Anti-Catholicism in the Coverage of Child Sexual Abuse

On Sunday November 17, 2012, I appeared on the ABC TV Insiders program. Barrie Cassidy was in the presenter’s chair and my fellow panellists were Lenore Taylor (now editor of the Guardian Australia) and David Marr (now also with the Guardian Australia). The decision to establish what became the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had just been announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. When discussion turned to this topic, I made the following comment:

I’m not against it [the Royal Commission]. But it’s going to be hugely expensive. No one knows where it will start and when it will stop. And what I’m concerned about is that it’s not a distraction. If you look at the reports in the Australian this year, and on Lateline this year on the ABC, sexual abuse of children is rife among indigenous communities in the APY Lands in South Australia, in parts of the Northern Territory, in parts of Western Australia and Queensland. As we understand it, there’s widespread evidence for that. No one is focusing particularly on that, probably because no one quite knows how to handle it—including state and territory police. But it’s going on now. It’s rife. And it probably went on last night …

Both Taylor and Marr insisted that the matter had been handled by the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory in 2007. But, as I pointed out, this only covered the Northern Territory—not the six states or the Australian Capital Territory. I continued:

I’m not against a Royal Commission and I can see why both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott supported it and I don’t criticise that decision. But—I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to achieve to resolve current problems. Although I can see how it can achieve … the resolution of past problems.

At this stage David Marr turned the discussion to inferences about “what’s happening in Roman Catholic presbyteries” now. In return, I criticised my fellow panellist for old fashioned anti-Catholic sectarianism—since, even six years ago, it was evident that child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and brothers was essentially an historical crime.

The Royal Commission, following a time extension, ran from January 2013 to December 2017. In her book My Story, Julia Gillard said she spoke to Cardinal George Pell before announcing her intervention to establish the Royal Commission since she did not want it “to be seen to be a witch-hunt into one Church, but rather to have the breadth it truly needed”. It is a matter of record that the Royal Commission did come to be seen as unduly focused on the Catholic Church.

The historian and former Catholic priest Paul Collins is not a conservative Catholic in the tradition of Pope Benedict XVI or the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous. Writing on December 12, 2017—at the conclusion of the Royal Commission—he made the following point:

I don’t think the [Royal] Commission was an unequivocal blessing. I still feel that the Commission focused unduly on Catholicism and that it can’t be entirely absolved of unconscious elements of anti-Catholicism that has been the default position of Anglo-Australian culture since the 19th century. There was also a lack of well-informed Catholics on the staff to the extent that sometimes a kind of caricature Catholicism emerged …

Now move forward to Tuesday, July 3, 2018, following the conviction in the Newcastle Local Court of Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, who was found guilty by Magistrate Robert Stone of covering up child sexual abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in 1976, when he was a junior priest aged around twenty-five. Due to the vagaries of Section 316 in the New South Wales Crimes Act, the archbishop’s conviction turned on the failure to have a reasonable excuse for not reporting the matter to the New South Wales Police during the period April 2004 to January 2006. He is appealing against the decision.

On the ABC TV’s The Drum that evening, discussion turned to the Wilson case. Presenter Julia Baird noted towards the end of the discussion that “there seems to be a consensus on the panel here”. There sure was as—variously—Dee Madigan, Karen Middleton, Megan Motto and Stephen O’Doherty piled into the Catholic Church in general and Archbishop Wilson in particular. No one saw fit to mention that, when he was Bishop of Wollongong and later Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson was a leader in the Catholic Church in facing up to clerical child sexual abuse.

And not one person on The Drum advised viewers that they had not read the decision—which has still not been released (even with redactions) and may never be released. This has led to a situation whereby what has been hailed as a decision of international significance is not readily available to be read in Australia or overseas. Frank Brennan has written to the New South Wales Attorney-General seeking the immediate release of Magistrate Stone’s decision with redactions.

Fairfax Media’s Joanne McCarthy (who was present in Newcastle Local Court for the decision) also appeared on The Drum that night. As a reporter for the Newcastle Herald, she has been acknowledged—by Julia Gillard and others—as playing a central role in the establishment of the Royal Commission. Indeed, Ms McCarthy was personally thanked by Justice Peter McClellan when the Royal Commisison held its final hearing in Newcastle. The occasion was photographed by Fairfax Media.

In her comment on The Drum, Ms McCarthy accused the Catholic Church of “not responding to the Royal Commission”—this was an obvious reference to its findings with respect to the sacrament of confession. But she also made it clear that discussion on child sexual abuse should not focus on Philip Wilson and added:

Well, I would hope that it [the Wilson conviction] sends a message to people on child sexual abuse in general—not just within institutions … We know that the majority of child sexual abuse occurs within families … And I think what this decision says is that if we are aware of child sexual abuse allegations in families in context today—and it’s a ghastly thing to have to say, but there are children being sexually abused today—that if we are aware of allegations, if we are aware of concerns that we can’t just look away …

In the close to six years since the Royal Commission commenced, media focus—particularly on the ABC and in Fairfax Media, the Guardian Australia, the Saturday Paper, Channel 10’s The Project, Sky News’s Paul Murray Live, the New Daily and the Crikey newsletter—has focused on the Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Anglican Church.

The Royal Commission’s coverage of the Catholic Church was so substantial that it is not surprising that some Australians thought it was an inquiry into the Catholic Church alone. Indeed Fairfax Media’s Peter FitzSimons said as much when he wrote in the Sun Herald on July 2, 2017, that the Royal Commission was set up to inquire into child sexual abuse (it wasn’t) and that its achievement was to turn “a much-needed spotlight into the horrors of rampant sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy over the decades”. FitzSimons implied that only Catholic clergy commit the crime of child sexual abuse.

This confusion was facilitated by the Royal Commission—particularly by the hostility exhibited at times to the Catholic Church and its members by Royal Commission chair Justice Peter McClellan and Senior Counsel-Assisting Gail Furness SC. This has continued beyond the life of the Royal Commission itself.

Robert Fitzgerald, formerly a member of the Royal Commission who has returned to the Productivity Commission, received front-page lead story coverage in the Sunday Age on March 11, 2018, following his address, some weeks earlier, to the Catholic Social Services Victoria conference in Melbourne. Mr Fitzgerald used the occasion to suggest that the Catholic Church was the predominantly guilty party with respect to institutional child sexual abuse in Australia.

The Sunday Age highlighted Fitzgerald’s comment that “nearly 62 per cent of all people who notified the Royal Commission of abuse in a religious setting were abused in a Catholic institution”. Now this is a truly shocking figure—if it is meaningful. But the claim only has meaning if it is comparable with non-Catholic institutions—whether of a religious, secular or government kind.

In the twentieth century, Catholics were about 25 per cent of the Australian population. However, since the Catholic Church ran its own education system, Catholics would have accounted for around 80 per cent of children educated in a religious setting in Australia in the twentieth century. Also, the Catholic Church operated a much higher percentage of orphanages and hospitals than like institutions that operated in a religious setting.

In response to my inquiry, Fitzgerald acknowledged that “regrettably there are no historical prevalence studies in Australia” in this area but added that the Royal Commission recommended that such research “be undertaken in the future”. In other words, the 62 per cent figure is not meaningful—despite the Sunday Age beat-up.

The Royal Commission had a budget of about $350 million, with hundreds of staff. Yet, in spite of the fact that it devoted significantly more time to the Catholic Church than any other institution—religious, secular or government—it did not drill down into the statistics in its possession to analyse what they meant. Rather, it recommended that some other body should do this research some time in the future.

Frank Brennan—who is also not a Catholic in the Benedict XVI or Archbishop Porteous tradition and who voted “Yes” in the same-sex marriage survey—has written that the Royal Commission did not discover “how much more likely was it in the past that a child would be abused in a Catholic institution than in a non-Catholic institution”. He added that it “would have been helpful to have the answers to these questions, but we don’t”.

No—we don’t. However, what evidence we have suggests that, in the period from 1950 to 2010 covered by the Royal Commission, a child in a Catholic religious institution was probably safer than a child in a non-Catholic religious institution. It is not clear if the same can be said with respect to a child in a secular or government institution when assessed on a per-capita basis. But this could be the case. No one would get to know this from following the media’s coverage of the Royal Commission.

Needless to say, the ABC misunderstood Fitzgerald’s speech and misinterpreted the Royal Commission’s findings. For example, on May 31, 2018, AM presenter Sabra Lane declared that “more than 60 per cent of sex abuse survivors who gave evidence to the Royal Commission reported the abuse happened in Catholic run institutions”. This statement is totally false. But the ABC did not immediately correct Ms Lane’s comment—despite the matter having been brought to its attention and despite having previously corrected a similar error made by Patricia Karvelas (RN Drive), Hamish Macdonald (RN Breakfast) and some others. Yet AM is perhaps the ABC’s leading news and current affairs program. Even today Ms Lane’s error has not been acknowledged on the program notes which accompany the online recording of the program.

The ABC’s focus on historic child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church stands in contrast to its failure to cover the public broadcaster’s own history in this area. The ABC has not reported the fact that former ABC TV producer Jon Stephens pleaded guilty in 2017 to sexually assaulting a twelve-year-old boy while on official ABC duties in 1981—except for a fleeting reference in one midday news bulletin to the fact that Stephens’s minimum prison term was reduced on appeal due to his ill-health. Fairfax Media has ignored the story completely.

The ABC has also not covered the fact that in 1975—just six years before Stephens’s offending—the ABC Radio program Lateline invited three pederasts into its Sydney studio to take part in a program called “Pederasty”. The ABC did not report this matter to the New South Wales Police—then or since. Nor has it adopted a duty of care to the victims of pederasty who were involved in the program—despite the fact that, if alive, they would be about the same age of some of the men who gave evidence to the Royal Commission. The most substantial coverage of the “Pederasty” program can be found in contemporary issues of the Sydney Morning Herald and its sister publication the National Times as well as in K.S. Inglis’s 1983 book This is the ABC.

The 1975 “Pederasty” program was defended by the ABC’s chairman Richard Downing in a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 19, 1975. On the same day, the SMH reported Professor Downing as saying that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”—the implication being that the community in general should accept this fact of life. Richard Downing was fifty-nine years of age in July 1975 and one of the most influential Australians. Philip Wilson was a twenty-five-year-old junior priest in the Hunter Valley.

In recent times, both former ABC chairman James Spigelman and his successor Justin Milne have advised me that the current ABC does not accept any responsibility for what the ABC did—or what Professor Downing said on behalf of the ABC—in 1975. ABC journalists would not accept such a cop-out from an Anglican or Catholic bishop with respect to the statements made by a predecessor forty years ago. James Spigelman is also a former Chief Justice of New South Wales.

Richard Neville had been employed by the ABC to present Lateline—including the “Pederasty” program—despite the fact that he was a self-confessed pedophile. In his 1970 book Play Power, Neville boasted of having had sex with a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in London. This book sold well in Australia in the early 1970s and Neville’s child abuse was discussed in the public debate at the time.

When Neville died in 2016, the ABC did not report his past child sex abuse. Nor did Fairfax Media. The ABC has also turned a blind eye to the revelations of Rozanna and Kate Lilley—the daughters of left-wing writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley—that their mother encouraged them to have under-age sex with writer Bob Ellis and artist Martin Sharp and others—all of whom were at least twice the age of their schoolgirl victims. This was covered by some low-profile ABC programs—but avoided on such outlets as AM, PM, RN Breakfast, ABC TV News Breakfast, 7.30, Late Night Live and so on—all of which have given much attention to the historic crimes of Catholic and Anglican clerics in this area.

Interviewed by Helen Trinca for the Weekend Australian on June 16, 2018, Richard Walsh spoke about Neville and Sharp—both of whom he associated with in the 1970s and after. Walsh said that interest in young girls was not “part of Neville’s make up at all”—but added that Neville did not “ask to see anyone’s birth certificate”. Walsh added that while he and his colleagues were aware of Sharp’s “taste” in young females, they “didn’t think it through hard enough to wonder if any of these people were under-age”.

Rozanna Lilley told her story to the Royal Commission in a private hearing. In its wisdom, the Royal Commission decided not to conduct public hearings into institutional responses by the Australian media to child sexual abuse. This despite the fact that there have been at least two convictions for historic child sexual abuse in Australia involving the media and despite the scandal of BBC star Jimmy Savile’s offending in Britain and its cover-up by his employer.

As Professor Greg Craven wrote in the Weekend Australian on August 19, 2017, a problem with the Royal Commission’s focus on the Catholic Church was that it “all but crowded out the scrutiny of other institutions, with predictable results”. He continued: “The rule is that if an inquiry gives the impression it is about one subject, the public will take it at its word.” If Peter FitzSimons was confused about this point, it is likely that many others would have come to the same conclusion.

The Royal Commission held its final sitting on December 14, 2017, before presenting its report to the Governor-General. Since then, the media’s focus has been on two issues.

First, the Royal Commission’s recommendations that a redress for victims of child abuse in institutions be established. What most media commentators overlooked was that the Catholic Church set up its own redress scheme two decades previously—with the establishment of the Melbourne Response by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, in 1996 and the creation of the Towards Healing process for the other archdioceses and all the dioceses of Australia the following year. In the event, the Catholic Church was one of the first institutions to say that it would take part in the national redress scheme—which is the creation of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and commenced operations on July 1 this year.

And, second, confession. In particular, the Catholic Church’s teaching on the seal of confession—which entails that a Catholic priest who forgives a sin in the confessional cannot divulge what he heard in confession to anyone, in church or state, irrespective of the nature of the sin. Confession is also a rite in some Anglican communions and some Lutheran churches.

That part of the Royal Commission’s Criminal Justice Report which dealt with what it termed “religious confession” was leaked to the ABC and Fairfax Media the day before its release. It recommended the extinction of the seal of confession. A similar recommendation is contained in the Royal Commission’s final report.

For over a year, the ABC has focused on this issue—as if it was the Royal Commission’s most important recommendation. There have been discussions on Insiders (featuring David Marr) and The Drum and News Breakfast and RN Breakfast and AM and PM and 7.30 and more besides. The issue found its way into ABC comedy programs—including The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell (on two occasions) and Tonightly with Tom Ballard—and more besides.

Some of the coverage, while not comical, was farcical. On The Drum (June 12, 2018) panellist Barbara Heinback was not challenged by presenter Ellen Fanning when she said that “some time ago” she had read that several priests had committed suicide because they could not live with the fact that they had heard the confession of a pedophile but had not been allowed to share the information with their superiors or police. Ms Heinback has not been able to say when or where she came across this (alleged) study or where the (alleged) instances took place. It seems that Barbara Heinback has a clear recollection of an event that never happened.

On June 20, 2018, the host of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering did a two-minute rant criticising a statement by the Acting Archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly SJ. In what is supposed to be a comedy program, Pickering alleged that the Catholic Church had used the “sacred seal” of confession “to protect sexual child abusers”.

The only evidence offered by Pickering was the claim that “Rockhampton priest Father Michael McArdle confessed 1500 times to molesting children to thirty different priests over a twenty-five-year period”. That is, once a week for a quarter of a century. According to Pickering, McArdle’s penance was “to go home and pray”. So Pickering is asking us to believe that thirty different priests over a twenty-five-year period gave McArdle exactly the same penance for his sins. A remarkable coincidence, to be sure.

Viewers of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering were not told that the sole evidence for this claim was an affidavit filed by McArdle himself when attempting to have his sentence reduced. McArdle did not name any of his alleged confessors. Nor did Pickering state that the Royal Commission did not bother to examine McArdle’s self-serving claim. Yet Pickering was happy to accept, without question, the word of a self-confessed pedophile who wanted to share blame with others for his crimes. Likewise freelance journalist Lucie Morris-Marr in an article in the New Daily on June 14, 2018—which, no doubt, was the source for the Pickering rant.

I note that, on July 30, Fairfax Media’s Peter FitzSimons agreed with a tweet by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young that the Catholic Church is “hiding behind the confessional” to avoid “proper care for children”.

On The Project on July 11, Lisa Wilkinson, in a discussion on confession, also declared that intervention by the Commonwealth and state governments to end the seal of confession was “a matter of urgency” in order to stop “altar boys” being “prey for priests”. She provided no evidence that such crimes are currently occurring and require urgent attention.

The media’s focus on confession in the discussion on child sexual assault is misplaced. And now for some facts:

• Very few Catholics in Western societies go to confession these days.

• There is no evidence that a pedophile cleric or layman has confessed child sexual abuse to a priest in confession. Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia’s most notorious pedophiles, told the Royal Commission that when he was a priest he never went to confession.

• Interviewed on The Drum on June 13, 2018, Professor Carolyn Quadrio, a psychiatrist who works in the field of preventing child sexual abuse, commented: “Clinically I must say that I’ve got the same experience as Father Frank Brennan … from the point of view of a psychiatrist, I think that people don’t generally go and tell the priest that they’re doing it.”

• Moreover, as Christopher Prowse, the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra Goulburn, has commented: “What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported?”

• Senior Counsel-Assisting Gail Furness SC submitted to the Royal Commission that the vast majority of claims alleging sexual abuse in Catholic institutions referred to the period from 1950 to 1989 and that “the largest proportion of first alleged instances of child sexual abuse, 29 per cent, occurred in the 1970s”.

In other words, the shocking crimes of pedophilia which occurred in the Catholic Church primarily took place between three and five decades ago. There has been scant such criminal activity within the Catholic Church in Australia in the last quarter of a century. Any government attempt to demolish the seal of confession will have no impact on child sexual abuse.

The media’s focus on the Catholic and Anglican churches, when covering child sexual abuse, tells us much more about contemporary journalists.

There is an over-representation of sneering secularists and bitter apostates in the Australian media—especially in the ABC and Fairfax Media and like-minded organisations. Some are born-again atheists (like Peter FitzSimons). Some are disillusioned Catholics (like one-time ABC journalist Stephen Crittenden, who was a senior manager on the Royal Commission staff). And some are disillusioned Anglicans (like David Marr).

In Western societies, there is increasing opposition to what were once mainstream Christian views on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, along with contempt for believers who maintain that God is not dead and there is life after death. Such views are not so prevalent in the suburbs or in rural areas. But they are prevalent among the tertiary-educated in the inner cities who work in the professions, including journalism. The sneering secularists prevail in what I like to term “Sandalista Land”.

The scandal of child sexual abuse in Christian organisations—among other organisations—has provided a unique opportunity for sections of the media to express their dislike, or even hatred, of Christianity. That’s why the likes of David Marr and Peter FitzSimons focus so much on the Catholic Church’s historical crimes while failing to dwell on contemporary child sexual abuse occurring in families, including indigenous groups.

The instance of child sexual abuse in indigenous communities has been well covered by the likes of the Australian, the NT News and Darwin-based Sky News reporters. But it receives little attention on the ABC or in Fairfax Media or the Guardian Australia or the Saturday Paper.

The point about the alienated intelligentsia is that they detest their own culture and heritage. That’s why the sneering secularists—who have joined the pile-on with respect to Christian believers—all but ignore Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist believers.

As the oldest and largest Christian institution, the Catholic Church is the prime target for this hate and derision. But Christianity is the wider target—as the recent bitter attacks on the likes of Margaret Court and Israel Folau demonstrate. Secularists even attempt to prevent the expression of some Christian beliefs and curtail some Christian practices.

Sure, the media in the West is not a bloc. It’s just that, right now, there are many more sneering secularists in the media than ever before. Their numbers may increase or decrease. The only way for those who advocate freedom of religion in democratic societies is to fight back by the force of argument based on facts.

In his final address at the Royal Commission’s last sitting on December 14, 2017, Justice McClellan said that “the failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children”. He pointed out that instrumentalities of the state had also failed children—including the police and the criminal justice system.

Justice McClellan also commented that child sexual abuse in institutions continues today. Towards the end of his address, he had this to say:

The Royal Commission has been concerned with the sexual abuse of children within institutions. It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the problems we have identified, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.

This was the point I made on Insiders almost six years ago which so upset David Marr, whose focus that morning was on alleged practices in contemporary “Roman Catholic presbyteries”.

As one who grew up in Australia in the 1950s when anti-Catholic sectarianism was still a fact of life, I note that the sectarian hostility that was once reserved for Catholics now applies to all Christians who believe in traditional Christian teachings. It is rampant not only on social media but also in sections of the traditional media.

This is an edited version of an address Gerard Henderson presented to the thirteenth conference of the Samuel Griffith Society in Brisbane in August

3 thoughts on “Anti-Catholicism in the Coverage of Child Sexual Abuse

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    The McClellan Royal Commission will go down in history is one of the most disreputable and disgraceful enquiries – for its selectivity, its biases and its exaggerated emphases, giving rise to the extremist political attacks such as those outlined in the article above. The terms of reference set by Julia Gillard focusing on institutional situations, exempted the commission from examining aboriginal abuse and the far more fertile field of family abuse. A recent High Court case, Johnson v The Queen [2018] HCA 48 revealed an appalling history of incest by two brothers against their sister, with both parents unwilling to do anything about the crimes being committed by their children in their home. The High Court judges explored sensitively the key issue of “doli incapax” the legal test of whether a child could know that his actions were not merely naughty but wicked and legally wrong. How many such cases of juvenile interference, often lasting many years into adulthood, are out there, unknown?

  • exuberan says:

    A weakened Catholic Church does not bode well for Western Civilisation. Look at France, only 5% of the population now attend confession. 2300 Mosques now exist with 200-250 more planned.

  • guilfoyle says:

    Read this wonderful article very late. Great article- thank you.

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