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PM's inquiry will bite many


The religious institutions have largely passed through the gauntlets that are child abuse investigations. Government has yet to do so

Cartoon: Pat Campbell.

Cartoon: Pat Campbell. Photo: Supplied

Live chat here with Jack Waterford from 12.30pm. Leave your comments for him below.

The Catholic Church is inevitably the main target of the inquiry into sexual abuse of children. It pretty much deserves what it has had so far, and what it will get, but my bet is that it will emerge from the long inquisition ahead in far better shape than some of the other institutions under scrutiny, including government itself. This inquiry could be a big own goal.

Julia Gillard has yet to settle the terms of reference for the commission, but she has already made it clear that it will extend beyond the Catholic Church to other religious and civic bodies, and possibly schools, which have been given the charge of children. That was the condition on which Tony Abbott, and to an extent Catholic prelates, agreed to manifest a faint enthusiasm for the project.

The inquiry could take ages, every now and again sending a great fizz of sparks across the political horizon. Some will come from accounts of abuse - in orphanages, schools and other children's institutions. Some will be from amazement at some of those who engaged in abuse, and at their brazenness.

There will be evidence that some of the religious and civil superiors of the predators resisted evidence of abuse that was before their eyes, and that, when they could resist no longer, acted not so much to reach out to the victims but to cover up, shield their institutions from bad publicity and lawsuits, and shuffle malefactors around, rather than to report them for punishment.

It will also be found that there has been obstruction of investigators and removal of evidence, and exercise of bluff. It will be found that there were bishops, and archbishops and even cardinals who were not sufficiently proactive in attacking an epidemic of abuse, and who, even now are combative, defensive and waspish to any criticism, particularly anything suggesting they did too little, and, often too late, to a great crisis that was partly of their own making.

We know all of this because it is all already on the record. In Australia, from any number of criminal cases before the courts, from internal and external inquiries and reports on the width, depth and breadth of the problem, and from the work of any number of advocacy bodies and lawyers trawling, with deeply perturbed looks on their faces, for class actions.

There have also been more intensive investigations about the extent of the scourge of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, and in institutions in Ireland. The idea that the epidemic was a peculiar ''Western'' or anglophone problem in the church is manifest nonsense, there are grounds for believing that the scale and basis of the American and Irish problems - the most closely investigated - are similar to Australia's, right down to the arrogance, inertia, and culpable blindness of many of the bishops (and nuncios).

One can safely predict that it will be found that perhaps 4000 children were abused by Catholic religious over the past 70 years. Believable charges have been made against at least 500 clerics, and perhaps 2000 more (many now dead) are under some suspicion. A few predators - probably fewer than 100 - seem to be responsible for about 80 per cent of the known cases; and often, their predation was facilitated by the failure of bishops to respond properly to allegations.

It will be found that there was always a background level of some sexual abuse - at a rate of about 10 per cent of the levels it seemed to reach in the 1960s, at the height of what seemed an epidemic that lasted until the 1980s, when rates seemed to decline, in part because bishops were finally acting. That decline has not been so obvious to the public because it is common in such matters for victims not to emerge for 20, 30 or even 50 years from when abuse occurred. The typical case these days is from the 1980s, but there are still cases emerging from the 1950s and 1960s.

The typical perpetrator is a priest or religious who, if alive, is more than 70. Contrary to the idea that epidemic is an artefact of loosened moral formation in the wake of the Vatican Council, the typical malefactor underwent religious training before 1965, and is of the same generation as the bishops whose stewardship has been so criticised. Yet it does appear that the dramatic change in sexual and social ideas that took root in the 1960s - symbolised perhaps by the pill, promiscuity, and acceptance of different lifestyles and sexualities - helped cause the epidemic. This was accentuated by the learned immaturities and sexual naiveties of the Catholic seminaries and novitiates of the times.

About a third of the victims will be prepubescent children - victims of paedophiles. About half of them will be pubescent and post-pubescent boys and girls under 16 - victims of ephebophiles. One is slightly more despicable. Others will be disabled or vulnerable young adults. Half of the victims will be of the same sex as the perpetrator, but the experts will think that this is less reflective of the basic sexuality than a matter of opportunity.

Just as we are gasping at the evil and depravity of the perpetrators, the suffering they have imposed on their victims, and the urge for severe punishment, we could end up showing just a smidgeon of compassion. There is a high chance that the predator was himself grossly abused at a young age, and that their psychic, social and sexual development has been much stunted, in many cases by the very training which eventually gave them access to, and power over, their victims. This will not excuse him, but create some context. The church now recognises this, but it cannot unmake some of the damaged people.

It will also be discovered that there is no test - psychological or otherwise - that can readily show which personality is more likely to offend or to have offended. Priests who have offended cannot be readily separated by testing from their cohort who have not.

There have been about 80,000 Catholic religious over the period in question. There are no suspicions held out against the overwhelming majority. Many of those still in orders, or still alive, (perhaps 20,000 of that 80,000) are smeared by constant innuendo against religious. The 95 per cent are admirable people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others and deserve more credit than they get. They are critical to an ultimate reconciliation.

In most institutions where abuse occurred, the staff are now laymen and women, not religious. Managers, originally slow to respond, are now especially proactive in seeking to prevent occasions in which abuse could occur. Abuse is a dirty little secret carried out in private. Procedures designed to prevent occasions where individuals are together, as well as the promotion of reporting cultures, are now the norm.

It could not take a 10-year inquiry to tell us all of this. Catholics apologetic about the epidemic have not been thoroughly convincing (mostly because the church's understanding of sexuality is still hopelessly confused). One feels certain that there are still stories to shock, and evil, possibly in high places, to be exposed. The church has been through a well deserved purgatory, but it is, I expect largely through it. So are most of the other big religions and bodies.

But some others, not yet even in the contemplation of the prime ministers and the premiers, have yet to face the fire, the scrutiny, or the recrimination, the church has. Smaller churches, sporting and cultural bodies, and social welfare institutions of the state, and the legal and welfare establishment supposed to be the guardians of the vulnerable, could find themselves at far greater risk. Perhaps there will even be politicians whose stewardship is found to be as woeful as that of the Catholic bishops.


  • You're right that the Church has been under scrutiny for a long time, but I think they have been using the excuse that it was all in the past and they've improved for a long time too.

    And if (/when) they expose other widespread/systemic abuse in the public sector it will not reflect on 'the Government' in the same way as it reflects on the church. The government changes and people enter politics/the public service after other careers, whereas the leadership of the church does not alternate between parties and is usually a singular career path - the leaders today were in the church and possibly part of the problem 10 or 30 years ago.

    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 12:50PM
    • Not sure the victims lawyers will see it that way.

      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 1:17PM
    • There are very real differences between the position in which the Catholic Church finds itself, and state welfare bodies, Boy Scouts and other groups. The Church, after all, is a religious body, claims to be the authentic voice of Christian teaching, its leaders, including its priests  are very given to telling everyone how to behave, especially (by their own choice) in matters sexual. Thus the scandal of their falling by the wayside is very great, if not entirely surprising because those leaders are human. But even more scandalous is the way that a church, and senior leaders, who cover up and conceal, and in some cases, facilitate continuing abuse, and even more horribly when the victims are vulnerable people in the charge of the church and its supposed moral guardians. It is not only a matter of the sin being great, but also of the civil tort --- and breach of trust --- being especially great.

      I cannot see why the church and its leaders should not have their noses rubbed in it until they really get it. Some of the leaders do. Others don't. You can tell from their sighs and their exasperation whenever the subject is raised. How many times do we have to apologise, asked Mark Coleridge --- the very first bishop to rush out and denounce Bishop Robinson when he broke ranks to admit that the scandal was systemic, something Coleridge himself now admits. The fact that the present papal nuncio --- the Vatican's ambassador from Rome  --- was strongly criticised by the Irish Commission into its sex abuse scandal for complete lack of cooperation when he was nuncio there is an important sign that there will be further church resistance to repairing the damage.


      But But But. Church spokesman are broadly right in saying that the sexual abuse epidemic seems to be over, with modern conditions seeming to have reduced its incidence to "normal" levels. Any level is of course unacceptable, as the church admits, but it is probably right in saying measures now in place are likely both to prevent and to detect systemic abuse of the sort that was happening. This does not mean, of course, that we will not, over the next few years, hear yet further shocking stories, involving new villains and new victims, but, useful as it will be to allow the victims a voice, they will probably not add greatly to the overall picture as we understand it now. That is not to say that it is all historical  --- the psychic and mental damage inflicted continues, and so, in many cases does the cover up. The commission may well help frame a better compensation scheme, and bring more people to punishment. It is, however, unlikely to put the church deeper in the moral mire or public contempt, nor,m probably, will it much affect the rate at which the church "learns" from the experience or regains the trust of its flock.

      But if we have become used to recognising the sins of the church, some of us have not been as familiar with the acts and omissions of many other institutions entrusted with the care and protection of children, how cruelly those trusts were broken, and how negligent, incompetent indifferent and, in some cases, callous were the public guardians whose job should have been to prevent it, or, if unable to, to detect it and help pick up the pieces. This is, or should be matter of shame not only to Catholics such as myself, but also to the wider public, on whose behalf such acts also occurred --- whether in orphanages, welfare institutions, detention centres, schools and sporting and cultural bodies. The extent of this problem --- particularly so far as it affects special pockets of the vulnerable (like Aboriginal children, refugee children) --- and the extent to which it is still going on under the very watch of some of those now opining on the writhings of the church will be what, I hope and expect, will also shock the public. The public is, generally, past being shocked at the Catholic Church.

      The problem for pained Catholic observers, incidentally, was well summed up by Saint Augustine who was asked how he could still love and follow a body containing so much bad, so much sin, and so many leaders entirely unworthy of devotion. Saint Augustine said, "Yes, she's a whore, all right. But she's our mother."  Not a few bishops since have used the same line.

      Jack Waterford
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 1:25PM
    • I agree with you, and only really meant that calling it an "own goal" is not the best description. Exposing failings of public institutions does not go against the interests of the people instigating the commission, even if it means compensation will be paid etc because 'the government' is not one body, nor even one 'team'.

      I'm not remotely religious, and I think a lot of my issues with the church could be summed up by St Augustine's quote - if my parents were paedophiles or helped cover up paedophilia, I'd disown them. If you will forgive/tolerate anything for the sake of "family" (and all the cultural and historical ties implied) your judgement and moral standing are completely debased. Anything good the church has to offer is undermined by that attitude.

      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 3:16PM
    • Jack Waterford thank you for your thoughtful post. But I do disagree with one of your comments I think a lot more about the Catholic church will shock. I also wonder how parents continue to send their children into what has proved to be such a dangerous situation and how people can continue trust Pells best mate Tony Abbott.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 1:25AM
    • I cannot believe what I'm reading..

      Perpetrators and their bosses are not the only people involved within the catholic church.

      Many, many non offending clergy and laity knew what was going on and did nothing or were shunned when they tried to speak out.

      Apologist nonsense.

      beyond belief
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 9:59AM
  • What the proposed Royal Commission finds will largely depend on the terms of reference and the Commissioner(s) appointed. And do remember Sir Humphrey Appleby's comment on inquiries.

    mount druitt
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 1:31PM
    • Archbishop Wilson Quoted as stating numbers of Abuse claim declining in spite of record number of Cases being listed.
      As a result of the NSW Wood Royal Commission, the then spokeman for the Catholic Church, Fr Brian Lucas, gave a commitment “the establishment of Encompass Australia by the Church in association with the University of New South Wales to provide treatment facilities for offenders (1997 Wood Royal Commission Para 1.91 Pg 1007).
      Opened in 1997 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, Encompass treated more than 1,100 people, 250 of them in an intensive six month residential psychosexual program, according to its final newsletter.
      Interestingly according to the Australian Bishops Conference there were 4206 Male Clergy (including Brothers of Religious Orders) in 2005 according to Australian Catholic News.
      Thus over 25% of Male Clergy had reason to be treated for Psychosexual issues, which according to the Collins Dictionary defines as “of or relating to the mental aspects of sex, such as sexual fantasies “.

      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 2:20PM
      • If a massive class action is instigated by the vistims against the Catholic Church in respect to the outcomes of this commission of inquiry, then it could financially impact on the Christian institution to a detrimental level. I wonder if government would be inclined to bail them out of fiscal disaster like they have done so for the banks.

        Date and time
        November 14, 2012, 2:33PM
        • There have already been massive payouts, and there will be more. In the US, this has brought some dioceces close to bankruptcy

          Jack Waterford
          Date and time
          November 14, 2012, 3:08PM

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