Last week, somewhat belatedly, I received a response from the Victorian state government regarding a letter I sent in April calling for a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. In the event, there was nothing much in the return letter, just a reminder of the fact that a parliamentary inquiry has been established in Victoria – the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry Into Sexual Abuse in Religious Orders.
On Friday – the final day for submissions – the Inquiry received the Catholic Church’s contribution. Called ‘Facing the Truth’, the submission gives details of about 620 cases of reported sex abuse by Catholic priests, dating back to the 1930s but mainly across the 60s, 70s and 80s. What are we to make of this figure, and the claim that hardly any cases have occurred since the 1980s?
Judy Courtin, a legal researcher who is doing her PhD on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, told Lateline last week that nobody knows the true numbers, or will ever know. Her most disturbing observation was that a maximum of just 10% of child victims report sex abuse to the police. It often takes decades for people abused as children to make an official complaint. Spokespeople for the victims’ support group In Good Faith have also thrown doubt on the numbers. One told ABC News 24 that a single Victorian priest was responsible for abusing hundreds of children over many years. Helen Last, also from In Good Faith, believes the scale of the problem in this country is comparable to that in Ireland. And that’s just the Catholic Church.
The biggest problem with the figure of 620 is that it only reflects cases ‘upheld’ by the Church. It is certain that many more (up to 10,000 according to one campaigner) exist. The Church’s history of deception and obstruction is well-known, as is their long-standing policy of moving suspected pedophiles from parish to parish rather than holding them accountable. Relying on the Church’s own numbers is, to borrow one law expert’s colourful phrase, to allow Caesar to judge Caesar. The very fact that it has taken an inquiry of this kind to compel the Catholic Church to do anything meaningful about these crimes demonstrates that it is utterly unfit to adjudicate on them.
I’ve made this point before, but I will make it again because its pertinence to this issue cannot be understated: no organization other than a religious one would have been able to get away with such profound inaction, on such profound evils, for such a long time. Let it not be forgotten in all this that the Catholic Church is the biggest non-government landholder in Australia and does not pay land tax, rates or capital gains tax. Let it not be forgotten that the government provides generous handouts for Catholic schools and Catholic events, such as World Youth Day back in 2008 to which the federal and NSW governments contributed $80 million.
Such amounts bring me back to the question of a Royal Commission. The Gillard government’s line on this has been that it would be too expensive to mount. In an overwhelmingly secular country whose government continues to dole out some of the most generous tax breaks to religions in the world, this position is farcical. Australian taxpayers are subsidizing minority religious beliefs everyday. I daresay most, if given the choice, would not begrudge their money being used to investigate one of the most prolonged and persistent abuses of power and justice in the history of this country.
A short while ago, I created a petition via Avaaz calling on the Gillard government to revise its position on these matters, and immediately convene a Royal Commission into church child sex abuse. If you have not already done so, please sign the petition, and share it as widely as possible.