The Royal Commission and the Church

thumb on scaleBefore addressing the topic “The Media, the Royal Commission and Freedom of Religion”, I should clarify my position and put aside some myths.

I was baptised a Catholic and educated at Catholic schools. I have admiration for the Christian religion in general and Catholicism in particular. However, I am not a practising Catholic—having converted to agnosticism some decades ago. Moreover, I am not close to Cardinal George Pell—a man I happen to admire. I have had only one person-to-person meeting with George Pell in my life. However, like many others, he has been a welcome speaker at the Sydney Institute and attended some of our functions when he was in Sydney.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in its valuable work has confirmed what was already known—albeit in more shocking detail than many would have expected—the extent of historical paedophilia in the Catholic Church.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard set up the Royal Commission in November 2012, George Pell (the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney) said that he supported the decision on the understanding that the Catholic Church was not, as he termed it, the only cab on the rank.

This essay appears in the July edition of Quadrant.
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I happened to be on the ABC’s Insiders couch soon after the Royal Commission was announced. I was asked for my reaction and replied that I supported the Prime Minister’s decision but drew attention to the fact that sexual assaults would have been occurring the previous night in indigenous communities and no one was likely to have done anything about it. Warren Mundine, among other Aboriginal leaders, has condemned the lack of action to stop real-time paedophilia in his people’s communities.

The libertarian Bettina Arndt (who was brought up in an atheist family) made a not dissimilar point when interviewed on The Bolt Report recently:

It’s total hypocrisy. We jump up and down in the Royal Commission about abuse of people in institutions. We don’t give a stuff about the major risk for children which is, you know, children in single parent families being abused by boyfriends passing in and out of those families … There are a whole lot of areas [of sexual child abuse] we don’t discuss because they are not politically correct. Obviously, we’re trying to get the Catholic Church [and] attack churches. This area’s rife with hypocrisy.

George Pell was correct. The Royal Commission’s findings have revealed that in the period from 1950 to 2010 child sexual abuse was rife in Australia—and other societies. There was child sexual abuse in religious, secular and government institutions alike. The Catholic Church was not the only cab on the rank.

It should be remembered that, not so long ago, paedophilia in general and pederasty in particular were somewhat fashionable in intellectual circles. Remember Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, which celebrated the relationship between a middle-aged man and a twelve-year-old nymphet? There was scant criticism when the novel and the first film version of Nabokov’s work were released.

Remember the ridicule that was piled upon morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse in the 1960s and 1970s? In November 2012, the British historian Dominic Sandbrook reviewed Ben Thompson’s edited collection Ban This Filth!: Mary Whitehouse and the Battle to Keep Britain Innocent (2012) in the Sunday Times. Sandbrook wondered if Mrs Whitehouse was “quite as cranky as she looked at the time”. He quoted from a letter Mary Whitehouse wrote to the BBC objecting to the 1973 song “Do You Want to Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” on the BBC show Crackerjack which contained the lyrics:

Every growing boy needs a little joy,
Beggin’ on my knees, baby, if you please
Every growing boy needs a little toy,
I’m a natural man doin’ all I can,
Every Friday night, I got to get my share,
I’m waiting so long, oh

Mary Whitehouse was ridiculed at the time. But the singer-songwriter was none other than Gary Glitter—who, in time, became a convicted paedophile.

In Australia, the ABC still will not redress—or even report—the fact that in July 1975 its chairman Professor Richard Downing declared that Australians should “understand” the urges of pederasts and said that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”. Professor Downing, speaking in his official capacity as ABC chairman, was defending an ABC Radio program which was presented by self-confessed paedophile Richard Neville. Neville interviewed three pederasts in the ABC’s Sydney studio who spoke about their assaults on young boys. The ABC did not report the matter to New South Wales Police at the time and has never adopted a duty of care with respect to the pederasts’ victims—who, if alive, would be around fifty years of age today.

David Flint: Can Cardinal Pell Get a Fair Trial?

An ABC journalist would not accept a Catholic or Anglican bishop refusing to accept responsibility for events in his diocese four decades ago. But the current ABC chairman Justin Milne has advised me that “there is nothing to be gained by revisiting the matter”. An unpleasant double standard, to be sure—especially in view of the ABC’s support for Louise Milligan’s inquiries concerning events of forty years ago.

In its wisdom, the Royal Commission decided not to conduct hearings into institutional responses by the Australian media to instances of child sexual abuse. This despite the evident offending against children at the BBC, of which the case of the late Jimmy Savile is the most notorious example. The Royal Commission also did not hold hearings with respect to Islamic institutions or government schools.

While the Royal Commission chose not to conduct hearings into the ABC or Islamic institutions or government schools, it focused overwhelmingly on the Catholic Church in general and Cardinal George Pell in particular. This was lapped up by sections of the Australian media—particularly the ABC, Fairfax Media (mainly the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald), the Saturday Paper, the Guardian Australia, Channel 9’s 60 Minutes, Channel 10’s The Project and Sky News’s Paul Murray Live and Hinch Live (the latter program is no longer extant).

While all these media outlets employ objective journalists, it is true that some contain a high proportion of alienated ex-Catholics along with Catholics who disagree with the social conservatism of George Pell. Then there are the atheists, many of a sneering disposition, who resent believers—particularly Christians. In short, sections of the media have used the Royal Commission’s obsession with Catholicism to run campaigns against the Catholic Church.

In what the Royal Commission called its “wrap” of its public hearings, three weeks were devoted to the Catholic Church. This was roughly the same amount of time devoted to all other institutions—religious, secular and government combined.

Writing in her Catholic Talk blog in February 2017, Monica Doumit quoted Royal Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan as stating that around 40 per cent of all complaints received by the Royal Commission related to Catholic institutions. During the second half of the twentieth century, Catholics amounted to between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of the Australian population. What’s more, the Catholic Church ran many more schools, orphanages, hospitals and the like than other religious or secular institutions—judged on a per capita basis.

The figures presented by Counsel Assisting, Gail Furness SC, on February 6, 2017, the first day of the Catholic “wrap”, were truly shocking. The raw statistics were provided by the Catholic Church and interpreted by the Royal Commission. Ms Furness commenced her comments as follows:

Now, in terms of the results, between January 1950 and February 2015, 4445 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse made to 93 Catholic Church authorities. These claims related to over 1000 separate institutions.

Some 78 per cent of the claims were lodged by males and 90 per cent of the alleged perpetrators were male. Clearly, these were overwhelmingly crimes of men against boys—a fact that the Royal Commission has tended to avoid. This matter was well dealt with by Dr Philippa Martyr in her article in the April 2017 issue of Quadrant.

Ms Furness went on to state that, between 1950 and 2010, “7 per cent of priests were alleged perpetrators”. Not surprisingly, this statement led to widespread reporting that 7 per cent of the Catholic priests are paedophiles—and did huge reputational damage to current Catholic priests. Responding after Gail Furness’s address, the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Commission chief executive Francis Sullivan accepted what became the media’s interpretation. Mr Sullivan told the Royal Commission that “the data tells us that over six decades from 1950 to 2010, some 1265 Catholic priests were the subject of a child abuse claim”.

This was a true statement. But was it an accurate assessment of the contemporary church? No. It was the non-Catholic Gail Furness who provided a reassessment before the Royal Commission on February 16. This is what she said:

Between January 1950 and February 2015, 4445 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 4765 claims. The vast majority of claims alleged abuse that started in the period 1950 to 1989 inclusive. The largest proportion of first alleged incidents of child sexual abuse, 29 per cent, occurred in the 1970s. [emphasis added]

In other words, what Ms Furness eventually addressed—and what Mr Sullivan consistently overlooked—is that paedophilia in the Catholic Church is essentially an historical crime. Repugnant?—yes. Important?—yes. But contemporary?—overwhelmingly, no.

This reflects the fact that the Catholic Church was the first institution in Australia to set up a procedure to handle child sex-abuse cases. The Melbourne Response was set up by (then) Archbishop Pell in Melbourne in 1996 and Towards Healing was set up by the other archdioceses and all the dioceses in 1997.

This fact is not widely known in the media. For example, on the ABC’s New Year’s Eve coverage, film reviewer David Stratton had this to say about the film Spotlight:

This is a true story of investigative journalism in the great tradition of All the President’s Men. From their base at the prestigious Boston Globe newspaper, a handful of dedicated journalists pursue the horrific story of the abuses of paedophile priests, facing opposition every step of the way but leading the world in the exposure of these crimes. [emphasis added]

This is hopelessly wrong. The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” reporting—which inspired the film—took place in 2002, some six years after the Melbourne Response was set up in co-operation with Victoria Police.

But you would never know this if you only listened to Francis Sullivan. In a major speech at the Villa Maria Parish in Sydney’s Hunter’s Hill on March 10 this year, Mr Sullivan never once mentioned the action which the Catholic Church took in Australia to tackle child sexual abuse close to two decades before the establishment of the Royal Commission. It is reasonable to criticise the processes of both the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing—but it is incomplete to ignore their existence.

Francis Sullivan’s speech contained nothing but criticism of the Catholic Church. As Geraldine Doogue—hardly a conservative Catholic in the tradition of Cardinal Pell—told the Weekend Australian Magazine’s Greg Bearup, who wrote a profile on Sullivan which was published on May 6–7:

The church in Australia is the greatest supplier of social welfare outside the government … I think Francis has decided that he can’t say anything good. It’s a tactic in my opinion. I applaud it [what he’s trying to achieve with respect to the Royal Commission] but I don’t think it’s the whole story of the Catholic Church.

The media focus on the Royal Commission’s coverage of Catholics has led to a distortion of the sad universality of a terrible crime.

Although it spent fifteen days on the Catholic “wrap”, the Royal Commission spent a mere half a day on its Uniting Church “wrap”—hearing only three witnesses in the process. Here’s a quote from the introduction by Counsel Assisting, Angus Stewart SC, concerning the Uniting Church “wrap”:

In the 40 years since the Church’s inauguration, there have been 2504 incidents or allegations of child sexual abuse that have been reported as having occurred at an institution or place of worship of the Uniting Church.

That’s 2504 incidents or allegations in the period between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church. Moreover, the Royal Commission did not include allegations in the period 1950 to 1977 with respect to the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist communities which folded into the Uniting Church in 1977. This would take the number of allegations beyond 2504, especially since it seems that child sexual abuse was at its worst in the 1960s and 1970s.

Evidence presented to the Royal Commission suggests that no real action was taken with respect to a nest of paedophile teachers at the Uniting Church’s Knox Grammar School in Sydney until a group of former students went to New South Wales Police in 2009—over a decade after the establishment of the Melbourne Response.

On the Royal Commission’s own figures, a child was safer in a Catholic institution than a Uniting Church institution any time after 1950. Yet you would not get an idea of this reality by following the reportage of the Royal Commission on the ABC, in Fairfax Media, the Saturday Paper, the Guardian Australia, 60 Minutes, The Project or Paul Murray Live. Allegations against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on a per capita basis, are dramatically higher than for either the Catholic or the Uniting churches.

This is not a matter of nit-picking. The Royal Commission has used instances of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to inquire into genuine matters of freedom of religion that pertain to Catholicism—apparently with the support of Francis Sullivan. No other institution has been the subject of such scrutiny.

Justice McClellan and his colleagues believe that the Royal Commission is entitled to look into such teachings and practices with respect to the Catholic Church as canon law, clericalism, celibacy, the confessional, psycho-sexual development, seminary training, the Vatican, church history and lay leadership. The justification for all this is that sexual child abuse is exceptional in the Catholic Church. However, this theory falls to pieces once it is realised that child sexual abuse, person to person, was probably greater in the Uniting Church—an institution which has married clergy, no compulsory celibacy, no sacrament of confession, female ministers and in recent times has supported same-sex marriage.

The Royal Commission has not merely focused attention on the Catholic Church’s teachings. It has also interfered with the media. Following one of my columns in the Weekend Australian, the Royal Commission’s chief executive officer Philip Reed wrote to me asserting that I was wrong to claim that Cardinal Pell had been subjected to greater scrutiny than anyone else. My statement was true—but Mr Reed went into denial when his error was pointed out. I understand Mr Reed made a similar complaint to Andrew Bolt. Philip Reed refuses to answer the question as to whether he approached any other media figures in an attempt to influence their comments on the Royal Commission or correct their alleged or real errors.

The Royal Commission’s focus on Cardinal Pell has made it possible for the media to do likewise. I pointed out to the ABC’s managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie that the public broadcaster had highlighted serious allegations made against the cardinal before the Royal Commission but had all but ignored the fact that Gail Furness (who is regarded by many as hostile to Pell) subsequently submitted to Justice McClellan that many of these allegations were without substance. Despite my documentation of all these instances, Ms Guthrie flicked the matter to her offsider Alan Sunderland, who threw the switch to denial. This is documented in my Media Watch Dog blog on February 10 this year.

I have just read ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s latest hatchet job on Cardinal Pell titled Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (MUP, 2017). The only new allegations consist of people’s recollections of conversations which allegedly took place three decades or more ago. One involves a person who, though located in a room next to the one George Pell was in, can relate an overheard conversation of Cardinal Pell three decades ago with such accuracy that Ms Milligan believes it warrants being reported in direct speech. This is unprofessional journalism. I covered some of these matters in my column in the Weekend Australian on May 20 this year.

It seems that the ABC fails to inculcate into its journalists that you cannot believe what anyone says simply because you want to. Some people have bad memories, some exaggerate, while others have clear “recollections” of events which never happened. Memory is very fallible thing, as Justice McClellan himself wrote in an article published in the Australian Law Journal in 2006. Among other comments, Justice McClellan warned about the ability of a person to implant a false memory in the mind of another, said that false memories of trauma are possible and reflected that, in reality, our memories are unstable and malleable and that—even without external influences—memory will fade over time. He also acknowledged that memories may be altered by post-event factors. Reporters like Louise Milligan would be well advised to read Justice McClellan’s 2006 article along with Daniel L. Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory before believing what they want to believe.

The sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, other churches, and secular and government institutions was shocking. But recent statistics from the Archdiocese of Sydney indicate that there were about zero such crimes over the past two decades. I understand there were very few offenders in the Archdiocese of Hobart throughout the period examined by the Royal Commission.

The problem is that the Royal Commission may use a crime within the Catholic Church, which reached its height in the 1970s, to recommend clamping down on religious practices today. This would be an unhealthy development in a democracy—for both religious and social reasons—since it would establish a dangerous precedent.

The Christian tradition today faces two fundamental challenges—from militant Islamists who want to kill Christians and place the so-called Islamic State’s black flag on the Vatican; and from intolerant atheists who hold believers in contempt, particularly Christians, and wish to restrict their freedom of expression and action.

Gerard Henderson is the Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. This article is an edited version of an address he gave to the Christopher Dawson Centre in Hobart in May.


12 thoughts on “The Royal Commission and the Church

  • says:

    It is blindingly obvious that the gravest and most unforgivable sin of Cardinal Pell is that he is a privileged old white male, compounded by the fact that he is near the pinnacle of power in the most powerful religious organisation on Earth. These circumstances confirm his grievous guilt beyond doubt. – Thank you for your thorough, informative analysis Mr. Henderson.

    • Warty says:

      Bill, you need to signpost your irony a little: it was just a little too convincing, so I had to read and reread your comment to reassure myself you were simply parroting a Labor Left/Green perspective (one I know you don’t hold).
      But indeed, the fact that he was head of the Catholic Church over here for so many years has made him a target. And the fact that there are those who wish to bring about an amorphous collectivist state, with no clear line of authority, no family, no gender and no religion (‘Imagine’) so that minorities can ‘rule’ by default and traditionalists be pushed towards euthanising themselves with little fuss to those around them. You know, the shuffling off the mortal coil bit.
      I’m not a Catholic, but Cardinal Pell is a symbol of everything the progressives hate about a world fast disappearing. Thank goodness there are still strong voices like Gerard Henderson’s.

      Imagine there’s no heaven
      It’s easy if you try
      No hell below us
      Above us only sky
      Imagine all the people living for today . . .

      • says:

        As I understand the situation, that Pell was head of the Catholic Church in Australia is not a fact. It is a figment of ignorant journalism (forgive the tautology). He was the head of the Catholic Church in the Arch-Diocese of Sydney. The head of the Catholic Church in Australia is the Pope, to whom each Australian Catholic bishop is individually and directly responsible.

    • Jody says:

      If he is guilty of child abuse/sexual assault then he needs to bear the consequences. There’s an element of schadenfreude from the Left with regard to this matter with Pell and the Church which I find unseemly, especially when you consider the depredations of “the religion of peace” and the infinitely huge appetite for tolerance of it. But Pell will go to trial and, come what, may the stakes won’t be higher for the Catholics. What I want to know is this; what if Pell gets a “NOT GUILTY” verdict?

      • Warty says:

        Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? He’s stuffed anyway. Not unlike the QUT saga, it was the process that was the killer, and whether the students were acquitted or not was only part of the problem.
        In Pell’s case, regardless of the verdict, there are all too many ABC listeners, who are convinced of his guilt anyway, on the flimsiest of evidence. They will continue to believe their dark thoughts anyway, because they delight in any attack on the Church and its leaders. It may a search for justice for Pell, but it is anything BUT for the anarchical lot, who seek the ultimate self abasement of the churches and its leaders.

  • ChrisPer says:

    In the 1980s and 1990s we had a moral panic over false memories created by ‘recovered memory therapy’, a worldwide fad. Many, many fathers were falsely accused and jailed, suicided or had their reputations and lives destroyed. ‘Believe the survivors’ is a similar cult-like slogan that stops critical examination of these issues. We had moral panics over ‘abusers dressed as clowns in Day-Care centres’, when panicky and ill-trained people interrogated children until they heard what they expected to hear.

    In the 2000s, British police created several huge surges of false accusations by writing letters to former inmates of ‘care homes’ – many of them now older members of the criminal and welfare class – soliciting accusations and mentioning very large criminal injuries compensation payouts. Hundreds of former care home workers were falsely convicted and jailed.

    Throughout the media were deliberately complicit in creating moral panics and destroying the hope of rational testing of the charges. British judges convicted people on the seriousness and number of the charges, even though all the ones that could be checked were proved falsehoods and fabrications.

    For justice to prevail, the false accusers, journalists and police who promote false charges should be jailed for the expected sentence of the person they falsely accused, and their assets paid to the falsely accused as compensation.

  • says:

    We have just learnt, thanks to the West Australian. That the Anglican Diocese of Perth has paid out $475,000 in legal fees to assist our retiring Archbishop to appear before the commission. It was apparently expected this would be paid for by the Diocese of Newcastle’s insurance. It won’t be! The simmering anger amongst clergy, and peopler is nearly at boiling point.

  • says:

    I am an atheist, and think that all religions are historical superstitious nonsense. That said, two things are very obvious to me.
    1. Some religions patently make less sense than others and are far more dangerous to civilisation than others. The obvious example is Islam. Islam is even more totalitarian in outlook than the communists and Nazis. Perhaps that is why it is defended so vociferously by the ABC and sundry other media organisations.
    2. There has been a concerted campaign in Australia to get Pell, and also to demonise the Catholic church by leftists worldwide in all levels of the media. Perhaps this is because Catholicism is the dominant Christian religion. This media/leftist persecution was most notable during the tenures of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, mainly because they were so openly anti-communist and it has only lessened slightly after the election of Jorge Bergoglio, who has many communistic tendencies.

  • Stephen Due says:

    The majority of the offenders in the Catholic Church were of course men abusing boys. Homosexuals therefore. It continues to astonish me (a) that this blatantly obvious fact is ignored in commentary and (b) that the Catholics will not take a stand against homosexual priests. The incidence of paedophilia among homosexuals is stupendously high relative to heterosexuals.

    • Warty says:

      I am with you, with regard to what I suspect is your underlying assumption, about homosexuality and its offshoot, paedophilia: I find both abhorrent. My only bone to pick is the fixation with the Catholic Church, and as I said above, I’m not a Catholic. As Gerard clearly explained, the overall focus in the Royal Commission, was the Catholic Church. He also pointed out that these were historic crimes, with no new cases in decades. You have also overlooked the prominent role Pell filled in facilitating the enquiry into his own church, so your statement ‘Catholics will not take a stand against homosexual priests’ is very much a thing of the past, largely thanks to people like George Pell.
      There is more than meets the eye when it comes to the hounding of George Pell, and it does not augur well for the lot of us, not just the Catholic Church.
      I suspect your last statement is absolutely so. It makes no sense at all that a heterosexual adult would have sex with a boy.

      • Lawrie Ayres says:

        First they came for the Catholics, you can insert the rest yourself.

        The Commission was a witch hunt and Catholics the target and that was the intention of Gillard from the start. Now we have Turnbull and Pyne doing it from the “sensible centre”.

  • whitelaughter says:

    “That’s 2504 incidents or allegations in the period between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church. ”

    Eh, no. Or more accurately – deliberately deceitful. The Uniting church was been imploding, but they started at 33% of the Australian population, substantially larger than the RC church at the time. So by the figures you are giving, the Uniting Church – a dying and corrupted organisation – had a abuse problem about half as bad as catholicism. That’s something you’d have noticed immediately if you had done any research, and have pointed out if you were being honest. If you can’t be trusted with such an obvious point, how can you be trsuted with anything more complicated?

    The *reason* Rome has such a hideous problem with child molestors is that the scumbags know that they’ll be protected; come down on them like a ton of bricks and they’ll instead go elsewhere, frex Islam.

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