On Monday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will commence three weeks of public hearings concerning Case Study 50. This involves an inquiry into the policies and procedures of Catholic Church authorities in relation to child protection and child safety standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse. It is a rare occasion in a democracy when a state-funded institution inquires into a church.
Royal commission chairman Peter McClellan has made it clear that his focus will include an analysis of factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse at Catholic institutions in Australia.
The royal commission’s Issues Paper 11, which relates to what it terms the “Catholic Church Final Hearing” inquiry, invited submissions involving such matters as canon law, clericalism and the operation of the sacrament of confession. Clearly the royal commission does not intend to uphold any division between church and state in this instance.
Evidence before the royal commission suggests that the crime of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church was at its peak between the 1960s and early 90s. The offenders were exclusively male priests and brothers and their victims were overwhelmingly boys.
During an appearance on the ABC1 New Year’s Eve program, film reviewer David Stratton praised the important film Spotlight. He said that its portrayal of the role of The Boston Globe newspaper in revealing child sexual abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 led “the world in the exposure of these crimes”.
No it didn’t. In 1996, three months after becoming Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell set up the Melbourne Response to handle allegations of clerical child sexual abuse. His fellow archbishops and bishops in the rest of Australia set up the similar Towards Healing process the following year.
The evidence before the royal commission indicates the level of clerical child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia has dropped substantially over the past two decades. So it is not clear why the royal commission intends to spend so much time inquiring into the causation of what are mainly historical crimes.
Writing in the current issue of her Catholic Talk blog, Monica Doumit quotes McClellan as stating that about 40 per cent of all complaints received by the royal commission relate to Catholic institutions.
During the second half of the 20th century, Catholics amounted to between 20 and 25 per cent of the Australian population. Moreover, Catholics ran many more schools, orphanages and hospitals compared with other Christian institutions, judged on a per-capita basis.
Doumit acknowledges that much of the public shaming of the Catholic Church over clerical child sexual abuse has been well deserved. However, she makes the point that the three weeks allocated by the royal commission to the Catholic Church is the same amount of time allocated to “wrap up” other institutions, government and non-government combined.
This despite the fact that evidence before the royal commission suggests that child sexual abuse in some secular and non-Catholic religious institutions continued up to relatively recent times. As did attempts by the institutions’ governing authorities to cover up the crimes.
I have been advised by McClellan’s staff that “it is unlikely that the media will form the subject of the royal commission’s final public hearings”. This means that child sexual abuse within the media will not be inquired into by the royal commission — this despite the widespread offending in Britain by BBC star Jimmy Savile (1926-2011), some of it on BBC property.
Also the royal commission appears unlikely to investigate the actions of self-confessed pedophile Richard Neville (1941-2016) who, in 1975, invited a number of pederasts into an ABC radio studio where they boasted of their crimes. Some of the under-age male victims could be alive today.
Rather than inquire into the extent to which Neville’s soft attitude about pederasty on the public broadcaster four decades ago might have given sustenance to the (then) pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, the royal commission sees merit in focusing on the Catholic sacrament of confession.
McClellan interviewed Ridsdale at Ararat Prison in Victoria and he also appeared as a witness, via video-link, before the royal commission. Under cross-examination Ridsdale revealed that, when a priest, he never went to confession. He also said that he would never have confessed child abuse to a fellow priest.
Ridsdale’s evidence is perceptively analysed by James Franklin in the 2015 issue of the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society.
The Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan wrote in The Australian last December that, in three decades, no pedophile confessed such a sin to him. He wrote that “pedophiles tend to be secretive and manipulative”. Like Ridsdale. In any event, few Catholics go to confession these days.
Evidence before the royal commission suggests that virtually all religious and secular institutions mishandled allegations of child sexual abuse until relatively recently. This includes the police and even the legal profession.
The most likely effect of the Case Study 50 hearings will be to facilitate sensational reports in the media of explosive allegations — some of which will be discredited after the event. For example, in December 2015 ABC’s The World Today reported an allegation that, when a priest in Ballarat, Pell was told by a boy (BWG) of a case of clerical child sexual abuse but dismissed him. Pell denies that allegation.
In her submission to McClellan, counsel assisting Gail Furness SC declared that it could not be resolved as to whom BWG spoke with.
The ABC did not report Furness’s submission in this instance and managing director Michelle Guthrie denies that it had any obligation to do so.
Stand by for more such unprofessional reporting from Case Study 50’s public hearings.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au