Opinion: Punishment, penance should come via a royal commission
27th October 2012
Updated 29th October 2012
ONE of the most fundamental responsibilities of government is to protect the community's most vulnerable citizens. Children are achingly vulnerable. They have a right to be able to trust adults who exercise direct institutional power over them. Schools and the church are two of the most powerful institutions. Children are at their mercy.
There is abundant, tragic evidence that many thousands of children have suffered sex crimes by Catholic priests in schools and dioceses. These perverted men of God have shown the children no mercy. Their putrid crimes have destroyed lives and caused untold misery, not only for their direct victims, but for the people who love them. There is no greater love than that felt by a parent for their child. Think how you would feel to discover a priest had raped your child.
These crimes have caused many to commit suicide. They have caused crippling anguish and mental health problems. They have caused drug and alcohol problems. They have caused relationship problems.
The Catholic Church has spent millions protecting paedophile priests. It has withheld evidence from police that would be likely to lead to the prosecution and jailing of an unknown number of perpetrators. These are criminals who, to add hypocrisy to horror, claim to speak for Jesus Christ, a figure revered by many for his love and compassion and who, one would think, would condemn child abuse above all else.
The Catholic Church claims to have processes to properly investigate child sex crimes by its priests. It is a matter of logic and common sense that when an institution investigates itself, that probe cannot be impartial and independent. Yet the church would seriously have us believe it is putting the victims' interests to the fore. That is an absurd proposition. It also makes victims of all those priests and nuns who are decent, for they can be unfairly tarred, and it must sit uncomfortably with many parishioners, people who would like to feel an uncluttered, pure association with religion.
The failure by the church to hand over documents can be argued to be a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. That is a crime.
In April, half bowing to public outrage, most of it directed at the Catholic Church, the Baillieu government launched a limited parliamentary inquiry into the handling by churches and other organisations of sex-abuse allegations. There is little doubt the six politicians on the committee would like to see justice. But they will not be able to fully deliver it; the inquiry falls woefully short of what is required, because it lacks the time, independence and judicial powers of a royal commission.
It is curious that the Baillieu government opted for such a shackled course. It is hard to see how it might, of itself, lead to changes that might reduce or even end this long-running scourge. In the past week, the need for a royal commission has been underscored by statements to the inquiry that Catholic clergy commit at least six times as much abuse as those in the rest of the churches combined, and that as many as one in 15 Catholic priests may be guilty of child sex abuse. This requires the most robust investigation possible.
Without wishing to unduly pre-empt the inquiry's findings, I would like to suggest a way the situation might be salvaged and good flow from the efforts of the politicians and their support staff. It would be honourable and constructive were the cross-party panel to find that the crimes are so serious, insidious and widespread that further investigation is compelled. Such a statement would be neither an admission of failure, nor a criticism of the government's decision to establish such a restricted inquiry. It would merely be making the rational suggestion that the evidence suggests more ought to be done, that the Victorian inquiry provided a fine first step.
The panel's argument for further action would be buttressed by the fact that child sex crimes by Catholic clergy and others do not halt at Victoria's borders. It is a national issue. This creates an opportunity for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to take the lead. She could seek consensus from the premiers by putting the issue on the agenda of the Council of Australian Governments. Voters would be supportive; who, after all, other than some members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, would argue against a royal commission? Which premiers would really feel it appropriate to resist such an idea?
Alternatively, the Prime Minister could just seize the initiative and establish a royal commission. It is hard to think of a better way to spend some public money; surely our children merit such protection and care and justice. The Prime Minister would be rightly applauded throughout the nation.
From Gillard's perspective, there would, too, be a tantalising added element, although it should, of course, have no real weight in the decision. George Pell, an Australian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and the current Archbishop of Sydney, is Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's spiritual counsel. Pell (pictured) was formerly Archbishop of Melbourne, and before that led the church in Ballarat, where some of the worst clusters of child sex crimes by Catholic clergy occurred. Pell, one assumes, would resist a royal commission. Would Abbott refuse to support a call for a royal commission on these appalling acts by such a large number of Pell's priests?
The victims and their families want to be heard, and they want a royal commission. They deserve one, and so do all the potential victims who will be all the more vulnerable should proper justice not be rendered.
A royal commission is the path most likely to counter the damning disgrace of so many priests and those who protect them.
Michael Short is editor of The Zone.