Gerard Henderson: The media, the Commission and the Church

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Historian and commentator Gerard Henderson speaking in Hobart recently. PHOTO: Archdiocese of Hobart

My research in the early 1970s on Catholics and politics in Australia led me to what remained of the Central Catholic Library in Melbourne, which had been established by the Irish-born Jesuit Fr William Hackett. The Central Catholic Library was frequented in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s by the men – and they were all men – who established the Campion Society in Melbourne. It was there that Bob Santamaria met his future wife Helen Power who worked at the library.

B A Santamaria was a pragmatic person. Contrary to what some have claimed, I never believed that he was much influenced by the views of the English distributists such as G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc – but others in the Campion Society, like Frank Maher and Denys Jackson, were. Nor do I believe that Santamaria spent much time reading the historical and cultural studies written by such English Catholic intellectuals as Christopher Hollis, Fr C C Martindale SJ and Christopher Dawson. But, again, others did.

It was at the Central Catholic Library four decades ago that I read Christopher Dawson’s 1935 book Religion and the Modern State. Unlike Belloc, Dawson was a convert. He presented what Joseph Pearce referred to in Literary Converts (HarperCollins, 1999) as the belief that “only the Roman Catholic Church held the true faith in an unbroken tradition from the Apostles” in a more nuanced – and, indeed, more plausible – manner than Belloc.

I was very pleased to accept the invitation to address the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies. As a lover of history, I’m impressed that Dr Julian Porteous saw fit to support the creation of the Christopher Dawson Centre in the Tasmanian capital and I support the work being done by Dr David Daintree. I’m also here because I am an admirer of the Archbishop of Hobart as a person who thinks deeply and is prepared to promulgate and defend his views – the same can be said of Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP in Sydney.

Archbishop Porteous had the courage to distribute and defend the pastoral letter of the Australian Hierarchy titled Don’t Mess with Marriage – despite the attempt, which ultimately failed, to silence him. I believe that Dr Porteous has the same right in a democratic society to stand up for what was, until very recently, the traditional view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman – as Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has to advocate same-sex marriage.

Moreover, I condemn the physical attack on Mr Joyce in Perth a couple of weeks ago with precisely the same force as I condemn the recent attempt by radicals to prevent the Australian Christian Lobby holding a meeting in Melbourne by means of intimidation and real force. I note that Qantas, a publicly listed company, has declared that the man who attacked its chief executive officer will never be allowed to fly on Qantas again. It remains to be seen whether Qantas will adopt a similar position concerning anyone who attacks or threatens a member of the ACL who happens to be a Qantas customer.

So a sense of history and a regard for intellectual courage brought me to Hobart tonight. Before addressing the topic “The Media, the Royal Commission and Freedom of Religion”, I should clarify my position and put aside some myths.

I was baptised a Catholic and educated at Catholic schools. I have admiration for the Christian religion in general and Catholicism in particular. However, I am not a practising Catholic – having converted to agnosticism some decades ago. Moreover, I am not close to Cardinal George Pell – a man I happen to admire. The fact is that I have had only one person-to-person meeting with George Pell in my life. However, like many others, he has been a welcome speaker at The Sydney Institute and attended some of our functions when he was in Sydney.

I also make the point that this speech reflects my personal views only – The Sydney Institute is a forum for debate and discussion and does not take stances on matters of church or state.

And now for something completely serious. The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in its valuable work has confirmed what was already known – albeit in more shocking detail than many would have expected – the extent of historical pedophilia in the Catholic Church.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard set up the Royal Commission in November 2012, George Pell, (the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney) said that he supported the decision on the understanding that the Catholic Church was not, as he termed it, the only cab-on-the-rank.

I happened to be on the ABC TV Insiders couch soon after the Royal Commission was announced. I was asked for my reaction and replied that I supported the Prime Minister’s decision but drew attention to the fact that sexual assaults would have been occurring the previous night within Indigenous communities and no one was likely to have done anything about it. Warren Mundine, among other Aboriginal leaders, has condemned the lack of action to stop real-time pedophilia within his people’s communities.

The libertarian Bettina Arndt (who was brought up in an atheist family) made a not dissimilar point when interviewed on The Bolt Report late last month. Asked about the fact that (now) French president Emmanuel Macron is married to a woman 25 years his senior whom he met when he was 15 years old and she was his teacher, Ms Arndt had this to say:

“It’s total hypocrisy. We jump up and down in the Royal Commission about abuse of people in institutions. We don’t give a stuff about the major risk for children which is, you know, children in single parent families being abused by boyfriends passing in and out of those families… There are a whole lot of areas [of sexual child abuse] we don’t discuss because they are not politically correct. Obviously, we’re trying to get the Catholic Church [and] attack churches. This area’s rife with hypocrisy.”

George Pell was correct. The Royal Commission’s findings have revealed that in the period from 1950 until 2010 child sexual abuse was rife within Australian – and other – societies. There was child sexual abuse within religious, secular and government institutions alike. The Catholic Church was not the only cab-on-the-rank. It should be remembered that, not so long ago, pedophilia in general and pederasty in particular was somewhat fashionable in intellectual circles.

Remember Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita which celebrated the relationship between a middle-aged male and a 12 year old nymphet? There was scant criticism when the novel and the first film version of Nabokov’s work was released.

Remember the ridicule that was piled upon morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse in the 1960s and 1970s? In November 2012, the British historian Dominic Sandbrook reviewed Ben Thompson’s edited collection Ban This Filth!: Mary Whitehouse and the Battle to Keep Britain Innocent (Faber and Faber, 2012) in The Sunday Times. Sandbrook wondered if Mrs Whitehouse was “quite as cranky as she looked at the time”. He quoted from a letter Mary Whitehouse wrote to the BBC objecting to the 1973 song Do You Want To Touch Me (oh Yeah) on the BBC show Crackerjack – which contained the lyrics:

Every growing boy needs a little joy,
Beggin’ on my knees, baby, if you please
Every growing boy needs a little toy,
I’m a natural man doin’ all I can,
Every Friday night, I got to get my share,
I’m waiting so long, oh

Mary Whitehouse was ridiculed at the time. But the singer/songwriter was none other than Gary Glitter – who, in time, became a convicted pedophile. In Australia, the ABC still will not redress – or even report – the fact that in July 1975 its chairman Professor Richard Downing declared that Australians should “understand” the urges of pederasts and said that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”. Professor Downing, speaking in his official capacity as ABC chairman, was defending an ABC Radio program which was presented by self-confessed pedophile Richard Neville.

Neville interviewed three pederasts in the ABC’s Sydney studio who spoke about their assaults on young boys. The ABC did not report the matter to NSW Police at the time and has never adopted a duty of care with respect to the pederasts’ victims – who, if alive, would be around 50 years of age today.

An ABC journalist would not accept a Catholic or Anglican bishop refusing to accept responsibility for events in his diocese four decades ago. But the current ABC chairman Justin Milne has advised me that “there is nothing to be gained by revisiting the matter”. An unpleasant double standard, to be sure – especially in view of the ABC’s support for Louise Milligan’s enquiries concerning events of 40 years ago.

In its wisdom, the Royal Commission decided not to conduct hearings into institutional responses by the Australian media to instances of child sexual abuse. This despite the evident offending against children at the BBC, of which the case of the late Jimmy Savile is the most notorious example. The Royal Commission also did not hold hearings with respect to Islamic institutions or government schools.

While the Royal Commission chose not to conduct hearings into the ABC on Islamic institutions or government schools, it focused overwhelmingly on the Catholic Church in general and Cardinal George Pell in particular. This was lapped up by sections of the Australian media – particularly the ABC, Fairfax Media (mainly The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald), The Saturday Paper, The Guardian (Australia), Channel 9’s 60 Minutes, Channel 10’s The Project and Sky News’ Paul Murray Live and Hinch Live (the latter programme is no longer extant).

While all these media outlets employ objective journalists, it is true that some contain a high proportion of alienated ex-Catholics along with Catholics who disagree with the social conservatism of George Pell. Then there are the secular atheists, many of a sneering disposition, who resent believers – particularly those of Christian disposition.

In short, sections of the media have used the Royal Commission’s (focus on) Catholicism to run campaigns against the Catholic Church.

In what the Royal Commission called its “wrap” of its public hearings, three weeks were devoted to the Catholic Church. This was roughly the same amount of time devoted to all other institutions – religious, secular and government combined.

Writing in her Catholic Talk blog in February 2017, Monica Doumit quoted Royal Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan AM as stating that around 40 per cent of all complaints received by the Royal Commission related to Catholic institutions. During the second half of the 20th Century, Catholics amounted to between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of the Australian population. What’s more, the Catholic Church ran many more schools, orphanages, hospitals and the like than other religious or secular institutions – judged on a per capita basis.

The figures presented by Counsel Assisting Gail Furness SC on 6 February 2017, the first day of the Catholic “wrap”, were truly shocking. The raw statistics were provided by the Catholic Church and interpreted by the Royal Commission. Ms Furness commenced her comments as follows: “Now, in terms of the results, between January 1950 and February 2015, 4,444 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse made to 93 Catholic Church authorities. These claims related to over 1,000 separate institutions.”

78 per cent of the claims were lodged by males and 90 per cent of the alleged perpetrators were male. Clearly, these were overwhelmingly crimes of men against boys – a fact that the Royal Commission has tended to avoid. This matter is well dealt with by Dr Philippa Martyr in her article in the April 2017 issue of Quadrant – the magazine founded by James McAuley.

Ms Furness went on to state that, within the time period 1950 to 2010, “7 per cent of priests were alleged perpetrators”. Not surprisingly, this statement led to widespread reporting that 7 per cent of the Catholic priests are pedophiles – and did huge reputational damage to current Catholic priests. Responding after Gail Furness’ address, the Truth, Justice and Healing Commission’s chief executive Francis Sullivan accepted what became the media’s interpretation. Mr Sullivan told the Royal Commission that “the data tells us that over six decades from 1950 to 2010, some 1265 Catholic priests were the subject of a child abuse claim”.

This was a true statement. But was it an accurate assessment of the contemporary church? No. Surprisingly it was the non-Catholic Gail Furness who provided a reassessment before the Royal Commission on Wednesday 16 February 2017. This is what she said:

Between January 1950 and February 2015, 4,445 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 4,765 claims. The vast majority of claims alleged abuse that started in the period 1950 to 1989 inclusive. The largest proportion of first alleged incidents of child sexual abuse, 29 per cent, occurred in the 1970s. (Emphasis added)

In other words, what Ms Furness eventually addressed – and what Mr Sullivan consistently overlooked – is that pedophilia in the Catholic Church is essentially an historical crime. Repugnant? – yes. Important? – yes. But contemporary? – overwhelmingly, no.

This reflects the fact that the Catholic Church was the first institution in Australia to set up a procedure to handle child sex abuse cases. The reference is to the Melbourne Response set up by (then) Archbishop Pell in Melbourne in 1996 and Towards Healing set up by the other archdioceses and all the dioceses in 1997.

This fact is not known within large sections of the media. For example, on the ABC TV New Year’s Eve coverage, film reviewer David Stratton had this to say about the film Spotlight:

This is a true story of investigative journalism in the great tradition of All the President’s Men. From their base at the prestigious Boston Globe newspaper, a handful of dedicated journalists pursue the horrific story of the abuses of pedophile priests, facing opposition every step of the way but leading the world in the exposure of these crimes. (Emphasis added)

This is hopelessly wrong. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight reporting – which inspired the film – took place in 2002, some six years after the Melbourne Response was set up in co-operation with Victoria Police.

But you would never know this if you only listened to Francis Sullivan. In a major speech at the Villa Maria Parish in Sydney’s Hunter’s Hill on 10 March 2017, Mr Sullivan never once mentioned the action which the Catholic Church took in Australia to tackle child sexual abuse close to two decades before the establishment of the Royal Commission. It is reasonable to criticise the processes of both the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing – but it is incomplete to ignore their existence.

Francis Sullivan’s speech contained nothing but criticism of the Catholic Church. As Geraldine Doogue – hardly a conservative Catholic in the tradition of Cardinal Pell – told The Weekend Australian Magazine’s Greg Bearup, who wrote a profile on Sullivan which was published on 6-7 May 2017:

“The Church in Australia is the greatest supplier of social welfare outside the government…I think Francis has decided that he can’t say anything good. It’s a tactic in my opinion. I applaud it [what he’s trying to achieve with respect to the Royal Commission] but I don’t think it’s the whole story of the Catholic Church.”

The media focus of the Royal Commission’s coverage of Catholics has led to a distortion of the sad universality of a terrible crime.

While spending 15 days on the Catholic “wrap”, the Royal Commission spent a mere half a day on its Uniting Church “wrap” – hearing only three witnesses in the process. Here’s a quote from Counsel Assisting Angus Stewart SC’s introduction concerning the Uniting Church “wrap”:

In the 40 years since the Church’s inauguration, there have been 2,504 incidents or allegations of child sexual abuse that have been reported as having occurred at an institution or place of worship of the Uniting Church.

That’s 2,504 incidents or allegations in the period between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017. This compares with 4,445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church. Moreover, the Royal Commission did not include allegations in the period 1950 to 1977 with respect to the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist communities which folded into the Uniting Church in 1977. This would take the number of allegations beyond 2,504, especially since it seems that child sexual abuse was at its worst in the 1960s and 1970s.

Evidence presented to the Royal Commission suggests that no real action was taken with respect to a nest of pedophile teachers at the Uniting Church’s Knox Grammar School in Sydney until a group of old boys went to NSW Police in 2009 – over a decade after the establishment of the Melbourne Response.

On the Royal Commission’s own figures, a child was safer in a Catholic institution than a Uniting Church institution any time after 1950. Yet you would not get an idea of this reality by following the reportage of the Royal Commission on the ABC, in Fairfax Media, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian (Australia), 60 Minutes, The Project or Paul Murray Live. Allegations against the Jehovah Witness religion, on a per capita basis, are dramatically higher than for either the Catholic or the Uniting churches.

This is not a matter of nit-picking. The Royal Commission has used instances of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to enquire into genuine matters of freedom of religion that pertain to Catholicism – apparently with the support of Francis Sullivan. No other institution has been the subject of such scrutiny.

Justice McClellan and his colleagues believe that the Royal Commission is entitled to look into such teachings and practices with respect to the Catholic Church as canon law, clericalism, celibacy, the confessional, psycho-sexual development, seminary training, the Vatican, church history and lay leadership.

The justification for all this is that sexual child abuse is exceptional in the Catholic Church. However, this theory falls to pieces once it is realised that child sexual abuse, person to person, was probably greater in the Uniting Church – an institution which has married clergy, no compulsory celibacy, no sacrament of confession, female ministers and in recent times has supported same-sex marriage.

The Royal Commission has not merely focused attention on the Catholic Church’s teachings. Following one of my columns in The Weekend Australian, the Royal Commission’s Chief Executive Officer Philip Reed wrote to me asserting that I was wrong to claim that Cardinal Pell had been subjected to a greater enquiry than anyone else. This was true – but Mr Reed went into denial when his error was pointed out. I understand Mr Reed made a similar complaint to Andrew Bolt. Philip Reed refuses to answer the question as to whether he approached any other media figures in an attempt to influence their comments on the Royal Commission or correct their alleged or real errors.

The Royal Commission’s focus on Cardinal Pell has made it possible for the media to do likewise. I pointed out to the ABC’s Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief Michelle Guthrie that the public broadcaster had highlighted serious allegations made against the cardinal before the Royal Commission but had all but ignored the fact that Gail Furness (who is regarded by many as hostile to Pell) subsequently submitted to Justice McClellan that many of these allegations were without substance. Despite my documentation of all these instances – Ms Guthrie flicked the matter to her offsider Alan Sunderland who threw the switch to denial.

I have just read ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s latest hatchet job on Cardinal Pell titled Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (MUP, 2017). The only new allegations consist of people’s recollections of conversations which allegedly took place three decades or more ago. One involves a person who, though located in a room next door to the one George Pell was in, can relate an overheard conversation of Cardinal Pell three decades ago with such accuracy that Ms Milligan believes it warrants being reported in direct speech. This is unprofessional journalism. I covered some of these matters in my column in The Weekend Australian on 20 May 2017. It seems that the ABC fails to train journalists that you cannot believe what anyone says simply because you want to. Some people have bad memories, some exaggerate, while others have clear “recollections” of events which never happened. Memory is very fallible thing as Justice McClellan himself wrote in an article published in the Australian Law Journal in 2006.

Among other comments, Justice McClellan warned about the ability of a person to implant a false memory in the mind of another, said that false memories of trauma are possible and reflected that, in reality, our memories are unstable and malleable and that – even without external influences – memory will fade over time. He also acknowledged that memories may be altered by post-event factors.

Reporters like Louise Milligan would be well advised to read Justice McClellan’s 2006 article along with Daniel L Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory before believing what they want to believe.

The sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, other churches plus secular and government institutions was shocking. Truly shocking. But recent statistics from the Archdiocese of Sydney indicate that there were about zero such crimes over the past two decades. I understand there were very few offenders in the Archdiocese of Hobart throughout the period examined by the Royal Commission.

The problem is that the Royal Commission may use a crime within the Catholic Church, which reached its height in the 1970s, to recommend clamping down on religious practices today. This would be an unhealthy development in a democracy – for both religious and social reasons – since it would establish a dangerous precedent.

The Christian tradition today faces two fundamental challenges. From militant Islamists who want to kill Christians and place the so-called Islamic State’s black flag on the Vatican. And from intolerant atheists who hold believers in contempt, particularly those of the Christian tradition, and wish to restrict their freedom of expression and action.

In his introduction to Christopher Dawson’s The Gods of Revolution, Arnold Toynbee wrote that for Dawson “the destiny of Western Civilisation is bound up with Christianity” and that “if Western Civilisation were to become irretrievably ‘post Christian’, its prospects … would be dark”.

It’s good to see that the Christopher Dawson Centre today speaks out as an opponent of the dark in what was once called Hobart Town.

Gerard Henderson is the executive director of The Sydney Institute. He also writes a column in The Weekend Australian and appears On the ABC’s Insiders program. This is the edited text of his 22 May presentation at the Christopher Dawson Centre in Hobart. Links added.