The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse has a list of achievements. It has terrified individuals and institutions, prompted policy and legal reforms, and removed the responsibility for investigating allegations of child abuse from institutions, whose instincts have too often favoured protecting their reputations, and put them in the hands of police. It has made sex crimes against children more vivid in the imaginations of the general population and, though I say this with less confidence, made us all more aware of the scope of psychological devastation that often afflicts victims into adulthood.
On the other hand, the limited scope of the Royal Commission may have given the community a false sense that the cancer of paedophilia relates more to indifferent oversight in institutional settings than under the noses of mothers and fathers at home. Unfortunately, the suburban version of this malady is a less fertile ground for award-winning books. There is no public acclaim for these survivors because the predators are too ordinary. Mum Hates Dirty Old Grandad: I Miss Nana’s Pikelets would never have beaten Louise Milligan’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell to the Walkley. And instead of sad men at the back of celebrity book signings, whose “PTSD eyes” no longer sparkle like the elven pools of Rivendell, mouthy junkies who can’t look after their kids seem less likely to be as sympathetically treated.
But the most important outcome of the Royal Commission is the “thinkability” of sex crimes against children. If they are readily thinkable they are less likely to be dismissed. It is horribly important to be able to think that grown men (mostly), and especially close relatives and friends, can be sexually excited by children, go on to abuse them, and to repeat the crime, hundreds or even thousands of times, regardless of the trauma it causes, or the serious punishments if they are caught.
An example of “thinkability” comes from the Royal Commission’s findings in parts of the Pell transcript redacted for the duration of his trial and appeals:
We are also satisfied that by 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy, but he also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.
They are saying it was on his mind, but only to the extent that it might provoke gossip. If that is true, someone who does that either doesn’t really care or, in 1973, didn’t know the gravity of the situation. Hard to believe? Well, here’s Lucie Morris-Marr, author of Fallen and a trenchant critic of the Catholic Church, coming late to her own understanding of the problem (courtesy of Twitter, May 7, 2020):
It’s literally now five years since I sat in a Ballarat courtroom and began hearing allegations that George Pell failed children. It was there I also learnt of the life long harm abuse caused. It’s driven me. Fiercely. Today’s full RC report brings at least some justice—truth.
It’s as if as late as 2015, Ms Morris-Marr didn’t know the “lifelong harm abuse caused”. Perhaps her self-confessed ignorance softens her fierce drive enough to give others the same historical pass.
Thinkability as it relates to terrible things like child sexual abuse implies a number of other things, such as: what was vividly imaginable for the times, what were the imagined consequences of not thinking—which include damage to the victims—and the consequences of not dealing with the putative offender. Truly “unthinkable” crimes are considered unlikely, even preposterous; the consequences for the victim are unknown or unimportant; and the recidivist, compulsive nature of the offending is minimised or simply not known. Here, the child is disbelieved because the allegation is incredible, the risk of lifelong mental illness is unimagined, and the perpetrator can be counselled, “treated”, and given a fresh start. The notorious serial paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale was sent for all sorts of treatments here and overseas. Another Ballarat cleric, Paul Ryan, was sent to Rome and America for treatment. Many other religious and lay offenders were sent for treatment, sometimes to very expensive and prestigious facilities, by well-meaning and competent (for the times) professionals. And all a catastrophic waste of time.
Hopefully, these days, the child is taken seriously and supported, the allegation is independently investigated, and the perpetrator, if convicted, has lifelong constraints on their ability to reoffend, regardless of any “treatment”. And all because we know these things are real, the damage is truly terrible and “treatment” is not a meaningful consideration. The calculus is different in 2020 from what it was in 1970.
However, George Pell’s trial, conviction and acquittal demonstrate that in the minds of many, including important decision-makers, there has been a reluctance to learn the whole lesson of unthinkable human pathologies. This must include a vivid understanding of the pathologies of lying. It’s as if we overcame our horror about the nature and extent of child sexual abuse, only to baulk at corrupt testimony, and yes, lying. For instance, it was perfectly easy to think, report and repeat the allegation—it was before the courts, after all—that Cardinal Pell might be a violent paedophile, but it was impermissible to think, say or report the possibility that his accusers over the years might have been liars. Sure, there was an occasional inference, findings of insufficient evidence, a possibility that “something might have happened”, but all ultimately filtered through the “memory is not a linear thing” alembic. So the ridiculous doublethink, that accusers can be wholly believed and yet the offence didn’t occur “beyond reasonable doubt”, prevails.
Journalists use their experiences to weight possibility, plausibility and ultimately thinkability. Here’s Louise Milligan (a senior journalist, whose pinned tweet, “Hug your children”, was added the moment Pell was acquitted by the High Court) relying on her experience. She is incredulous at a male judge’s “incredulity” about the likelihood of an archbishop in full regalia engaged in a public, violent, homosexual, paedophilic sexual assault:
Call me sucker for punishment, I read Weinberg dissenting #Pell judgment again. Incredulous re brazen grabbing of boy in back cathedral corridor. As lady, throwing to floor: Has this happened in public where onlookers ignored/didn’t notice? Me, as youngster, countless times.
Well, “the floor” responded with alacrity: “All the time!”, “Lost count!” they cheered. And again, referring to Justice Weinberg, who gave the dissenting judgment (correctly as it turns out) in the Victorian Court of Appeal and why he might think opportunistic homosexual episcopal groping was anything other than quotidian:
His experience is Commonwealth jurisdiction. Not sexual matters. Perhaps why he thought grabbing boy’s genitals in busy corridor implausibly brazen. I’d invite his Honour to speak to women. Not sure about you … but happened to me, many times. & my friends. Men do that stuff.
So these things are readily thinkable for Ms Milligan, and fair enough. But the open-mindedness required to stare down the most brazen dissembling of corrupt clergy seems to vanish when it comes to wondering if corruption or even mistakes were factors for Pell’s accusers.
The next defence against the unthinkable incredible witness is the tortuous logic of preventing further psychological harm by stymying further inquiry. In the Pell case, the act of criticising what turned out to be the most egregious failings of the Victorian courts in living memory, even the right of Pell to appeal against his conviction, was seen by some as at best regrettable and at worst explicitly immoral, because it might retraumatise the victim—who turns out to maybe not have been a victim—and other survivors whose ears ought not be privy to a hateful verdict that found sexual abuse didn’t occur as alleged.
Ms Milligan offers this to those who protested Pell’s wrongful conviction (overturned seven-to-nil in the High Court):
@Milliganreports says commentators who are railing against the conviction of George Pell are making the situation much worse for abuse survivors.
Sorry, survivors who’ve written feeling retriggered/let down by proceedings in #Pell appeal & pained for J. Open justice important but brutal for those who weren’t believed, cast as “liars”/“fantasists” as if courts teem w delusional maniacs electing to take on thankless ordeal.
Whilst the courts are indeed teeming, literally seething, with shameless liars (and perhaps merely “populated” by parents lying about abuse in custody cases) no one in their right mind suggests the same is true of allegations of child abuse, put by “liars”/“fantasists” and “delusional maniacs”. But, like it or not, those people do exist, even if they are undreamt of in Ms Milligan’s philosophy.
Here are some egregious failures to properly imagine, and therefore properly investigate, the pathologies of lying.
Carl Beech. Carl Beech is a notorious British paedophile and child-abuse hoaxer, now serving a sentence of eighteen years in prison. For years, Beech led the police, the media, the courts and a whole community of online supporters on a merry dance of execrable lies, defaming and ruining innocent people, his fantastic vulgar imagination unchecked by people who should have known better. Not content with destroying the living, he provided wickedly false narratives about historic paedophilic murders to the families and friends of dead little boys.
Beech so convinced British politician Tom Watson (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 2015 to 2019) who had been campaigning on the issue of historic abuse, that Watson wrote an article to accompany a piece in a Sunday tabloid newspaper on the death of Lord Brittan, a minister in the Thatcher government, about how one survivor (of Brittan’s predation) told him that Lord Brittan was “as close to evil as a human being could get in my view”. That “survivor” turned out to be Carl Beech.
Beech also convinced journalists, including Mark Watts, editor of the now defunct investigative website Exaro, to the extent that Watts provocatively invited the editor of the BBC Panorama documentary “The VIP Paedophile Ring: What’s the Truth?” which was investigating Beech’s lies, to meet an abuse survivor who attempted suicide after the program went to air.
Beech convinced his psychotherapist, Vicki Paterson, who saw him for 121 sessions. She told the court he expressed or developed his memories through drawing. He also engaged in “emotional writing” when he wasn’t doing internet research to fabricate his lurid stories. Paterson consulted a supervisor, Dr Ellie Hanson, an expert who advised the police, including on Operation Conifer—the investigation into historic abuse allegations against the late British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath. She said this of Beech (under one of his pseudonyms, “Nick”):
I have conducted a brief assessment of Nick’s credibility, exploring how he reports the abuse he alleges, the nature of this abuse, his process of disclosure and reporting, and its potential impact. The above results, taken together, indicate that Nick’s account of the abuse he alleges is credible. I did not find anything that raises doubts about credibility. In my view it is right that such an account triggers a methodical and thorough investigation.
Billy Doe. The Billy Doe story in Philadelphia has a similar fact pattern to the Pell choirboys case. Quadrant readers were alerted to this by Keith Windschuttle in the May 2019 issue. “Billy Doe” was a profoundly psychologically damaged, drug-addicted boy/man in Philadelphia whose incredible stories about child-rape by priests, when coupled with prosecutorial misconduct, put four men in jail. Amongst them was Monsignor Lynn, the first cleric in America to be jailed for covering up clerical abuse. Doe received US$5 million from the archdiocese.
Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who went on to write the discredited “Rape on Campus” story (see below) about another sexual abuse hoaxer, described Billy Doe as “a sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks” who had been callously “passed around” from predator to predator.
Now just because Billy Doe is a liar, which seems beyond doubt, doesn’t mean terrible things weren’t done to him, even by the men who were jailed on his evidence. But no one should be in any doubt that he was a profoundly incredible witness and no one should have gone to jail on the testimony he provided.
Erdely is clearly a clever woman with a passion for the sexual abuse narrative. Maybe that means she is also a decent person. Her prose is vivid if entirely partisan. No doubt, in her day, she was a powerful ally if you had been mistreated. Yet she has also been guilty of failing to imagine the real possibilities of pathological lying.
Billy Doe’s public supporters, defending his disastrous testimony, revealed the other problem with elucidating abuse and memory. For these people, many of them credentialled in the caring professions, nothing can deprive the victim’s narrative of its essential veracity, because the crazier, the more contradictory, confabulatory or physically impossible the recollections become, the more they simply demonstrate the terrible effect the abuse must have had on the mind of the victim. And around it goes.
“A Rape on Campus”. The Campus Rape Case is another of Erdely’s mistakes. This infamous piece of reporting, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA”, was published in Rolling Stone in 2014. It involves the testimony of “Jackie”, a young college student who was allegedly gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation ritual. The problem is that it didn’t happen the way she told it. Rolling Stone retracted the story in 2015 and has since paid millions in damages and settlements to the university and the fraternity.
There’s no reason to suppose veteran reporter Erdely was gullible in other aspects of her life. That’s never the way it goes. But she was convinced, and should not have been. Here’s some reporting from the Charlottesville newspaper C-Ville on the 2016 libel trial:
“She tells it in such a real and emotional way,” Erdely says on the witness stand. “She’s so conscientious with her details I could feel it.”
“Her level of specificity just reinforced her believability,” Erdely testified. “She didn’t just run into them at Walmart [her attackers]; she ran into them in the juice aisle.”
In court, Erdely testifies that Jackie, who speaks at a rapid clip, seemed “outgoing and forthright” as well as “bubbly and enthusiastic.”
Erdely’s editor and the fact checker believed the story too:
“She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me,” the checker said. “She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way … I did not have doubt.”
In 2016, “Jackie” deposed that she stood by her story and that she believed it was true at the time. Her lawyers asked that she be exempt from giving further testimony because it might trigger her sexual abuse trauma.
If you believe these liars are so unusually clever that anyone would be fooled and that these scenarios must therefore be as rare as hen’s teeth, read the original material. And if you believe the reporters are especially gullible or unintelligent, read the reporting. Neither is necessarily true.
And why stop here? The pathologies of lying are everywhere: the Jussie Smollett hoax in January 2019 is still being prosecuted. There have been hundreds of offenders exposed or suspected by the Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters Group. Munchausen syndrome and its proxy variant (now know as “factitious disorder imposed on another”) are rare, but present in most paediatricians’ case load. Adult personality disorder, not all of whose sufferers are casual liars and fantasists, runs at as high as 10 per cent in community samples and several times that in clinical populations.
The point is not that sexual abuse hoaxes or egregious errors of recollection are routine, but the failure to properly acknowledge the possibility leads to the nonsense of the Pell assault trial, where the hashtag #Pelldefenders or the slur of “paedophile apologists” was used to vilify incredulous critics; where former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott were pilloried for their support of an innocent man. Here are two examples from people who were wrong to have said what they did. Richard Di Natale: “John Howard’s character reference for George Pell says much more about the former PM’s character than it does about the convicted pedophile.” Peter FitzSimons: “Have a look at #pelldefenders A tidal wave of outrage sweeps the land.”
The High Court overturned Pell’s guilty verdict and found that there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted”. That means, at the very least, that there is a significant possibility that the allegations against him, despite everything, just did not happen as they were alleged. It is indeed possible that the accuser was confused or lied. Isn’t it lucky that the process of justice rolled on, prioritising fairness over the sensitivities of other victims, and people who just didn’t want to think?
Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist.