Somewhere in Melbourne today in the back offices of the Catholic Church’s HQ, Archbishop Denis Hart must have his head in his hands. It’s hard to know whether that’s because he truly feels the power of the abuse his organisation has instituted, or because it’s happened on his watch and has become a growing pile of sorry business on his desk. His shaky performance in front of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into state-wide institutional child abuse this week has ensured the Catholic Church is now under the kind of spotlight that makes people sweat and turn pale. But, it also emphasises the darkness around it.
Three documentaries that have aired in the last 12 months have all worked to flick the switch of the very harsh lights of public investigations here and elsewhere. Two BBC investigations into child sex abuse were recently nominated in the documentary section of the T-for-Television part of the BAFTAs earlier this month. Another, run on Australian TV, had a hand in prompting a Royal Commission into abuses of children here.
The BBC’s “The Shame of the Catholic Church” originally run in Ireland on “This World” on May 5th 2012, was the winner of the BAFTA TV documentary category, awarded earlier this month. Reporter Darragh McIntyre traces the movements of a few notorious paedophiles hiding behind the Church’s walls of trust in devoutly Catholic Donegal and beyond. Reprobates like former priests Eugene Green and Brendan Smith abused both boys and girls, in some cases in the sacristy behind a Virgin Mary statue in a local church.
The doco substantiates claims the Church hierarchy knew of the dark trade in children and chose to sweep it away and move the predators on. As one victim suggests, it was like moving a disease to infect other communities.
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Also nominated in the BAFTAs was the BBC’s self-flagellating doco aired on Panorama in October 2012 on the possible cover up of child abuse revelations surrounding goggle-eyed TV personality Jimmy Savile. Reporter Shelly Jofre wanders the halls of Broadcasting House to put flesh on claims the BBC spiked a Newsnight investigation into Savile’s decades long history of paedophilia, a story that was subsequently scooped by ITV’s Exposure program
The shelving of a pretty conclusive case against the lecherous Jim’ll-Fix-It star smacks of a cover up and this doco does rather leave the culture of the BBC and a few of its heads twisting in the wind of hindsight. While a scheduling clash with a range of Savile tributes in late 2011 may have been part of the reasoning for the BBC’s pull of the Newsnight piece, there is a sense that a child abuse ring extended beyond Savile who was quoted often as saying that any attempt to bring him down would bring other big names down too. Piecing together just what happened continues.
Geoff Robinson’s and Mary-Ann Jolly’s Four Corners report “Unholy Silence”, which aired in July 2012, looks into widespread Catholic Church-based child sexual abuse in various locales around the country. The cases of victims such as Damien Jurd, Daniel Powell and Luke Quilligan are laid out in bare and confronting detail. The fact that former priests like “Father F”* have been allowed to remain in the community and in contact with families and children for many years, despite the apparent knowledge of their abuses being well-known by the Church executive, underlines the report’s conclusion that there was a whitewash.
Four Corners host Kerry O’Brien called the whole saga an “institutional cover up” in summation and called for a national enquiry. That call was heeded and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sex Abuse was announced by the PM last year and kicked off last month. Two parliamentary inquiries in NSW and Victoria have also been launched. Clearly this powerful documentary report hit home.
The federal Royal Commission, which cannot in itself pursue justice issues, is set to investigate numerous institutions, not just the increasingly discredited Catholic Church. It appears the Church was active is advocating for this broader reach, perhaps to deflect attention on its weaknesses. But, if the two state inquiries in NSW and Victoria are any guide, the Church will not be allowed to lift its skirts over the mud it has made for itself. The Royal Commission has no direct jailing powers, but it offers no get-out-jail cards either.
This broader ambit is as it should be. These three docos put a highlighter pen through the words “institutional abuse”. While the Church features heavily in the first two, and the point is made in the other that Savile was a “devout Catholic” in the third, there is a much more sinister dynamic at play here.
My own brief and minor experience of being sexually abused was at the hands of a family member. That’s not uncommon. Others have been in schools, hospitals, child-care facilities, at mom or dad’s work, at a neighbour’s. We can see how institutions like the Church or the media, might have failed horribly in protecting the most vulnerable and innocent, but the less physical institutions of power and authority, social trust, celebrity, family, equality and yes, childhood have been roundly abused and raped as much as have been the countless ranks of hapless child victims.
Jimmy Savile’s reign of abuse was cunningly aided by his selection of marginal, institutionalised and therefore unheard young women, such as those in mental facilities. The damage he has done to them personally is matched by the corrosion his actions – and the silence of those who knew – have inflicted on the foundations of society’s central structures.
As such, we shouldn’t assume that the dull thuds of every case of child abuse that hit public airspace should be channelled to the Catholic Church. While the detestable, leery old cassock-wearers that hide behind the cross deserve all the opprobrium they get, we must look wider to the values of a society that seems to have become so corrupted that children in need are not heard and and are obliged instead to silently and unquestioningly defer to power and authority even as it screws them, often literally.
And so we return to the Melbourne Archbishop sitting alone at his desk and pondering his lot. Perhaps he has been courageous enough to have seen these docos. If so, he might consider it a positive that these documentaries directly and indirectly raise issues beyond the creepy culture of his own institution. For its own problems the Church may have to cop being the target if only to reflect what we all need to know; that child sexual abuse is horribly, horribly wrong and that its presence in any society is evidence the Body Social is very ill indeed.
* The name of Peter Fox was also placed here in the original version of this article. This was a typographical error on the part of this blog’s editor and it has been removed with apologies for any misunderstanding.
Title – Unholy Silence
Makers – ABC Four Corners
How to catch it – Online
Couch Time – 45 Mins
High Point – Naming names
Low Point – Cardinal George Pell
Title – The Shame of the Catholic Church
Makers – BBC This World
How to catch it – Online
Couch Time – 60 Mins.
High Point – Confronting the Irish Church leader
Low Point – The response of the Irish Church leader
Title – Jimmy Savile: What the BBC Knew
Makers – BBC Panorama
How to catch it – Online
Couch Time – 75 Mins.
High Point – The bravery of abused victims who went on the record
Low Point – No interviews with many BBC heads in the firing line
Note: Online access may not be available or authorised in some cases for those outside the countries where the broadcasts originated.