have been how the Fairfax Media columnist interpreted the royal commission’s proceedings. But the fact is that it heard accounts of pedophilia in Jewish and other Christian institutions along with secular and state-run organisations. It just appeared to be focused on the Catholic Church.
Writing in The Weekend Australian on August 19 this year, Greg Craven commented that “by any reasonable standard of legal assessment, this has been one of the most indifferently conducted royal commissions in recent history”. He said that “adored by media groupies”, the royal commission’s “public flavour has been as a virtual trial of the Catholic Church”.
Craven warned that the focus on “the Catholics” has “all but crowded out the scrutiny of other institutions, with predictable results”. He added: “The rule is, if an inquiry gives the impression it is about one subject, the public will take it at its word.” And so will many a journalist, which explains FitzSimons’s confusion.
The adulation of the royal commission is evident in the ABC TV documentary Undeniable, which went to air on Tuesday. Presented by journalist-activist Paul Kennedy and produced by Ben Knight, Undeniable focused on historical child sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church in Melbourne and Ballarat and the Anglican Church in Newcastle. Kennedy co-authored the book Hell on the Way to Heaven with Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were abused by a Catholic priest between 1987 and 1993.
Kennedy and Knight forewent the opportunity to look objectively at the royal commission’s failures as well as its successes. For example, McClellan did not hold public findings into the institutional responses of Muslim organisations to child sexual assault. Likewise with government schools.
Also, the royal commission did not hold public hearings into the media. This despite the scandal involving Jimmy Savile’s multiple child sexual assaults while at the BBC. In Australia there have been convictions for child sexual assault by media identities — namely, former Channel 7 star Robert Hughes and former ABC TV producer Jon Stephens. Both men were jailed for their offending, the latter pleading guilty.
In publicising his documentary, Kennedy called for the media to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. However, the ABC has failed to properly report Stephens’s crime and ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was not able to inform the Senate two months ago as to whether the public broadcaster has adopted a duty of care to Stephens’s victim or offered compensation.
Moreover, serving ABC chairman Justin Milne and his predecessor, James Spigelman, have declined to distance the public broadcaster from the claim made by Richard Downing in 1975 that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”. Downing made this statement in his capacity as ABC chairman. At this time, the ABC allowed self-declared pederasts to be interviewed in the ABC’s studio in Sydney without reporting the matter to NSW Police.
Then there is the royal commission’s acceptance of recovered memories as evidence and its closeness to the controversial Blue Knot Foundation, which was critically examined in The Weekend Australian on December 2 by Richard Guilliatt.
The royal commission’s apparent obsession with historical child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church entailed that its investigations were not as wide or as contemporary as might otherwise have been the case.