Scott Morrison and Tim Stewart

Note: the following article contains graphic descriptions of torture and abuse.

The award for this week’s word of the week must surely go to “ritual”, as in “ritual sex abuse”. It’s the term used, obtusely, by Scott Morrison in 2018 in his apology to survivors of child sex abuse and now given currency among at least 750,000 Australians — that being the record viewing numbers who tuned in to Four Corners on Monday night.

It’s come a long way from 2019, when Crikey began beating the drum to our loyal subscribers. Gosh, now even Kochie’s talking about it on Sunrise.

One might have thought this was the very definition of a failed media strategy by the prime minister’s media team. And yet still there is no definitive prime ministerial answer as to how the phrase — so heaving with symbolism to QAnon fans — made it past the red pencils of the bureaucracy into the hallowed halls of Parliament, and into the history books.

Does it matter that the prime minister used the word, possibly at the behest of his QAnon family friend Tim Stewart? That it might have somehow seeped into the PM’s consciousness via the family connections who have it as an article of faith that Satan walks among us? That he might have used the word oblivious to its impact on the panting Q whack-jobs hanging off every coded message? Entirely possible. The problem is: we don’t know unless he says.

Morrison has deployed various media responses to the “ritual” question. And amid the conflicting messages coming from the PM’s office we can now reveal the strangest defence of all.

In 2019 the PMO let it be known to Crikey that the term “ritual” did not necessarily mean satanic ritual abuse — as implied by the Satan-obsessed world of QAnon — but could mean many other things.

To make its point, the office provided as its source a remarkable document called “Ritual Abuse & Torture in Australia” written in 2006 by an activist group called ASCA (Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse). ASCA’s founder, Liz Mullinar, became a controversial figure because of her belief in recovered memories and the alleged prevalence of satanic ritual abuse in the community. (But that’s another story.)

The document lists dozens of examples of “ritual” abuse in Australia. It is what the PMO relied on to show it’s not all about the devil. The examples include:

Violent rituals: mock-marriages, mock-funerals, fake surgery, ritualised rape

Torture: forced to ingest filth, tied up, starvation, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, use of snakes or insects, hanging, spinning

Organised sexual exploitation: victims prostituted, used in pornography, sex with adults, group sex, sex with animals, other children and corpses

Props and symbols: blood, knives, altars, circles, animal parts, human parts, fire, corpses, ropes, pentagrams, urine, faeces, graves, torches, bones, coffins, insects, animal horns, razor blades

• Simulations of the death experience: live burials, near-strangulation, near-drowning, electrocution, torture into unconsciousness, drugging into unconsciousness, encouragement of self-mutilation

• Performance of the death experience: ritual murder, sacrifice of animals, ritual abortions, necrophilia, necrophagia.

The list goes on. There’s barely space here to make mention of “perpetrators wearing robes, masks, horns, costumes”. None of it, though, reflected the evidence given to the McClellan royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse, which provided the imperative for a national apology.

The PMO also referred Crikey to a paper published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1995 that covered competing definitions of “ritual abuse”. The paper was produced at the height of the satanic panic in the 1990s, two decades before Morrison’s apology speech.

The PMO provided the information on the proviso that Crikey treat it as “background” — a media management move that might quietly influence coverage without having the PM or the office on the record. Taken together, though, it appeared the PMO might have been scrambling to reverse-engineer a validation for Morrison’s use of the term.

At the same time the PMO provided an “on the record” comment that advanced a different version of the ritual abuse story — though on checking it proved to be at least partly false.

The PMO told Crikey that the term “ritual” was “one that the prime minister heard directly from the abuse survivors and the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Reference Group he met with in the lead up to the Apology, and refers not just to the ritualised way or patterns in which so many crimes were committed but also to the frequency and repetition of them”.

However, when Crikey checked with members of the national apology reference group in 2019 we got a different story. They told us that the term “ritual” had never come up in their discussions.

To prove the point, someone quietly provided Crikey with the group’s 20-page list of recommended terms and procedures to be used for the apology. We published part of it here. There is no mention of the term “ritual”. Leaking is the only resort for people on government panels who are otherwise bound to confidentiality.

This week, as Four Corners re-reported the apparently false explanation, the PMO came up with another version, reportedly pointing out that the phrase appeared in the royal commission’s papers in summaries of victims’ stories, though that reference appears to be to “ritualistic” practices, which appears to confuse terms with different meanings.

Accompanying all this, the prime minister has attacked the Four Corners program on the grounds of it being a “slur” on him and a personal attack. His office has portrayed the allegations of Stewart’s alleged influence as being “baseless conspiracy theories” coming from Twitter.

The conflicting explanations as well as the PMO’s apparent falsehood about the role of the expert panel give the impression that the PM has something to hide.

As 7.30‘s Laura Tingle articulated on Tuesday, there are parallels with Morrison’s serial evasions on whether or not he asked for Hillsong pastor Brian Houston to be invited to a state dinner with Donald Trump at the White House in 2019. Several months later he admitted he had.

Morrison famously made it clear when asked about the alleged rape of staffer Brittany Higgins that he looks to advice from his wife Jenny to really understand such matters. Getting the input of family members is part of the Morrison modus operandi and fits with a politician who does not feel bound to take public service advice.

The timing of Stewart’s behind-the-scenes moves, as told in a series of texts leading up to the day of the apology in 2018, makes a compelling case that on at least this occasion Stewart did influence his old friend Morrison. Stewart’s wife, Lynelle — best pals with Jenny — has also signalled her support for her husband’s writings on “The Great Awakening” when the world turns away from “the Dark”.

It is also theoretically possible that Morrison was influenced not by his QAnon family friend but by advocates who believe in repressed memories and satanic ritual abuse who had access to the PM outside the official sorry day framework.

Hard to know what’s worse, really.

One thing’s for sure: we haven’t heard the truth yet. But we should, and it shouldn’t be so hard.

Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
SAVE 50%