The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s, decision to establish a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has received overwhelmingly public support. We know, on the available evidence, that the wide-ranging and expensive inquiry will focus on past crimes and whether people in authority, in Gillard’s terminology, ”averted their eyes” with respect to abusers.
We also know, on the available evidence, that indigenous children in some Aboriginal communities are being sexually assaulted in 2012. Despite the efforts of Commonwealth, state and territory authorities, these crimes continue. Moreover, regrettably, there is scant public outrage about this contemporary abuse.
Sections of the media have focused on the Catholic Church’s deplorable inability in the past century to stop the crimes of some priests and some brothers with respect to primarily male children.
However, as the Jesuit priest Frank Brennan said on Lateline, the Catholic Church reformed its handling of sex abuse allegations in 1996. Soon after Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he set up the Melbourne Response, which was aimed at confronting abuse of children
by clerics and assisting victims.
The terms of reference for the royal commission will be announced before the end of the year. However, the Prime Minister has indicated the inquiry will not be limited to the Catholic Church or, indeed, other Christian churches. All religions will be covered, as will secular bodies. This approach is supported by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. On Tuesday, child migrant David Hill said ”you won’t hear only kids from Catholic institutions coming forward … I think it will go to all of the children’s institutions over the last 40, 50 years”.
The Gillard government faces a difficult task in drawing up appropriate terms of reference. If they are too limited, there will probably be accusations of a cover-up. If they are too wide, the financial costs could be huge and the inquiry might drag on for years with few if any recommendations of prosecutions.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney is a media target. Many journalists do not like Pell since he is a moral conservative who publicly upholds the Vatican’s teachings on abortion, same-sex marriage and divorce.
Pell was interviewed by Geoff Thompson for the Four Corners”Unholy Silence” program which aired in July. The Cardinal made it emphatically clear that, as Archbishop of Sydney, he is only responsible for his own diocese and reports to the Vatican.
Four Corners not only failed to run Pell’s comment. More seriously, it edited the extended interview (which is on the ABC’s website) and deleted the Cardinal’s comment about the extent of his authority. This reeks of censorship but the decision has been supported by ABC managing director Mark Scott.
The failure to understand the structure of the Catholic Church has led to confusion. In recent days there has been criticism of Pell on such programs as Lateline, Mornings with Linda Mottram, Radio National Breakfast and Paul Murray Live where suggestions have been made that he should resign or be sacked because of mishandling of sexual assaults in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. The journalists involved should be aware that Pell has nothing to do with, and is not responsible for, the Catholic Church in the Hunter region or anywhere else outside the Sydney archdiocese. He is the most senior Catholic in Australia but he is not managing director of the Australian Catholic Church.
The media would be well advised not to adopt double standards when dealing with child molestation. It is now accepted the late Sir Jimmy Savile was one of the worst paedophiles in British history.
Yet the media initially engaged in a cover-up. Freelance journalist Miles Goslett could not get his article linking the long-time BBC star with attacks on young girls published and had to rely on The Oldie, where his article was printed last March. As is now known, the BBC spiked a Newsnight program on Savile’s criminality so as not to upset a program scheduled for Christmas 2011 praising the molester.
And then there is the case of the late Fairfax columnist Peter Roebuck. Roebuck’s work for the ABC as a cricket commentator increased after he was convicted of common assault on two young African men. There are now claims that Roebuck was a sexual predator who
targeted young black males.
Despite this, when Roebuck died last year he was lauded by journalists – particularly at Fairfax and the ABC. Even yesterday, sections of the media remembered the first anniversary of Roebuck’s death but conveniently forgot that he was an offender.
The good news is that the proposed royal commission will cover all instances of child abuse and not just crimes committed by Catholic clergy. Tragically, it is not likely to stop attacks on young Aboriginal boys and girls.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute.