Pedophilia is now regarded, in the West at least, as the vilest of crimes. So much so that most pedophiles are regarded as more evil than most murderers. Yet there appears to be a different approach to the perpetrators of such wrongdoing according to whether he (and it is invariably a male) is a believer or a secular type.
The message out of Geneva this week was one of absolute condemnation of the Catholic Church and its leadership in the Vatican. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child delivered a scathing rebuke concerning how the Holy See has handled allegations of sexual abuse by its priests and religious brothers over the years.
The UN panel even went to the extraordinary length of criticising the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
This is an improper intervention by the UN in an area outside its mandate. Membership of the Catholic Church is voluntary and no one is compelled to follow the teachings of the Pope. Moreover, unlike certain parts of the Islamic faith, there are no penalties for acts of apostasy by Catholics. Indeed, some of the church’s most vocal critics are former or disillusioned Catholics and they are not threatened by death or injury. Child abuse is a crime, obviously. Catholicism’s approach to abortion, contraception and homosexuality is a mere belief, which is shared by some other religions.
According to the available evidence, sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy was most prevalent in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Janette Dines, the chief executive of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, told the ABC’s News Breakfast on January 15 that the “vast majority” of individuals who have come forward to tell their stories in Australia are “males between the age of 50 and 70”. This suggests that most abuse had ceased by the late 80s.
Governments are entitled to inquire into past practices for handling child sex abuse cases by churches and state institutions alike. However, it is notable that, in certain sections of society, allegations against believers are taken more seriously than those against celebrities.
Last weekend in The New York Times, Dylan Farrow alleged that her adoptive father, Woody Allen, had sexually assaulted her when she was seven years old.
This was not a recovered memory. Dylan reported the alleged incident to her adoptive mother Mia Farrow at the time and there was a police investigation.
The New York Times carried Dylan’s own account for the first time – previously the story had been told with reference to secondary, not primary, evidence.
Certainly Allen has denied the allegations. However, if such an accusation were made by a 28-year-old man or woman against a serving Catholic bishop, he would almost certainly be asked by authorities in church and state to stand down.
Not with Allen. Actress Cate Blanchett declared that this was a domestic affair: “It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some resolution and peace.” It’s impossible to imagine Blanchett declaring that a similar accusation against a bishop was but a painful episode that needed to be healed by resolution and peace. Actor Alec Baldwin ran a similar line to Blanchett.
Meanwhile in Australia, media academic Gael Jennings appeared to endorse the Blanchett approach. On News Breakfast last Monday, Jennings favourably quoted Blanchett that “it’s to do with the family”. And co-presenter Virginia Trioli referred to Blanchett’s “rather elegant side-step of the matter”. News Breakfast has been relentless in its coverage of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
It’s much the same with cricket commentator Peter Roebuck, who jumped to his death in South Africa in November 2011 after being questioned by police concerning an alleged sexual assault against a young black man.
On the Australia Day weekend, Fairfax Media newspapers ran a soft story about how Elizabeth Roebuck, Peter’s mother, wanted to clear her son’s name.
This is understandable.
What is not understandable is the positive coverage Roebuck received after his death – particularly in The Age and on the ABC. This despite the fact there is strong evidence that Roebuck was a sexual predator of young, poor, black men.
As early as 2001, Roebuck pleaded guilty in Britain to belting the bare buttocks of young cricketers with a cricket bat. It’s impossible to imagine The Age or the ABC employing a priest who had pleaded guilty to hitting the bare buttocks of altar boys with a crucifix.
And then there is the case of BBC star Jimmy Savile. Last month The Observer reported that the forthcoming study by former judge Janet Smith will find that Savile sexually assaulted up to 1000 boys and girls on BBC property – to the knowledge of many BBC staff. These assaults continued until 2006, when Saville was aged 79.
The evidence presented to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse indicates that child abuse in Australia is not confined to Catholicism or Christianity. This is a crime found within other religious and non-religious organisations.
The UN could more profitably spend its time on protecting all children rather than lecturing the Vatican as to its teachings on matters unrelated to child sexual abuse.
Clarification: In last week’s column I did not intend to imply that Jonathan Green took a redundancy payment when he left Fairfax Media. He didn’t.