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. It has made child-sex crimes 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, rather than under the noses of mums and dads 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 just too ordinary. ‘Mum Hates Dirty Old Grandad: I Miss Nana’s Pikelets’ could never have beaten Louise Milligan’s Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell to a Walkley.
But the most important outcome of the royal commission is the ‘thinkability’ of child sex crimes in the minds of those who quite naturally recoil from thoughts such things are even possible. If they are readily thinkable they are less likely to be dismissed. It is horribly important to accept that grown men (mostly), especially close relatives and friends, can be sexually excited by children, abuse them, and repeat the crime perhaps hundreds of times, regardless of the trauma it causes and the serious punishments to which they make themselves liable if caught.
An example of ‘thinkability’ comes from 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 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):
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. (May 7, 2020)
It’s as if, as late as 2015, Ms Morris-Marr didn’t know the ‘life long harm abuse caused’. Will her self-confessed ignorance soften her ferocity towards Pell in order to give others the same historical pass? No, probably not.
Thinkability as it relates to such terrible things as child sexual abuse implies a bunch of other aspects: what was vividly imaginable for the times? What were the imagined consequences of not thinking (including about the damage to victims)? What are 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 that the recidivist, compulsive nature of the offending is minimised or simply not known. Here, the child is disbelieved because the allegation is deemed literally incredible, the risk of lifelong mental illness is unimagined. If believed, the thinkability problem still casts its shadow. Why, 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 in Australia and overseas. Another Ballarat cleric, Paul Ryan, was sent to Rome and the US 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 of it was a catastrophic waste of time.
These days, the child is taken seriously and supported, the allegation is independently investigated, and the perpetrator, if convicted, has lifelong constraints on the ability to re-offend, 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. Hopefully, the calculus is different in 2020 than what it was in 1970.
HOWEVER, George Pell’s trial, conviction and acquittal, demonstrate that in the minds of many, including important decision-makers and media pulpiteers, 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 recoil from examining 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 prevails — that accusers can be wholly believed and yet the offence didn’t occur ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Journalists use their individual 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 lived-experience. She is agog at a male judge’s ‘incredulity’ about the likelihood of an archbishop in full, multi-layered and cumbersome regalia engaging in a public and violent homosexual paedophilic sexual assault. Here’s Ms Milligan once more (courtesy of Twitter):
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.
Fellow tweeters responded with alacrity: ‘All the time!’, they cheered, ‘Lost count!’. And again, referring to Justice Weinberg, who gave the dissenting judgement (correctly as it turns out) in the Victorian Court of Appeal, and why in Ms Milligan’s view 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 might have been at work amongst Pell’s accusers.
The next defence against recognising, or at least suspecting, a witness is sowing untruths is the tortuous logic of preventing further psychological harm by stymying further enquiry. In the Pell case, the act of criticising what turned out to be the most egregious failings of Victorian Courts in living memory, up to and including the rejection of Pell’s first appeal, was depicted by Pell’s enemies as at best regrettable and, at worst, explicitly immoral. The logic: it might re-traumatise the “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, subsequently overturned 7-0 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. (June 6 2019)
Whilst the courts are indeed teeming, literally seething, with shameless liars, (parents lying about abuse in custody cases, perhaps?) no one in their right mind suggests the same is true of allegations of child abuse put by ‘lairs/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 is a notorious British paedophile and child-abuse hoaxer, presently serving a sentence of 18 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 (Labour’s deputy leader, 2015-2019) who had been campaigning on the issue of historic abuse, that he 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 alleged 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 he, 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 raise doubts about credibility. In my view it is right that such an account triggers a methodical and thorough investigation’.
You can read the rest of the sorry tale here: Carl Beech: Liar, fraudster and paedophile
# The Billy Doe story has a similar fact-pattern to the Pell choirboys case. Quadrant readers were alerted to this by Keith Windschuttle in April 2019: Billy Doe was a profoundly psychologically damaged, drug addicted boy/man 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 five million dollars from the archdiocese.
Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who went on the 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, and that seems beyond doubt, doesn’t mean terrible things weren’t done to him. 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, whose work can be read here, is clearly a very clever woman with a passion for the sexual-abuse narrative. Maybe that means, deep down and if we disregard the eager gullibility she brought to her reporting, she is a decent person. Her prose is vivid if entirely partisan. No doubt, she would be a powerful ally if you had been mistreated. Yet she has also been guilty of failing to imagine the real possibilities of pathological lying — one of the reasons she no longer works for Rolling Stone.
Billy Doe’s public supporters, defending his disastrous testimony, revealed the other problem with elucidating abuse and memory. For these people, many of them credentialed 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 becomes, the more those allegations and improbable assertions demonstrate the terrible effect the abuse must have had on the mind of the victim. And around it goes.
# 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 by Rolling Stone in 2014. It hung on the testimony of ‘Jackie’, a young college student who was allegedly gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation ritual. The problem: it didn’t happen. Rolling Stone retracted the story in 2015 and has since paid millions of dollars in damages to the university and the fraternity. There’s no reason to suppose veteran reporter Erdely is or was gullible in other aspects of her life. That’s never the way it goes. But she was convinced when she should not have been. Here’s some reporting from Charlottesville newspaper C-ville Weekly on the 2016 libel trial:
‘She [the purported rape victim] 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…
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 also swallowed the rape story:
‘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.’ — Columbia Journalism Review
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. Erdely’s original article can still be read here.
THE pathologies of lying are everywhere: the Jussie Smollet 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 loads. Those with adult personality disorder, not all of whom are casual liars and fantasists, runs as high as ten percent in community samples and several times beyond 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 that underwrote Cardinal Pell’s targeting by Victoria Police, his trials, imprisonment, appeals and humiliation in the public square. It made the hashtag #Pelldefenders or the slur of ‘paedophile apologists’ a cudgel to vilify incredulous critics and supporters of the acused. People such as ex-PMs John Howard and Tony Abbott were pilloried for their support of an innocent man. Here’s some examples from people who were wrong to have said what they did:
The High Court overturned Pell’s guilty verdict and found there was ‘a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted’.
That means, at the very least, there was always a significant possibility the allegations against him, despite everything, just did not happen as alleged. It is indeed possible that the accuser was confused — or lied. Isn’t it lucky that the process of justice rolled on, prioritizing fairness over the sensitivities of other victims, and people who just didn’t want to think?
Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist