The danger in Pell’s dubious anti-media script

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.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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11 Responses to The danger in Pell’s dubious anti-media script

  1. conrad says:

    “The media has underplayed the issue to a remarkable extent.”

    I agree — they should have started investigating this issue more seriously 50 years ago rather than waiting until more recent times. Unfortunately, at least at the level of the individual, I imagine a lot of this is going to end up like war crimes where some of the people that are finally caught are about to die of old age.

  2. Katz says:

    This Royal Commission will rock several leading institutions, including some of the most famous private schools. From the point of view of the prevalence of s*xu*l abuse, the Catholic Church will in time appear to be less abnormal than many institutions.

    The point of greatest vulnerability, so far as the Catholic Church is concerned is not the act itself, but rather the culture of cover-up and of guilty knowledge of the Church hierarchy. The Catholic Church is unique in its ability to redeploy its personnel nationwide and worldwide.

  3. emess says:

    Hm, the comparison between the treatment handed out to Craig Thompson who is alleged to have had sex with prostitutes using union money, and the pussy footing about religious institutions is stark.

    If those who castigated Thompson are genuine, they will go harder against those accused of pedophilia involving non-consensual acts. If they do not, then the question should be raised about their double standards.

  4. Tel says:

    In order to know whether the media are indulging in Catholic bashing, you would need to know whether the typical rate of offence is higher within the church than in the community as a whole. I seem to remember that Pell asked for some figures along these lines already, and one would guess that if he expected an adverse result he would not have asked.

    Mind you, no one every really knows the rate of offence (except God perhaps?) but we get statistics on the rate of accusation, or the rate of conviction.

    Could be just a coincidence with an election coming up but you don’t think this is some sort of indirect way to make the very publicly Catholic leader of the opposition look a bit worse in the eyes of the voters?

    • David Walker says:

      Tel, you’ve rightly identified the data we need to make a final decision on whether we have a society-wide or an institution-specific problem. I hope the inquiry acts quickly to establish some numbers. One of the church’s main lines of defence at the moment is that whatever problems it has had merely reflect broader society. I doubt this is true, but I don’t really know and we should find out.

      (At this point, fans of social statistics will remember another instance of a problem that turned out not to be what was expected – the 1998 deaths in custody inquiry’s finding that indigenous deaths in custody were pretty much what you’d expect given the awful indigenous imprisonment rates.)

      But the weight of cases on the public record has provided, I think, adequate grounds for a great deal of media coverage of Catholic Church child abuse, and good grounds for an inquiry to establish the facts. And for all the polite talk about possible problems in sports clubs and the like, the Catholic Church does anecdotally seem to be a centre of this criminal activity – and worse, to have covered it up to a remarkable extent through redeployment of personnel. (Katz remarks on this in a comment above.)

      I’m sure it crossed someone’s mind in the PM’s offfice that the findings of an inquiry could rub off on Abbott, a very public friend of Pell. But it is also the case that an atheist PM is vulnerable to charges of slighting religion.

      I think Gillard was right to wait until media coverage grew to the point where it was pretty much obvious that a national inquiry was appropriate. I also think she was smart to widen the inquiry beyond just the Catholic Church, even though at one level that is slightly absurd. I’m glad she waited, and I’m glad she acted. A more aggressive media might have brought the issue to a head earlier.

    • john r walker says:

      Will the inquiry have the power to examine the many? cases where some sort of private settlement was made between the complainant(s) and the Catholic church (and or other institutions)?

    • swearyanthony says:

      Except of course we dont *know* the numbers for the church because of their decades long approach of covering up the evidence. This is another distraction by Pell. The correct response is “fine. Open up your files. All of them. Under oath. And when it turns out you’ve not been honest with these be prepared to do prison time.”

      • David Walker says:

        On the topic of the numbers, I’ve now updated the post to reflect comments from criminologist Dr Michael Salter, who reckons that there is “an accumulation of studies suggesting that there’s a particular problem amongst Catholic clergy”. I’d still like to see actual numbers from actual studies, if anyone knows of any.

  5. Katz says:


    Governments have been recoiling from ripping the scab off this scandal for years.

    Paul Fox made such a compelling accuser. He changed the game. The government was dragged into this by a swelling chorus of outrage.

    When a reflexive reactionary like Christopher Pyne calls for the abolition of confessional privilege you know that the ground is shifting under our feet.

  6. Paul Bamford says:

    George Pell, yet again, is showing himself as one of God’s gifts to (Australian) anti-clericalism. God’s been tossing out those gifts pretty liberally over the past year: we’ve had the trial and sentencing of the Pope’s butler and later an alleged accomplice in a Vatican Court – not an Italian civil or criminal court – over leaked documents, Pell’s latest denials and this from today’s Age:

    The Catholic Church and other church denominations occupy a unique position under Australian law. They enjoy the benefits of corporate status – for tax land purposes and perpetual succession of property – but avoid corporate tort liability for the very atrocities committed under their roof.

    The centuries old medieval priveleges of the Catholic Church are still alive and kicking, it seems.

  7. derrida derider says:

    I seem to remember that Pell asked for some figures along these lines already, and one would guess that if he expected an adverse result he would not have asked.

    – Tel
    If the figures he got were NOT adverse don’t you think he would have promulgated them widely by now?

    Look, of course these sorts of things happen in all institutions with vulnerable young people. Such institutions attract sadists and pedophiles (the former, BTW, more prevalent than the latter and just about as damaging). Its just that the Church was an unusually large such institution and, most damning of all, systematically turned a blind eye.

    And clerical celibacy definitely does not help, even if it is not the sole factor. That’s not so much because of crude sexual frustration but because of the attractions of such a vocation to those struggling with socially deviant urges.

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