• Debate speech regarding the Catholic Church and its history of child abuse

    ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH AND CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

    Earlier this year I gave notice of a Motion condemning the Roman Catholic Church for its failure to protect children from abuse. The motion was rejected by the Government and will now be debated by the House. Below is my opening speech, in which I lay out the reasons of why I have chosen to target the Catholic Church. The debate has be adjourned so as to allow other Members to prepare.

    Some my ask why have I chose to raise this issue as it doesn’t have anything to do with animals? Firstly, it is an issue deeply personal to my heart as you will hear in my speech. Secondly, it reflects one of the core principles of the Animal Justice Party, that is, protection of our most vulnerable and giving a voice to those that either don’t have one or it is a voice that is not being heard.

    This post will be updated as the debate progresses.

    The Hon. MARK PEARSON: I move:

    (1) That this House condemns the Roman Catholic Church in Australia for its abject failure to protect children from sexual abuse by members of its clergy and leadership, who either:

    (a) sexually assaulted children whilst they were in their pastoral care; or

    ( b) by omission, caused ongoing and aggravated suffering to child victims by failing to intervene and report these crimes to police in New South Wales and Australia over the past five decades, as evidenced before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

    (2) That this House conveys its utter disgust and profound disappointment in Cardinal George Pell for his ongoing failure to protect the innocent child victims of routine egregious sexual abuse who sought his help and assistance over many years.

    Members might wonder why a fellow member of the Legislative Council would call upon this House to support a motion such as this when a royal commission is on foot. I think it is time—and it is expected by the traumatised victims and outraged community—for the Parliament to speak out on behalf of those who have elected us and for those who are not yet old enough to vote. It is time for New South Wales parliamentarians to speak to the actions of the church. We have parliamentary privilege and can therefore elucidate on the evidence and concerns that the judiciary cannot because of limitations on admissibility of evidence.

    Childhood sexual abuse has blighted the lives of too many young people and for too long society has refused to see, hear or speak about their pain. It has caused premature deaths through drug and alcohol abuse, risk‑taking behaviours, self-harm and suicide. It occurs within families and within educational, sporting, health, cultural and religious organisations—in fact, anywhere where adults are in authority over children. Children have been sexually abused by their music tutors, Scout leaders, swimming coaches, foster carers, doctors and dance teachers. Most damningly of all, they have been abused by those who give instruction about the moral standards required to guide them through life: their religious leaders.

    These pastors, priests and teachers are accorded great reverence and authority by not just their own religious hierarchies and communities but also mainstream society. Imagine that authority, by means of a person vested with its power sermonising from the pulpit or lecturing in the classroom, groping your genitals or sexually penetrating your body. Imagine the secrecy, the shame, the pain, the confusion and the fear and terror of not being believed, of being damned to hell if you tell. Imagine the waking nightmare of having participated, however unwillingly, in breaking the very moral laws you have been told to live by. What moral compass then becomes the guiding principle of those people’s lives? No wonder so many seek solace in obliteration.

    Why has my motion singled out the Roman Catholic Church? In various commissions and inquiries we have learned that paedophiles have been active in other religions and denominations such as the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, Judaism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and obscure religious cults to name a few. There are four reasons why my motion has singled out the Catholic Church. I formed my position even before an article substantiating it entitled “Child sex abuse: Restoration of trust key to survival of Catholic Church” by Chris McGillion and Damian Grace was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 September. The first reason for this motion is that it is important that the culprits are singled out and not allowed to cowardly seek refuge in the shadow of the more broad term “institutional responses to child sexual abuse”.

    The second reason for this motion is the sheer volume of offending in the Catholic Church. In evidence given at the 2012 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations police figures showed that since 1950 there have been 10 times as many abuse cases in the Catholic Church as in the Anglican Church, which was the next largest group for rates of offending. Given that Anglicanism and Catholicism have historically been the two largest religious denominations in Australia, at 17 per cent and 25 per cent of the population respectively, the massive difference in prevalence is compelling evidence of a serious problem within the Catholic Church and is indicative of its failure to protect children.

    The third reason is the culture of clericalism in which the church leadership believes it is only answerable to itself. Obedience to canon law is of more importance than submitting priests to the secular criminal law system. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has stated, “The bishop has a duty to treat all priests as father and brother.” Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney and a specialist in family law and child protection, argues that this has been interpreted by some as an obligation to protect priests and religious brothers from the criminal law.

    Examples of the impacts of clericalism include: transferring alleged offenders to other parishes or schools between parishes, interstate or overseas; permitting international trips for priest to undergo spiritual formation amidst child sexual abuse allegations; persuading complainants, victims and families to remain silent; ignoring schoolteachers’ repeated requests for action against alleged child sexual abuse offenders; and not intervening after inadvertently discovering offenders in the act of child sexual abuse.

    The final reason for this motion is the position of power and privilege that the Catholic Church has within society. The Catholic Church started out on the margins of Australian society. It was the spiritual home for Irish outcasts, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. With the declaration of World War I, the church battled against the State in fighting against conscription. As the decades passed, however, the leadership of the Catholic Church aligned itself with the conservative establishment—fighting communism, socialism and upholding rigid standards of sexual morality as secular society became more permissive.

    The conservative establishment has been happy to provide support and protection from oversight. In August 2002 then Archbishop George Pell was stood down during an investigation into sex abuse claims against him. During the course of the investigation Prime Minister John Howard contacted the archbishop to offer his support, and later publicly stated that he believed Dr Pell was innocent. In 1996, as public outrage grew over the failure of the Catholic Church to adequately respond to child sexual abuse, then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett said:

    I was reassured that George said ‘yes’, he’d get stuck into it … I was told that he had put together a response … it’s not for me to sit in judgment … of whether the response was adequate or not.

    Cardinal Pell is on record as saying that he set up the Melbourne Response in 1996 after Mr Kennett told him, “Now you clean this thing up and there won’t be a royal commission.” In his essay “The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell” David Marr said:

    For twenty years, in the face of growing public anger about paedophile priests, political leaders had backed the Catholic Church. Despite protests from victims, their parents, Anglican bishops, lawyers, academics, child protection advocates, a number of Catholic priests, newspapers and police, the business of cleaning up the mess of child abuse had been left to the churches themselves. When Pell provoked an outcry by walking the paedophile Gerald Ridsdale into court in 1993, Jeff Kennett hosed down calls for a royal commission. When Pell was accused himself of abusing boys, John Howard blocked calls for a royal commission.

    The evidence uncovered by the media, whistle-blowers, as well as commissions and inquiries, has shown that the church cultivates an aura of untouchability. Through strategic relationships, it has been able to keep a lid on the scandal of its systemic failure to hold perpetrators accountable for abuse. One example of a disturbing collaboration between the police and the church is the activities of the Professional Standards Resource Group [PSRG]. The Police Integrity Commission investigation, known as Operation Protea, was established after the ABC’s Lateline program reported in 2013 that the church had an agreement with police to allow it to withhold information about paedophile priests. The investigation found that the police failed to act on multiple allegations of child sexual abuse raised in the PSRG meetings, a clear breach of their duty. This was done through a process of “blind reporting” where the names of alleged victims of child abuse and other details were deleted from reports to the police.

    Only recently, it was reported that the Catholic Church has finally agreed to cease blind reporting to police. Hundreds of child sex abuse cases going back decades may be reopened as police finally have access to the names of suspected paedophiles. So let us examine in more detail the failure of the Catholic Church to protect children from sexual abuse: In the words of Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart in his evidence to the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse:

    The Catholic church failed to act on the “horror story” of paedophiles in its midst. There was knowledge and a failure to act.

    Royal commission data shows that since 1980 the church had received child sexual abuse complaints from 335 people against 84 priests, covering the period 1950 to 1989. Campaigners say the true number of abuse victims could be as many as 10,000 children. Counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, SC, stated that under “Towards Healing” the largest number of complaints were made against the Christian Brothers, Marist Brothers and the De La Salle Brothers—all Catholic. In all, 2,215 victims had come forward and 1,700 people commenced the process, although not all claims were pursued or substantiated. The most complaints, 43 per cent, were made against religious brothers, 21 per cent against diocesan priests and 14 per cent against religious priests. Most of the abuse happened between 1950 and 1980 in orphanages and schools.

    As evidenced by both the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations and the royal commission, time and again, over many decades, church authorities concealed the crime from the police, civil authorities, parishioners and Catholic school staff, pupils and their parents within the diocese. Archbishop Hart spoke about a “failure to act”, but that is not quite accurate. Church officials often did act, but in the worst possible way. Sexually abusing priests were frequently transferred to a new parish or a new school, where they continued to offend.

    The damage to the victims was immense. The breach of trust, secrecy and silence frequently caused deep psychological pain and disrupted a victim’s schooling or personal development. Victims felt hurt by knowing that their offender was being protected by the church. Many victims went on to live broken lives, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, unable to form adult relationships or pursue stable employment. Sadly, many died young as a result of damaged mental and physical health. Police reports have detailed the suicides of at least 40 people sexually abused by Catholic clergy in Victoria.

    When I was only 16 years of age and in year 10 at Marist Brother High School, Hamilton, Newcastle, New South Wales, I witnessed Brother Patrick and Brother Romual walking up and down the aisles of the classroom and stopping near “desired” boys, placing one hand under their robes on their penis and masturbating it while running their other hand down the pants of boys and rubbing their bottom and genitalia. I observed these boys freeze in fear and confusion. At the beginning of each term we could select a new seat and desk in the classroom. The perimeter desks were up against the left and right walls. Boys would arrive as early as possible so they could clamour to a seat adjacent to a wall because they knew that this would position them too far from the Brother for him to be able to molest them. I reported those Brothers to another Brother who I respected. He tried to help, but nothing happened and he soon left the Brotherhood.

    The evidence is overwhelming that the leadership within the church looked the other way. This encouraged the church’s offenders to continue committing similar crimes. The offenders knew that their church status would protect them from being arrested and convicted. It was only through the incredibly brave and tenacious campaigning by the families and victims themselves and groups such as Broken Rites that the true scourge of clerical abuse became a matter of public knowledge and outrage. Over the past 30 years we have seen the scandal within the Catholic Church unfold. Some perpetrators were finally brought to justice. A number of priests were convicted and jailed. It took decades for their child victims to be believed and to experience vindication. In many other instances, charges could not proceed due to lack of evidence or due to the death or incapacity of the accused.

    And what was the response of the Catholic Church when these priests came before the courts? Who can forget the image of Cardinal, then Archbishop, Pell walking side-by-side with the notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale as they entered the court precinct for his trial. The message that Archbishop Pell and the Catholic Church signalled to the Australian community was, “We place the might and majesty of the church against these child victims.” Cardinal Pell has been subject to rigorous cross-examination before the royal commission about what he knew and when. At all times he seems to have not seen, not heard and not spoken out. In his own words: “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”.

    As a Prince of the Church, it is clear that the investigation of sexual abuse of children by its servants is a low priority. Let us look at Gerald Ridsdale—just one example of what the church knew and what it did. At Ridsdale’s 1994 trial it was claimed that as early as 1971 he had been sent to a psychologist for treatment for his paedophilia. At Inglewood in 1973 a parent complained that Ridsdale had molested their son. A police officer spoke to Bishop Mulkearns, who promised to deal with Ridsdale, but he moved him on instead. Ridsdale was sent to and moved from five more parishes until he was sent overseas to New Mexico. He returned and was appointed chaplain at St John of God Hospital in Richmond, New South Wales, where he was finally arrested. He was charged with 30 counts of indecent assault against nine boys aged between 12 and 16 between 1974 and 1980. He was then convicted and sentenced in 1994 after pleading guilty to 46 charges of abusing 20 boys and one girl between 1961 and 1982.

    Given that the Catholic Church has portrayed itself as a moral pillar and has been accorded significant social status for its stance on sexual behaviour and moral authority, it beggars belief that its leaders would place themselves at arm’s length from the actions of those who carried the authority of the church into day-to day-life.

    The Catholic Church has failed abysmally to protect young people in its care. The leadership of the Catholic Church has consistently and deliberately, over many decades, prioritised the reputation of the Church and the protection of paedophile priests over the safety of children. Cardinal Pell may compare the Church to a transport company with the odd dodgy truck driver but in doing so he exposes the hypocrisy of an organisation that has fought to maintain the illusion of moral authority.

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