Monica Doumit: Coverage varies on abuse – but why?

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Recent stories about the Jehovah’s Witnesses really brought to light just how unbalanced the media reporting is when it comes to the Catholic Church.
Recent stories about the Jehovah’s Witnesses really brought to light just how unbalanced the media reporting is when it comes to the Catholic Church.

A number of years ago, Fairfax journalist Jonathan Holmes defended the sustained criticism on the Church and other institutions that had perpetrated and covered up child sexual abuse as reasonable, and something that we should not characterise as attacks nor complain about as unjust.

He had a point. Sometimes, we deserve a whack in the media by journalists who are only doing their job.

I know I have written this many times before, but Jesus told us that those who knew the master’s will and did not do it will be punished more severely than those who did not (Luke 12:47-48).

If we believe that the Church holds the fullness of the truth, and we do, then we also believe that we will be held to a higher standard by God. Why not by the media as well?

While I know this to be true, a couple of recent stories about the Jehovah’s Witnesses really brought to light just how unbalanced the media reporting is when it comes to the Catholic Church.

For those who don’t remember, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had the worst rates of child sexual abuse and cover up of any institution examined by the Royal Commission.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses told the Royal Commission that they had 1,006 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2016, relating to at least 1,800 alleged victims.

The hearing room of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo: childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au

Half of the perpetrators had confessed to their crimes, but not a single one had been reported to the police by the time the Royal Commission began.

While these are numerically lower than the 4,445 complaints of abuse made against 1,880 alleged perpetrators in Catholic institutions, the Catholic population in Australia is and always has been about 80 times greater than the population of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Today, there are about 5.3 million Catholics in Australia, compared to about 68,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Despite this, the Jehovah’s Witnesses received scant attention from both the media and the Royal Commission itself.

The Royal Commission’s “wrap up” hearing for the Jehovah’s Witnesses lasted just a few hours and got very little media coverage, while the equivalent “wrap up” hearing for the Catholic Church spanned three weeks and was reported on widely and prominently.

In recent weeks, the same disinterest from the media has been evident in two abuse-related stories about the Jehovah’s Witnesses which, if they had occurred in the Catholic Church, would have been front-page news.

The first was a small story buried (to use a newspaper term) at the bottom of page 13 in The Sunday Telegraph last month.

It has been alleged that since the Royal Commission was announced in 2012, the Jehovah’s Witnesses has quietly restructured its legal status, sold off its assets and moved the proceeds offshore.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported $150 million in income since 2014, and that it was operating at a surplus in 2015-17.

But during the past few years, more than $100 million of this has been sent offshore as aid and donations, and the group is reporting it has been operating at a loss over the last two years.

The effect of this is that there is no money available in Australia to meet the estimated $132 million liability it will have to survivors of abuse under the National Redress Scheme.

One week later, the Jehovah’s Witnesses confirmed to Channel 10’s The Project that it would not be joining the National Redress Scheme.

In a statement to The Project, the Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that they did not have to join the redress scheme designed for institutions, because they do not have the same institutional settings as other faiths, such as the operation of orphanages or boarding schools, youth groups or hospitals.

In its story, The Project reporters did not seek an explanation as to why the Jehovah’s Witnesses had such high rates of abuse notwithstanding the lack of institutional care of children, nor did it raise any questions at all about the financial scandals that appeared in the paper just the week before.

Jehovah’s Witnesses wait to offer passers-by promotional literature outside the British Museum. Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikimedia Commons, CC
Jehovah’s Witnesses wait to offer passers-by promotional literature outside the British Museum. Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikimedia Commons, CC

Dare I say that if it were any Catholic institution, we would have had rolling coverage, media camped outside St Mary’s Cathedral, and countless talkback hours dedicated to the evils of the Church, not to mention public threats made by politicians and motions condemning the Church and her leaders passed in every house of parliament.

But apart from a few small stories, the silence from all corners was deafening.

None of this means that the Church didn’t deserve the criticism it received over the abuse scandal.

Of course we did. As I said before, the Lord holds us to a higher standard, so we should hold ourselves to one, and invite others to as well.

But it would be great if we could also see even more than a veneer of media interest into the failures of others. After all, their survivors deserve justice as well.

Related articles: