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Australia

Nov 12, 2012

Why a royal commission into Catholic child abuse is necessary

A royal commission into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is the only mechanism that will provide full justice for victims. But politicians will be reluctant to start it.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

In what is, these days, a rare display of bipartisanship, both major parties are running from the idea of a federal royal commission into the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse of children, its cover-up of crimes and protection of child abusers.

Undoubtedly many people calling for a royal commission are doing so because they believe it will damage an institution much reviled by progressives, regardless of whether it will assist victims of child abuse and bring the perpetrators and their protectors to justice.

But the case for a federal royal commission is compelling.

Under the Howard government, royal commissions were innately political. That government launched an investigation of the construction industry as part of its war on trade unions in 2001, justified by John Howard on the basis that “there have been many detailed allegations involving intimidation, involving standover tactics, involving threats of force and violence” (observations that might equally apply to what many churchmen did to children).

Later, mired in allegations of corruptions over AWB, Howard was forced to call a pseudo-royal commission into the wheat bribery scandal, carefully limited to make sure it couldn’t examine corruption by his ministers or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Political pressure also forced him to call one into the HIH collapse, albeit on the pretext of legal advice that the Australian Securities and Investment Commission had a conflict of interest.

Traditionally, however, royal commissions — think Aboriginal deaths in custody, or British nuclear tests, or the Stewart and Costigan royal commissions — dealt with matters beyond the remit of the criminal justice system, government policies that in retrospect were profoundly wrong or that reflected such systemic and pervasive wrongdoing that the criminal justice system was inadequate to the task of effectively investigating it. State-level royal commissions have similarly focused on issues that reflect such extensive and systemic problems that regular institutions are unable to cope with the task of investigating them, frequently because key institutions such as police forces were at the centre of them.

This history provides the core reasons why a federal royal commission, or inquiry with royal commission-like powers, is the only appropriate mechanism for addressing child abuse by the Catholic Church.

1. Existing institutions are not up to the task. The criminal justice system can only prosecute individual incidences, or individual perpetrators, of abuse. The institutional arrangements that enabled the cover-up of offences and the protection of offenders is beyond the direct scope of trials of paedophiles. Moreover, the criminal justice system, with its focus on prosecution, creates an adversarial environment that is confronting and painful for victims. A royal commission, which specifically cannot make judicial findings about individuals, can provide a more comfortable environment for abuse victims to tell their stories.

And existing state inquiries, such as the Victorian parliamentary inquiry and the newly-announced NSW inquiry into child abuse in the Hunter region, are ultimately ill-equipped to deal with an international institution. The Catholic Church operates on a global level, able to transfer paedophiles and their protectors out of jurisdictions — whether regional or national — where their activities have come under scrutiny, and operating under instruction from a controlling entity that poses as a nation-state, the Vatican.

2. The Commonwealth and other governments have subsidised offending institutions. The Commonwealth and state government, via the tax-exempt status of religious institutions, funding for Catholic schools and contractual relationships in areas like employment services, have subsidised the institutions in which child abuse, and the protection of paedophiles, has occurred. Any royal commission must address the sources of financial support for processes of abuse facilitation, including government funding.

3. It is the culture of abuse and cover-up that must be investigated. While existing processes and cases focus on individuals — the offenders, those who protected them or, from a media standpoint, high-profile church leaders like George Pell — the issue of most relevance to victims and their families is surely not merely bringing offenders to justice, but investigating the institutional culture that facilitated abuse and its cover-up, including the refusal to take victims seriously and identifying the systemic causes of it, rather than focusing on any single individual.

An inquiry such as a royal commission, which specifically lacks a determinative power such as that possessed by judicial bodies, is much better placed to explore cultural and systemic issues than courts, which focus on single instances. Without an inquiry into the “abusegenic” culture of the Catholic Church, there can ultimately be no full justice for its victims; the account of what happened to tens of thousands of people at the hands of paedophiles, and then the insult of having their abusers protected, will remain only partial.

A federal royal commission or royal commission-like inquiry is the only mechanism that will be able to provide some sense of justice and comfort to victims. But it won’t be a rapid process. The Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was established in 1999 and didn’t issue its mammoth, and truly sickening, report until 2009. That inquiry had wide-ranging terms of reference and dealt with institutional arrangements in which the Catholic Church was far more deeply embedded than in Australia. But nonetheless, major royal commissions in Australia have a history of being repeatedly extended, and it is unlikely this would be any different.

However, it is likely major party politicians will remain reluctant to support a royal commission. That probably reflects not so much any sectarian bias as an unwillingness to confront an institution that, for most politicians and particularly House of Representatives MPs, is one they deal with on a routine basis as part of their electoral duties. It also reflects the simple political equation that the victims of abuse are relatively politically powerless, while the institution that abused them remains a potent political foe if roused. It takes a lot for justice to trump political calculation.

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77 thoughts on “Why a royal commission into Catholic child abuse is necessary

  1. Holden Back

    There is a sense in which a Royal Commission could clear the air for the Catholic church at a grassroots level. How can individual, blameless priests stand in their communities with any certainty they are not now considered potential predators, or part of the conspiracy to shield these people from exposure? The good people in these roles deserve better than to have this stench of suspicion billowing around them.

  2. Liz45

    The fact is that the catholic church is NOT conducting itself as a responsible ‘citizen’ of the country. We’re all aware of the lack of concern for victims is still NOT a priority. We also know that the main issue for the perpetrators and the hierarchy is to avoid the legal system that the rest of us MUST abide! I find it reprehensible that the police are still finding a ‘brick wall’ when investigating these horrific crimes.

    If ANY other organisation was behaving in this disgraceful manner, there’d have been screams of outrage before this. How many peoples’ lives have been destroyed by these horrific abuses; how many victims will be driven to suicide, not only due to their traumatic abuse, but by society’s inability to champion on their behalf. It is mind boggling to say the least. It’s not as though the catholic church does NOT know of how these abuses affect people – they know! But to their shame, they have chosen to ignore the truths.

    How many deaths by suicide do we have to hear of. How many stories of abuse so violent and destructive must victims speak out about in the hope that SOME responsible government or police body will take seriously.

    I find it disgusting, that as an ‘ordinary’ member of this country, if I omitted to pass on information about a crime already committed, or indeed of a planned crime, and not inform the police, I am deemed as guilty as those who performed the act/s, and punished accordingly – even with a custodial sentence! Why has the Catholic Church and others been allowed to blatantly abuse our justice system.

    Moreover, the brave Detective Inspector, Peter Fox, who came out on Lateline and asserted of police people’s attempts to silence him deserves our gratitude. Thanks to him and his determination to tell the truth, the Federal Govt may be forced to initiate a long overdue Royal Commission. I hope I don’t hear any of the worn out platitudes re protecting peoples’ privacy etc. We all know that’s a euphanism for ‘we’re too gutless to do anything’ response’

    Isn’t it telling that Cardinal Pell has chosen to keep his mouth shut! Too many of us know of the disgraceful role that he has played for decades. Too many of us know the role the present Pope played for 25 years (at least) by covering up the horrific abuse perpetrated by pedophile priests who (allegedly) r***d little girls as young as 5 yrs old – not to mention the numbers of boys who also suffered awful crimes while young – and some were r***d for years!

    I personally know of four people who were sexually abused as young children or adolescents. Too many of us know of people who were abused. None of these people have complained about their abuse. As a person raised a catholic, there’s no way I’ll ever kneel in front of a priest ever again (for this and other reasons – misogynist attitudes also). I know of many others who feel the same way. ‘Ordinary’ catholics must demand justice for victims. Their silence only protects the perpetrators! Shame on them too!

  3. Edward James

    What is growing from the rejection of the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell watered down inquiry. Is being driven by victims and picked up by political opportunist. The Newcastle Herald site crashed for almost an hour earlier today. I have no doubt because the grass roots community of victims and families of victims who are up on their hind legs and shouting the SP! Edward James

  4. Steve777

    Well said Bernard and Holden.

  5. Edward James

    Benard While I can’t actually reject this from you; Undoubtedly many people calling for a royal commission are doing so because they believe it will damage an institution much reviled by progressives,. I will point out the calls from victims of institutionalized pedophile activity for a Royal Commission is being driven by people many of whom are politically ignorant. Starting out with those in and around Newcastle Maitland and out lying areas after the suicide of Mr Pirona. What Barry O’Farrell has offered to diffuse the growing calls for a wide ranging Royal commission is like a slap in the face of disenfranchise victims and their families. NSW parliament has attempted to open another information black hole. It should be rejected in the strongest term by everyone with an entitlement to vote. More importantly every one of our elected representatives should be overtly supporting the peoples public calls for a Royal Commission, nationally would be better but NSW will suit me just fine. Edward James 2 10

  6. gerard

    Royal Commissions have a somewhat dubious history. They are expensive and often are not empowered to enforce the directions or outcomes. Much better to charge all those involved quickly and judiciously in a Court of Law.
    In the meantime close those religious organisations that have been flouting the law so often and for so many years. Close Saint Mary’s Cathedral and charge Cardinal Pell for a start.

  7. beachcomber

    Will an Abbott Federal Government be the one forced to call a Royal Commission? He could avoid the difficulties that would pose for himself by calling for Gillard to start one now. Apart from being the right thing to do, it would tell voters that he understands the problem, and that as PM he would not be beholden to anyone.

  8. Edward James

    I think I understand the point you make Bernard with your last paragraph; It also reflects the simple political equation that the victims of abuse are relatively politically powerless, while the institution that abused them remains a potent political foe if roused. It takes a lot for justice to trump political calculation. People in my community have tasted political blood. After being encouraged to rise up get on board a supplied bus to state parliament. Winning the return of our “stolen” Rehabilitation amenity to Woy Woy Public Hospital on our Woy Woy Peninsula. I believe the Newcastle Herald on line site crashed because we the peoples are beginning to understand we give direction. Political allsorts who think they can simply refuse to take our electronic directions are on the way out! Edward James 2 32

  9. zut alors

    I can understand Mr Rabbott running from it but the PM has no vested interests in any church – consequently she’s in a position to view the Royal Commission proposal objectively.

    So, what gives…?

  10. The diving swan

    Surely it is a no brainer for the Federal Government to have a Royal Commission? What could work better than Abbott and the Parrot opposing it and being wedged by it. Can’t they get the independents to force them into convening one?

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