What to believe? What not to believe? That’s a central question confronting juries, prosecutors, police, the media — anyone trying to work out what is credible when it comes to cases of historic child sex abuse.
It’s also been the focus of an Inq series on the legacy of the George Pell years — or, more exactly, a small part of a vast legacy which includes broken trust and the betrayal of faith over decades that has destroyed countless lives.
George Pell left secular life for priestly studies exactly 60 years ago. He spent 40 years climbing the greasy pole of Catholic Church success, attaining his first high office as Archbishop of Melbourne. He has spent the last 20 years dodging and weaving and occasionally apologising for the horrific abuse and cover-ups that happened on his way up.
Collapsing trust in the church coincides with the arc of Pell’s career, and it has come at a time when the spread of misinformation has never been greater. It is, to use the cliche, the perfect storm. That storm ended up engulfing Pell himself when a jury believed sensational allegations from a sole accuser over the denials of the highest ranking Catholic in the land. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Poetic justice? Maybe. But not justice High Court style.
From a journalist’s point of view the consequence of the last decade is that even the most implausible of stories might just be true. The question a journalist once confronted was: how can you know an allegation is true? Now the question is: how do you know the allegation is not true? That can apply up to and including allegations of ritual abuse involving human sacrifice. Because, well, you never know…
The ABC’s Media Watch tackled the credibility question in 2015 when it put the spotlight on claims being made by a NSW woman, Fiona Barnett, as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continued to reveal the worst of truths about the Catholic Church.
Barnett is well known to some, but not all, as a fantasiser par excellence. Her website is a catalogue of horrors she’s endured, from CIA mind control to witnessing the wholesale slaughter of infants and being trafficked to a VIP prostitution ring.
Her allegations included that she had witnessed a man being tied to two tractors which drove in opposite directions, tearing him limb from limb, and that she had been prostituted to paedophile parties at Parliament House in Canberra — parties involving high-ranking politicians, police and judiciary.
The claims were reported uncritically by media outlets of all stripes across the country. Even the august Sydney Morning Herald gave it credence — as noted by Barnett herself. “My 2015 press conference was statistically the most popular story on the Sydney Morning Herald website that day,” she later bragged.
Barnett’s allegations were heard or read in hundreds of thousands of homes around Australia. Her claims entered the public discourse and she continues to this day to command a small army of social media believers who attest to her brave story of survival. Her narrative has also neatly morphed into the QAnon conspiracy model which has it that a vast network of powerful paedophiles controls the levers of power. Everywhere.
In 2016, Barnett also joined the bandwagon of those suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), speaking at a trauma and dissociation conference in Seattle. The same year, publicity juggernaut Lady Gaga declared she was crippled by PTSD and occasionally coped by dissociating herself.
Word has spread and leapt across from the mainstream media to social media. Now TV chef Pete Evans has also embraced the QAnon conspiracy, a world view in which the existence of satanic ritual abuse is accepted without question, along with the coming of the Storm and the Great Awakening.
Barnett’s is only one example. Also in 2015, 60 Minutes broadcast to its mass audience extraordinary claims of a VIP ring of paedophiles operating out of the UK parliament. Four years later the claims turned out to be false.
The ABC has given currency to a different kind of unusual story. On several occasions it has given free rein to stories of what it’s like to live with DID, where one’s identity splinters into dozens or sometimes hundreds of alters. Radio National has given space to a sufferer to tell her story in her own words — a luxury not generally afforded others.
It happened here, too, with several stories of survival bundled up, backed by the words of psychiatrist Dr Warwick Middleton, a leading proponent of DID who has at least one patient who made claims to the royal commission.
If journalists are unable to apply a sceptical eye to extraordinary stories, then why would 12 citizens chosen at random from the street do any better? Especially when the alternative is to believe a priest?
Of course Inq is not suggesting all or even many church sex abuse cases involve extraordinary stories. The vast majority don’t. But the goalposts of belief have without doubt shifted — the accumulated effect of years of click-baiting, social media-shared sensational stories.
As Inq reported this week, Victorian Appeal Court judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, effectively sounded the alarm on how police and the media treat claims of abuse.
Citing the UK case of a VIP paedophile ring, Weinberg warned that “the police clearly regarded [central witness Carl Beech] as a credible and reliable witness, notwithstanding the fact that there was no independent support at all for any of his allegations”.
He continued: “Some of those allegations were inherently improbable, bordering on the preposterous. Yet, various media organisations took up Beech’s cause, broadcasting his claims on national television, and clearly implying that they should be taken as truthful and reliable.”