To my astonishment, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell spent part of a press conference today claiming that the news media are exaggerating the scandal of Catholic Church child abuse in Australia. There was “a persistent press campaign against the Catholic Church’s adequacies and inadequacies in this area”, he said.
In fact, the opposite is true. The media has underplayed the issue to a remarkable extent.
A major Australian institution appears* to have harbored hundreds of child abusers abusing thousands of children over a period of several decades around Australia. The same institution has apparently committed the same offences across the globe. According to one senior NSW police officer, this institution covers up for paedophile priests, hinders police investigations and destroys evidence to prevent prosecutions.
The obvious reaction would be that this institution needs an investigation to run through it like a dose of salts.
Yet too few people have rushed to say this about the Catholic Church in Australia. Quite the contrary. On 3AW last Friday two national political leaders – Bill Shorten and Joe Hockey – talked with Neil Mitchell about how people close to them had been affected by Catholic Church paedophilia. Then they both tied themselves in knots trying to avoid saying that the Catholic Church should be the subject of a major official inquiry. “Institutions have covered up”, said Shorten, avoiding using the word “Catholic”. Added Hockey: “What do you have, a royal commission into the Catholic Church? That’s ridiculous.” (Mitchell, to his credit, disagreed.) Hockey then argued that there was “a much wider conspiracy” over paedophilia, but didn’t offer any elaboration or proof.
Most people abhor child abuse. Yet the entire national policy-making apparatus, including most media outlets, has waited until the evidence of institutional wrongdoing is so enormous as to make a national inquiry an obvious necessity.
And even when the royal commission was announced, the Prime Minister ensured that it encompassed all institutional child abuse, not just abuse inside the Catholic Church. That showed leadership intelligence. But it also underlined how delicate everyone is being about this issue.
Ask yourself this. If the institution in question were the Socialist Alliance, would everyone be being quite so polite about it? If the Church of Scientology were harboring paedophiles, wouldn’t that institution have been effectively shut down by now? If the South Australian government or Auskick or the Australian Girls’ Choir was accused of covering up hundreds of child abuse cases, how long would they last?
It takes quite some nerve to claim that the media has victimised the Catholic Church. A bolder media would have been screaming for a royal commission months or years ago.
A quick check today reveals that Pell’s blame-the-messenger strategy is the same strategy used at various points in both the US and Europe. Pell will likely use the same strategy again unless people keep pointing out the obvious: right now, most of Australia, most media included, is being very generous in its assessment of his church.
That’s in part because the Catholic Church has built up considerable social capital over the years. Most of us who are not Catholics know and respect many people who are, and who take their faith seriously. There’s a natural reluctance to speak in a way which makes Catholics uncomfortable, let alone to offend them. There is, in fact, a broad predisposition to go easy on the Catholic Church.
Right now, George Pell is testing the limits of this social agreement, spending the church’s social capital like a violent addict. He needs to straighten up before his friends decide he’s a hopeless case.
* Note: At one point in the evolution of this scandal, I began to suspect that the Catholic Church was the victim of a combination of anti-papist sentiment and the sort of abuse mania that drive the 1980s satanic ritual abuse panic. But the evidence here is not only more widespread, but less contested. Claims of false accusation seem quite rare. Instead, accusations have been made and acknowledged – and then, at best, little has been done.
Update 1: It’s now the day after Pell’s conference and Australian Catholic University law professor Greg Craven has been on ABC Radio on Melbourne backing Pell’s claim of an unfair media campaign. The ABC’s Jon Faine describes Craven as an adviser to Pell. The advice seems to be part of the problem.
Update 2: There’s discussion in the comments on the evidence about the prevalence of abuse in the Catholic Church as against the general community. On the ABC’s PM program, University of Western Sydney criminologist Dr Michael Salter has now claimed it’s much higher: “Over the last 20 years, there has been an accumulation of studies suggesting that there’s a particular problem amongst Catholic clergy – and comparable studies looking in other religious faiths have found problems with sexual abuse, but those problems are at the same level as the general community.” He presented no firm numbers, though.