The Royal Commission’s Sin of Omission

commission truthThe 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?

22 thoughts on “The Royal Commission’s Sin of Omission

  • kingkate@hotmail.com says:

    Don’t you think it’s weird that it was zero for the Jesuits? Surely they have as many boys in boarding schools? They are also celibate, which is supposedly the cause of child abuse? It is a bit of a laugh for the Catholic folk. Just think whenever you go near a group of Marists one in five of them, according to the commission, is a paedophile. It’s not that I am in denial – I know a person who has been abused – but it says to me that about every Catholic child was vulnerable at some point in time. That is simply not true.

    • MalW says:

      Kit, while its true that every child was vulnerable, what number of abused kids would be acceptable? To me, this is a dogshit yogurt situation (some people like straight yogurt while others like their yogurt more earthy and edgy, so they add a small stool. What compromise between the two views is acceptable to you?). I would not be associated with any organisation that has anything other than zero tolerance towards pedophilia. Some churches have been, and apparently still are, tolerant of (and facilitate by inaction) way too much dogshit.

      • MalW says:

        sorry, I mean “not” every child

      • Lawrie Ayres says:

        Since the greatest tolerance to pedophilia occurs in Aboriginal communities it stands to reason you would have nothing to do with Aborigines either. It is passing strange that while Julia and her henchmen at the commission relentlessly pursue Catholics in particular and Christians in general over claims decades old they studiously ignore the plight of young Aboriginal kids today. Part of the PC attack on conservatism no doubt.

        • Rob Brighton says:

          Conflating this perversion with an attack on conservatism is a huge leap. Bemoaning the existence of those who are on the attack and hold regressive views reduces the fundamental fact. Children were sexually abused by those who claim moral leadership in our community from their position in the religious hierarchy.

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    This article is an excellent illustration of how emotion, righteousness and sensationalism trumps sober reason and logic. All the more reprehensible for seriously tainting and distorting a vitally important to enquiry. The concept of conscience is unknown to the “progressives”.

    • Jody says:

      The details emerging from the Royal Commission are so shocking that they don’t need to “taint” or “distort”. The facts speak for themselves and it appalls me that people here are scrambling to defend the Catholic Church.

      Sexual abuse of children has nothing to do with celibacy because these men would choose adult females and not children if that were the case. My children went to Catholic schools (lay teachers by then) and I went to such schools myself from age 5. My dealings with the Catholic Parents & Friends Federation brought me into contact with a few priests and when they were gathered together I noticed an infantile interaction between them which I spoke about later to my husband; this involved a ‘secret’ understanding between them, naive comments and much giggling – and this over ordinary mundane issues. It was like ‘secret priest’s business’ and at the time I saw the limitations of taking sexual immature men and grouping them together for a lifetime.

      Having said all that, there is Roger Herft of the Anglican Church – a married man and serial abuser.

      • Lawrie Ayres says:

        4444 reported cases of abuse, some undoubtedly false, and others not reported at all. Now in that same period how many children passed through Catholic schools unmolested? How many patients were treated in Catholic hospitals? How many elderly spent their last days being cared for in Catholic hospices? As Mark Anthony says in “Julius Caesar”: “the evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones”.

        So while Jody piles on the kicking of all Catholics and their institutions I will defend the good that has been done in it’s name.

  • en passant says:

    We are a nation of laws and upstanding lawyers, are we not. I once said to a lawyer (who was chortling that he had just got a guilty criminal off an assault charge with a fabricated alibi) that his was the only ‘profession’ that rewarded and admired liars who would say whatever was necessary to ‘win’.

    Cannot wait for the Commission to visit their local mosque and Mormon tabernacle. That should be a book of revelations.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    A clarification: The number of priests, brothers and sisters was provided by the Church, but not given in Gail Furness’ opening address. The numbers are: 9250 priests; 9342 non-ordained religious members. The weighted average of “alleged perpetrators” in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was given as 6.2%.

  • bts@swiftdsl.com.au says:

    This article sounds a timely cautionary note as the Royal Commission moves into its concluding phase which well entail, as I understand, an inquiry into what root causes can be assigned to such widespread abuse.
    Where the Catholic Church is concerned, this will entail Commissioners and Counsel Assisting, none of whom has any qualiffication to pontificate about Catholic teaching, in adventitious “findings” about such hot-button issues as priestly celibacy, the ordination of women priests and the governance of the Catholic Church. For an indication of what looks likely to be in the Commission’s pipeline, it is instructive to read the transcript of the couse of the evidence given by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a sometime Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Sydney, some of it in response to very pointed and essentially leading questions from Counsel Assisting.
    It is as plain as a pikestaff that the Royal Commission is going to recommmend a punitive regime of compensation. It seems to me at any rate, that an atmosphere has been created and is being steadily reinforced around the matter of ocmpensation, in which any suggestion that a particular claim should be so much as tested forensically, never mind tested forensically and rejected, will not be permitted to be raised seriously and responsibly, but will be ruthlessly suffocated by the usual suspects and their ABC/Fairfax Press.
    In the face of this firestorm of flagrant anti-Catholicism, one has to ask: what, in Heaven’s name, are the Catholic Bishops of Australia doing? Where, for example, is a forthright Pastoral Letter warning not only Australian Catholics but all Australians of good sense and goodwill, that all the available signs suggest that the final recommendations of the Royal Commission are likely to unleash, even if unintentionally, a firestorm of virulent, indeed uncivilised anti-Catholicism of a simple brutishness that people of my advanced years thought, until now, had largely disappeared from the mainstream of Australian life.
    Hackneyed or not, there cannot have been many times when Yeats’s vision was more apposite:

    ” The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity”

    • bts@swiftdsl.com.au says:

      Typos, typos!

      “Will” not “well” entail.
      Qualification, not qualiffication.
      Course not couse of evidence.

      Blushes and apologies

    • Geoffrey Luck says:

      bts The Royal Commission has already recommended a $4.2 billion regime of compensation for 60,000 alleged “victims”. It has been embraced by the Turnbull Government, and is awaiting an agreement with the states for its implementation. The range of payments is from $10,000 to $200,000, with an average of $65,000 recommended. The best estimates are that this will take years to work through. In Queensland, there will be at least perfunctory measures to provide assurance against fraud, but short of solid legal challenge, it will be a question of taking the claimant’s word for it.

  • exuberan says:

    And what of the Sisterhood, the Nunnery, what where they doing when the rampant abuse was happening? Many would have been teachers perhaps even teaching victims, surely they must have been aware. The Church is indefensible in this matter, Chancers or no Chancers.

    • colroe says:

      Many of these so called “sisters” and “mothers” were busy belting kids with wooden rulers and leather straps.

      • Jody says:

        Corporal punishment was the order of the day up until the very early 70s right across the board. It was based on the stimulus/response action and seemed to work. My own sister worked in the state school system at that time and she caned her students. I got the ruler sideways on my hands at age 7 for making mistakes when learning the piano, which I abandoned. A nun taught me when I resumed piano studies in my late 30’s and she actually bullied me to the extent that this mother of 4 actually was reduced to tears. Meanwhile, she didn’t bother to teach me to sight-read – an absolute basic in musical instruction. Ergo, bullies exist in all spheres of life and they do this because they feel inadequate otherwise.

    • frjohncorrigan says:

      Surely, those nuns must have been deceived — like so many parents, delighted that Father was showing such generous concern for their poor sons and daughters. As long as people labour under the illusion that child abusers are obvious suspects, child abuse will continue. Books have been written on how pedophiles ingeniously groom adults as well as children, presenting a charismatic and attractive facade which conceals the dark reality.

      Let’s not forget the real scandal, and arguably the greater sin: bishops, and often police, KNEW abuse was occurring, and cooperated in the lies and deception of the abusers. Why blame naive nuns, priests and parents when such egregious enablers did nothing?

  • Jody says:

    No, the Catholic Church (and presumably others) initiated their own evisceration when its acolytes decided to sexually and physically abuse children.


    I was fortunate that the Nuns taught me law in primary school. First there was Alice in Wonderland alias Malice in Blunderland. Then Trial by Jury or How the Judge ran away with the Prisoner.

    Later the Nuns taught me Theology = 1% of the Popes were caught with Mistresses and Saint Thomas More stated that Half the Bastards in England were fathered by the Clergy.

    Pedophiles in an organisation are like Cancer Cells in a Healthy Body: most cancers are nipped in the bud by a functioning immune system.

  • kotali61@bigpond.com says:

    I spent a couple of years taught by nuns and twelve by the Christian Brothers and was not once sexually abused. No compo for me. That said, I have no brief for the abusers and not much for the bishops who have betrayed their office. But more recently, I sat through the trial of a priest – a friend of a friend and not previously known to me. The trial was a travesty. Three complainants alleged all sorts of offences up to and including buggery with absolutely no supporting evidence of any kind. Their details of dates, times and places were confused and inaccurate. For example, in once case the offences were alleged to have occurred in a Catholic seminary that had, by the time of the ‘offence’, been sold to the Victorian Police as their academy. But the alleged offences dated back 30 years and the judge ruled that the inaccuracies did not matter. The complainants were all coached by people from the Broken Rites organisation so that when a complainant was caught out in a lie or inconsistency, he staged distress and the court adjourned during which he was coached by the BR people in attendance. The trial dragged on interminably, defence counsel, a legal aid type, was both incompetent and detached, and the judge took almost two full days in a summing up that repeated what had already been said. The jury was clearly fed up before returning a verdict of guilty on the lesser charges but not the more serious ones despite the total lack of difference and evidence on the charges. The defendant got seven years and could not get parole unless he admitted to the truth of the charges. He didn’t and served the seven years, dying soon after. The subsequent appeal was rejected with the Appeal Court actually changing the law as it had previously applied, effectively ruling that a gathering of such allegations was sufficient for their proof. Some years earlier, I had been a jury foreman in a tricky murder trial that reinforced my faith in the judicial system. The trial of this priest set that faith back substantially. I still don’t know if that priest was guilty or not, only that he was not in any way proven guilty except by a crude manipulation of the judicial system.

  • James says:

    Hi Geoff,

    I am a statistician, and I’m having trouble understanding what the statistics you quote actually mean. For example, you say that the RC found that 7% of priests “abused” but then that the ABC reported 20.4% for Marist Brothers, 22% for Christian Brothers, 40.4% for St John of God Brothers. Obviously they can’t be rates – is this some sort of pie chart breakdown of where the abuse was sourced? Even then it would be meaningless unless it were based on the proportions of Marists, Christian Bros etc in the sample.

    I realise that your main point is that these statistics may be meaningless, but your article would greatly benefit from some tables that explained the proportions along with the sample bases. Of if the RC has provided these, a link to same?


  • Stephen Holgate says:

    Frank Sullivan and Archbishop Anthony Fisher have recently suggested the whole Catholic community should hang its head in shame over the institutional sexual abuse disaster. The protection and cover-up of criminal clergy was not done to protect the good name of the Church, as is often suggested; but rather that of the clerical castes in the Church, without thought for the victims. With many others who have been shocked by the appalling revelations of clerical abuse and criminal offending, and the humiliating disgrace of being chastened by a government Royal Commission, my response has been not to hang my head in shame (this is merely a cynical attempt at blame-sharing), but to simply walk away from the institutional church as it is, in solidarity with those abused; and to take a more direct personal responsibility for my own spiritual path and integrity.

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