Five years and $500 million ago, a bench of six people with inquisitorial powers was set the task of investigating and reporting on institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia. It did not. Like a team of council rat catchers boasting of its kill rate in the sewers, but doing nothing about the rodents on the wharves, the McLellan Royal Commission, in a magnificent sleight of hand, focused attention on what happened decades ago, but not what those institutions had done about it.
And it chose the easy targets. Thirty-five of the fifty-seven case studies shone a spotlight on the churches, justified by the claim that sixty per cent of all complaints related to religious groups. But that figure was skewed by ignoring many state institutions, including the schools, the difficult area of domestic abuse, and Muslims.
If I take the situation of the Catholic Church as an example, it is because the Royal Commission has allowed the impression that it was the most wicked institution. Umpteen times the figures have been trotted out: 4445 people alleged abuse between 1980 and 2015, in 4765 claims. But the vast majority of abuses began between 1950 and 1989, and nearly one-third of them in the 1970s. It took at an average of 33 years for these people to make a claim. A whopping seven per cent of Catholic priests were condemned for abusive practices, leaving only 93% innocents to tend their flocks and administer schools and hospitals.
And the Church’s response before the McLellan posse rode into the corral?
Some $276.1 million paid out against 3066 claims, at an overall average of $91,000. For the Jesuits, the average payment was $257,000. The Melbourne Response, initiated by the vilified Archbishop George Pell, had the highest proportion of claims resulting in monetary compensation. 84% of claims resulted in a monetary payout.
But the statistics the Royal Commission has published for the numbers of “alleged perpetrators” are not the raw figures. They have been adjusted using ‘weighted average’ (more correctly, weighted mean) methodology. Its report on Case Study 50; Institutional Review of Catholic Church Authorities, claims that there have been no objections to the method, but I am not sure it would withstand independent actuarial scrutiny.
The Commission has weighted (adjusted) the numbers of “alleged perpetrators” for each diocese or religious order, according to the number of years each had been in the ministry, between 1950 and 2010.
The effect of this technique can be seen to have inflated the numbers of “alleged perpetrators” in the Adelaide Archdiocese, for example, from 2.4% to 4.1%, and in Melbourne from 6.9% to 8.1%. In the case of the St John of God Brothers, whose alleged abuse ratio was highlighted as the most scandalous, weighted averaging had the effect of raising the proportion from 30.4% to 40.4%
The weighted average technique is commonly and properly used daily in, for example the Stock Exchange, in determining the average value of a share at a point in time. Applying it to abuse assumes that the longer a priest or other religious remains in the ministry, the more likely it is that he has offended. Wrong – it merely indicates the more opportunity he has had to offend, but says nothing about the actuality of abuse. Increasing the alleged abuse numbers by a statistical trick seems both unnecessary and unworthy of a Royal Commission.
Thumping seventeen volumes down on the Governor General’s day table, and marshalling dramatic statistics to be plastered all over the evening news bulletins, the Commission successfully obscured the fact that almost everything it had so laboriously uncovered lay in the distant past. The problem had gone away. Comprehensively (if not perfectly) dealt with over the last twenty years by those very institutions it demonised. So, taking advantage of its extraordinarily wide terms of reference, the Commission proceeded to urge generous cash payments to victims without justifying how it would help them, some thirty, forty or more years after their abuse, and gratuitously recommended how a major faith should reform its sacraments, despite evidence that such moves would be at best debatable, and at worst irrelevant.
The reason for this was revealed in the debate over the “bad apple” theory of priestly misbehavior in Case Study 50. Dr Whelan, Director of the Aquinas Academy, said some religious were ill-prepared or simply unsuited for celibate life, and this could have contributed to the incidence of sexual abuse. Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane said celibacy was not itself a factor, but its discipline might have been attractive to men with paedophile tendencies.
But the Commission preferred the interpretation of other witnesses who saw the hierarchical organisation itself the cause. This was best expressed in a paper by Dr Marie Keenan, an Irish psychotherapist and social worker. She identified an internal conflict between the power and powerlessness of priests as responsible for what she termed “the corrosive culture of clericalism”. Dr Keenan quoted many research papers but her own findings were based on interviews with only nine abusive priests, seven of whom were homosexuals and five of whom had been abused themselves in childhood. Dr Keenan offered to give oral evidence in support of her paper, but then strangely withdrew, saying the Commission was not the appropriate forum to do justice to her research and all parties involved. Why, has not been explained.
Nevertheless, the Commission chose to believe there were strong arguments that “institutional “ factors were responsible for the abuse crisis in Australia. It proceeded to make impertinent recommendations to government on issues over which it had no control – the sanctity of the confessional and the rule of celibacy. Presumably, this was in the hope that the Parliamentary Committee responsible for implementation of its recommendations would put pressure on the Vatican.
In 1993, the Italian historian and intellectual Giordano Bruno Guerri conducted a landmark study into the confessional in Italy for his book Io ti Assolvo. He found that the proportion of Catholics attending confession had declined from 46% in 1939 to 4%. It is unlikely that Australian observation would be higher. In any case, several church authorities said they had never heard a confession of abuse.
Why were the levels of child abuse in Australia so high? The Royal Commission offers no answer and does not appear to have pursued international comparisons. Italy, the home of the Catholic Church, has 26,000 parishes, 36,000 priests and more than 19,000 religious of various types – one male religious figure for every 1,000 citizens. Yet it has minuscule levels of sexual abuse, by comparison. Paedophilia may be international, but it seems Australians are major practitioners. The 2013 National Survey on Child Maltreatment in Italy found that 47% of all cases were of physical or psychological neglect; only 4% related to sexual abuse. The survey reported that Italy’s results were comparable with those in other western European countries.
Already ordinary citizens are asking why taxpayers today should be encumbered with the cost of compensation to grown adults who somehow have managed to survive their horrific childhood experiences. These are not reparations due from guilty parties, so the Commission had a duty to show how and why a cash settlement at this late stage could assuage psychological damage and erase the memories of their abuse.
In a bias towards helping abuse victims face their demons by story-telling, the Royal Commission has not only taken their stories at face value, but also recommended that scant proof be required for compensation payments. What verification was sought of the complaints and claims made in the eight thousand private sessions? To contemplate that grants of up to $200,000 be made on the basis of “reasonable likelihood” and a statutory declaration demonstrated a detachment from responsible policy formulation.
I have personal experience of the Commission’s unwillingness to entertain the possibility of fraud amongst the many potential claimants for the billions which will be paid out. In January this year, I wrote a nine-page letter warning of the likely fraudulent claim from a convicted murderer who had already attempted a $66 million extortion on one school, and tried claims on two others, one of which had yielded him at least $130.000.
I pointed out the Greensill case in Victoria (Greensill v The Queen  VSCA 306) showed how an easy presumption of guilt, the protection of anonymity granted to abuse complainants, and the difficulty of establishing facts in the distant past, combined to provide opportunity for false allegations to succeed. (Josephine Greensill, a retired teacher spent two and a half years in jail after two men claimed she abused them when aged eight. Her convictions were overturned on appeal). I said I believed society needed to be alert to this possibility, while in its vigorous pursuit of paedophilia. The response boiled down essentially to the fact that such concerns were outside the Commission’s terms of reference.
So nobody foresaw the scope for criminal pretence?
My letter put a finger on a problem that is already appearing: whether to compensate individuals who have subsequently committed crimes. There is a banshee wail from do-gooders who believe that is irrelevant; West Australia has decided to draw the line at people who have been sentenced to more than five years imprisonment. But we will increasingly be asked to accept the argument – completely without scientific support – that criminal activity was pre-disposed by sexual abuse when young.
The Royal Commission’s reports are an historical document. They have done admirable work in documenting the past. But many of the recommendations they are urging on government are steps too far. Instead of drawing the curtain over a lamentable chapter of horrific and unforgiveable abuses, it has set Australia up for interminable disputation, not only on compensation, but also on the relationship between church and state. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that contributing to the decline in clerical influence was in the minds of the commissioners, even if not in their terms of reference.
It will be a long time before he dust stirred up by this expensive post-mortem settles. As the 16th century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in Rome’s campo de’ Fiori for his heretical views – among them that the universe was infinite – wrote: “Time is the father of truth, its mother is in our mind.”
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years