The Royal Commission into Child Abuse has begun its evisceration of the churches. Having started with the Roman Catholic Church on Monday, the Commission will spend the next two months demanding obeisance, forcing confessions, inviting self-flagellation and encouraging repentance for a catalogue of abuses which the churches will themselves have been required to document, categorise and analyse.
The torture of the churchmen is not in a dungeon but on live television and the rack of public opinion, the fire gleefully held to their feet by such as the atheists of the ABC. The scene was set in the opening address by Senior Counsel Assisting Gail Furness SC. Throughout the four years since its first hearing in April, 2013, she has shown herself the indomitable interrogator, prosecutor and examiner, determined to maximise every abuse while minimising every doubt.
For example: the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council preferred to use the term “named individual” for those accused of abuses. In most cases claims had not been investigated, or charges laid. Ms Furness SC would have none of such neutrality. The Royal Commission, she informed Monday’s hearing, had determined that “alleged perpetrator” more accurately described a person who had been the subject of a claim of child sexual abuse. “Perpetrator” introduced the necessary pejorative connotation.
What made the news from the first day’s hearing were the dramatic numbers of abuses in Catholic parishes, schools and institutions, clearly designed to shock. But can the quoted statistics be believed?
The Church had been required to undertake a comprehensive data survey. First, it had to provide the total number of priests, brothers and sisters in all its authorities from 1950 to 2010. This number was not produced. Then it was asked for the total number of people who had alleged incidents of abuse. This is where the much-quoted number 4444 came from. It related to 93 authorities responsible for more than 1000 separate institutions.
Third, the survey identified 1,880 “alleged perpetrators”, including 500 who were unknown (presumably not named). This resulted in an inability to be confident that there was not at least some double-counting.
Analysis of this raw data produced the overall figures for alleged abuse by priests and religious brothers and sisters, as well as the break-down by diocese and society. The figure for priests was 7%, which, if correct, indicates that 93% of all Catholic priests were and are innocent of child abuse.
But this in not what it seems. Those are not the figures for the whole Catholic society. They are based on the 75 authorities with priest members which the Royal Commission surveyed. The membership spanned the sixty years from 1950 to 2010. The ABC dramatically displayed in a graphic the abuse proportions for various orders – 20.4% for Marist Brothers, 22% for Christian Brothers, 40.4% for St John of God Brothers.
Can anyone really believe these figures? They were obtained by dividing the number of “alleged perpetrators” in each category – distributed from the 1,880 total – by the total number of brothers in the order. The raw data was not provided in her address, but tabled for the Commission, and is not, as yet anyway, publicly available.
The real problem here is that the Royal Commission and its Council Assisting are happy to ply the public with raw numbers on different bases, unchecked, untested and unverified. After four years, and in the case of the Catholic Church untold hours of evidence in pursuit of prelates, it has not authenticated the vast bulk of claims or proven “alleged perpetrators” guilty or innocent. My impression is that it doesn’t want to spoil the impact of its numbers.
Despite 4444 complaints about 1880 “alleged perpetrators” the Royal Commission has heard evidence from only 261 witnesses in Catholic case studies. Yet it has generated 14,671 pages of transcript and 707 exhibits. The pride with which these numbers are produced smacks of bureaucratic complacency, not legal fairness or certainty.
If 40.4% of all St John of God Brothers were supposedly abusing the disabled children they were caring for at the Kendall Grange boys’ home in Morisset, south of Newcastle, why was there not a case study into that institution? It must have been the highest concentration of paedophiles in Australia, perhaps the world. That failure means we don’t know the truth or the reasons.
Well, the reason that Catholic order wasn’t investigated is that that flagship 40.4% figure was a fraud. When I got hold of the Church’s basic data in documents tabled in the Commission but not available publicly until yesterday, I found the figures were sixty years old. They related to the first incidents reported in the 1950s.
In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s the figure varied from six percent to nine percent; for the 1990s and 2000s it was zero. What’s surprising is why the Catholic Church allowed its data to be misrepresented in this damaging fashion.
The problem appears to have been the selective “case study approach”. It has taken an inordinate amount of time, yet in four years has conducted enquiries into only 116 institutions. Throughout, the Commission appears to have taken complaints and claims at face value, with an emphasis on sympathy rather than truth.
The case studies undertaken were based on prior information about complaints, witness availability or for their suggestion of systemic issues. But the churches were the main targets. Some 60% of all complaints in private sessions related to “faith-based” institutions, and 37% of them all came from Catholic authorities.
How many of the 4444 complaints against Catholic religious were in fact valid? Is it impossible that at least some were not made in expectation of compensation? Even less is known of the many thousands of private interviews with Commission members, who are not required to test the truth of complaints. In the case of Catholic institutions, 2400 individuals claimed abuse in private sessions.
The possibility that the incidence of abuse has been over-stated by the Royal Commission’s decision to take a non-critical approach to claims is a serious charge. It is made as a result of a personal experience, where the Commission declined to interest itself in a likely fraud. Where better for a conman to hide his false complaint than under the skirts of a sympathetic tribunal?
I wrote a twelve-page submission, the result of a ten-month investigation. It detailed the case against a convicted criminal who had attempted a serious insurance fraud, and had tried to extort money from a Catholic school, alleging sexual abuse half a century ago. The claim was false, relying on the mists of time to obscure the lies of his invented story. He had gone on to attempt the same conman’s trick on a second school, but had been challenged and repulsed.
The concern I raised with the Royal Commission was his belated complaints of abuse, including sodomy, at a third school, which circumstantially appeared to be opportunistic and fabricated. I asked for an investigation, and offered to give evidence. The reply was that the issue fell outside the Commission’s terms of reference. My submission was merely referred to Commission officers “for their consideration”.
It can be argued that my submission related to a merely anecdotal case. But, except where they may have been investigated in case-study hearings, all the many thousands of complaints are anecdotal. Most are lacking the semblance of proof, and the Royal Commission decided from the beginning it would not try to adjudicate on their authenticity. It has taken on average, 33 years for these complainants to come forward. Is the delay in every case explained by the depth of the clainants’ trauma?
During February and March, the Royal Commission will be sitting to hear Case Studies 50 to 56. After the Catholic Church, now being dealt with, it will be the turn of the Anglicans, then Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi, followed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Australian Christian Churches and affiliated Pentecostal churches and the Uniting Church. Each will be required to admit its sins and mouth its mea culpas. All will in fact be doing under duress the aggregation work the Commission itself should have done.
Nothing can obliterate or excuse the existence or extent of child sexual abuse in institutions throughout Australia. Those facts are undeniable. But the question will remain – did the Royal Commission’s case study approach sensationalise, rather than document, the issue? How far has it got in explaining why so many people, particularly religious, betrayed their trust and behaved unnaturally and viciously?
How many of the thousands of complaints of abuse were valid? Has its recommendation of a $4.2 billion redress scheme, now adopted by the Commonwealth, lured the naturally dishonest, as well as the real victims, to take advantage of the largesse on the horizon?