On Monday of last week, Queensland MP Rob Pyne stood up in Parliament to table a private members’ bill which would require ministers of religion to mandatorily report actual or suspected child sexual abuse, with no exception for the Seal of Confession.
Instead of speaking about the merits of the bill, Mr Pyne used his speech introducing the bill to express his lack of acceptance of the Church’s moral authority; his personal lack of respect – and even disgust – for its leaders, and his delight that certain Australian religious orders were no longer accepting new vocations.
Mr Pyne is not the first to use a legitimate and serious problem – the sexual abuse of children – to air his own grievances, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.
But in addition, Mr Pyne misrepresented the statistics in relation to that abuse which came before the Royal Commission.
He told Queensland Parliament that 4,444 victims had accused Catholic clergy of sexual abuse over a period of six decades; but this was not accurate.
There were 4,445 people who made complaints (naming them as ‘victims’ assumes that all claims had been substantiated, when this was not the case) and these complaints were made against clergy, religious and lay persons, not clergy alone. By no means does this make the 4,445 individual allegations any less serious, but if an elected representative is going to use statistics as a basis of proposing legislation which specifically targets clergy, then he has a responsibility to ensure they are correct.
But the issue goes beyond Mr Pyne. Take, for example, the recent ‘wrap up’ hearings which the Royal Commission conducted at the culmination of its public hearings, which concluded this week. From the significant media coverage, you would be familiar with the Catholic hearing, which spanned three weeks during February.
During the ‘Catholic’ hearing, it was revealed that a total of 4,445 people had made a claim against 1,880 Catholic clergy, religious and lay people for child sexual abuse, with the vast majority of those claims relating to conduct occurring before 1990.
As a result, the Commission spent 15 days considering specifically Catholic issues such as Church structure, celibacy, the Seal of Confession, seminary formation and training, clerical dress, the teaching that an ontological change occurs in a man when he is ordained and more. The same detailed, public analysis, however, was not given to other institutions, either by the Commission or the media.
The Jehovah’s Witness wrap up occupied just three hours of the Royal Commission’s time last month and, during that hearing, it was revealed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had given the Commission case files relating to 1006 alleged perpetrators of abuse within its Church; the majority of which had not been reported to the Police.
The number of alleged perpetrators is still significantly lower than the Catholic Church (1006 versus 1880), but Jehovah’s Witnesses only make up 0.4 per cent of the Australian population, compared to the Catholic Church’s 25.3 per cent.
The Uniting Church wrap up also took just a few hours. During that hearing, the Commission heard that since its inauguration in 1977, the Uniting Church has had 2504 claims of child sexual abuse against its members.
Again, the numbers are lower than the Catholic Church’s 4445, but the Uniting Church did not exist during the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s, when the majority of abuse was occurring in other denominations. And at only 5 per cent of the population, the Uniting Church is significantly smaller than the Catholic Church.
If you look plainly at the numbers, it would seem curious that so much attention was paid to the Catholic Church and to practices which it does not share with other denominations. The Uniting Church does not have mandatory celibacy or confession, a male-only Priesthood or residential seminary training, or any of the other items which attracted so much attention during the Catholic wrap up, but its numbers were equally – if not more – shocking than that of the Catholic Church. Could it be that the focus on uniquely Catholic traditions was more of a distraction than anything else?
I know that talking about the statistics from other institutions appears to be defensive, and as Catholics, we have been consistently warned not to point the finger at other groups so as to divert attention away from ourselves.
I know that many reading this column will think that by highlighting these numbers, I am trying to protect the Church’s image. I’m not.
In Luke’s Gospel (Lk 12:47-48), Jesus tells us that those who knew what the Master wanted but failed to do it will be punished more severely than those who did not know the Master’s will, because to whom much is given, much is expected.
As Catholics, we have been given the fullness of the truth and so will be measured against a higher standard than our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. The fact that this abuse happened in our Church is worse than the fact it happened elsewhere. Nothing changes that. But if our goal, and the goal of the Royal Commission, is to ensure that children are protected in the future, then we need to respond on the evidence before the Commission, and not simply our own perception of seemingly esoteric practices or teachings of the Catholic Church.
To do otherwise would risk us focussing attention, resources and ultimately – if Mr Pyne’s initiative is anything to go by – legislation on red herrings rather than red alerts. And no one would be better off.