Abuse comments fuel sectarian prejudice

Biship Anthony Fisher talks to Pope BenedictWhen it comes to sensitivity toward victims of sexual abuse and assault, Australian religious leaders could learn a thing or two from Pope Benedict. As could some allegedly conservative commentators and political leaders of all persuasions.

In the past two years, two prominent Australian religious leaders have seemed to cast aspersions on sexual assault victims and their families — former Mufti Sheik Hilaly and Catholic Bishop Anthony Fisher.

Hilaly used a Ramadan address in 2006 to suggest that some women ask to be raped by displaying themselves like 'uncovered meat'. He said this before a few hundred people in a Sydney mosque in Arabic, a language spoken by a minority of Australian Muslims. His remarks only came to general attention once translated into English and reported in the media.

Last Wednesday Fisher, the Australian bishop responsible for organising World Youth Day, responded to questions about the case of two girls repeatedly raped by priest Kevin O'Donnell between 1988 to 1993, when they were primary school students, by saying: 'Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in, the beauty and goodness of these young people (at WDY) ... rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.'

The insensitivity was heightened because one of the girls committed suicide this year, aged 26.

His remarks were made in English during a press conference before local and international media.

The two cases aren't completely parallel. Islam (at least in its majority Sunni manifestation) doesn't have a clerical hierarchy. Imams play roles similar to rabbis — they are jurists authorised to provide authoritative but not binding opinions on sacred law. The role of a mufti is not identical to that of a bishop.

That said, the vast majority of lay Catholics and Muslims have no meaningful role in the selection or removal of clergy, bishops, popes, imams or muftis. Further, the views expressed by Catholic clergy are not necessarily representative of the majority of ordinary Australian Catholics. The same applies to Muslims, many of whom had been openly criticising Hilaly years before his remarks about uncovered meat.

Notwithstanding these differences, it's interesting to compare responses to the two cases. In the case of Hilaly, commentators and politicians of all stripes and faiths vocally condemned the remarks. Yet some couldn't resist using the incident to fight sectarian and cultural battles.

The front page of Sydney tabloid newspaper The Daily Telegraph on 27 October 2006 carried a photo of the Sheik with the headline 'You heartless ignorant man'. The Sheik's remarks were described as part of 'a deranged sermon'. The editorial carried the headline 'Vile rape remarks can't be forgiven', and attacked his 'wind-up apologist Keysar Trad' for alleging the Sheik was quoted out of context or misunderstood.

Neither Fisher nor his remarks have made it to the front page of the Telegraph. Fisher hasn't been called heartless or ignorant, nor have his comments been described as 'deranged'. The Telegraph hasn't questioned Fisher's claims that his comments have been misunderstood, nor run an editorial on the issue.

Sheik Hamil on A Current Affair The Telegraph was not alone in using Hilaly's comments to fight monocultural warfare. Under the headline 'No, Sheik, saying sorry is not good enough', columnist and ABC board member Janet Albrechtsen (The Australian, 1 November 2006) attacked Hilaly's apology to rape victims before alleging that 'many Muslims support his outpourings of hate'.

She managed to link Hilaly's outburst to TV stations run by Hamas and Hezbollah before concluding that Muslim leaders are conspiring to produce a generation of people hostile to Western values.

Yet Albrechtsen has been silent about Fisher's remarks or his attempts to explain them away. As has Peter Costello, whom Albrechtsen quoted in the wake of the Hilaly comments as saying: 'You wonder whether kids rioting down at Cronulla have heard these kinds of attitudes'.

In fact, I'm yet to hear a peep from a leader of any major political party Australian state or territory.

This isn't just another case of inconsistency inspired by sectarian prejudice, of what's good for the Muslim goose being not good for the non-Muslim gander. The clear message is that misogynistic or insensitive remarks about sexual assault victims are only worthy of universal condemnation if those making the remarks belong to the 'wrong' religious, ethnic and/or cultural background.

When an ABC board member and virtually every State and Federal MP is silent when the families of rape victims appear to be described as 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds', it means we still live in a society where violence against women is effectively tolerated — or one in which imbecilic words belittling the experience of sexual violence victims are only condemned when it serves sectarian or cultural prejudices.

Ordinary Catholics shouldn't be held accountable for Fisher's statements. They had little or no say in his appointment any more than they have in procedures used by the Church in sexual assault matters.

Nor should commentators and politicians cast aspersions on Australian Catholics in the same manner as many did on Australian Muslims. This would achieve nothing.

When sexual assault becomes a cultural or sectarian wedge, it demeans and insults the suffering of all victims and their families. It also opens to question our society's commitment to unconditionally ending violence against women.

White Ribbon Day: International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and a White Ribbon Day Ambassador.

Topic tags: bishop anthony fisher, mufti sheik hilaly, clergy abuse, uncovered meat, dwelling crankily on old wounds



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Existing comments

I welcome what is to me a new voice in Mr Yusuf, but he has misunderstood an important point. Many people rightly understood Bishop Fisher to be referring to certain journalists, not victims, 'dwelling crankily'. Fisher was later reported confirming that was precisely what he meant. It is a pity some victims were meanwhile no doubt hurt in the media scrum, again. Mr Yusuf is right to highlight how Muslims are often treated unjustly in the press, but his premise here is incorrect.
Julian McMahon | 25 July 2008

Something else to consider is that sexual assault is apparently confined to the Catholic church. The ABC television news is determined to keep this narrow focus in all its reports. The church deserves this exposure but a more balanced look at sexual assault might help in solving this very sad dilemma. Biased reporting shuts down worthwhile dialogue.
Patricia Taylor | 25 July 2008

Isn't this drawing a rather long bow?
Comparing Fisher's unfortunate adverb with Hilaly's comments seems to invite the very sectarianism the writer condemns.

When I heard Fisher's comment, I understood "crankily" to refer to the self-righteous media who use these matters as a way of increasing circulation. That it might have applied to the unfortunate victims or their families had not occurred to me and perhaps had not occurred to the bishop either. (On reflection, I realise that this was naive or worse on my part.)

As for Hilaly, I have some sympathy for him and his followers and believe that context and the noble art of patching words together to give strength to a particular interpretation of what was said had some bearing on subsequent reporting.

Some days ago, a civil court in Rome overthrew an earlier judgement that said a woman wearing tight jeans could not claim rape because removing such clothing could only be done with her consent. One wonders what kind of outrage, if any, followed that original court case.

Fisher's comment was certainly unfortunate and insensitive, but to read into it a dismissal of the suffering of victims by him or his fellow bishops is sad.
Frank O'Shea | 25 July 2008

I was pretty clear at the time that Bishop Fisher was referring to the Foster family. He was asked a question about the Pope or Pell meeting the Fosters, and made that comment in response. What does that have to do with criticising the media? There is nothing in his quote or the context that suggests this.

In my humble opinion, excusing Fisher as 'miunderstood' is akin to excusing Hilaly on the same grounds. Not good.
Justin | 25 July 2008

In case anyone is interested, Crikey published this comment yesterday.

Irfan | 25 July 2008

Bravo Irfan!

As a news journalist and a former ABC news staffer, I do blush in shame at the avalanche of obnoxious media references directed at the former Mufty Sheik Hilaly over his 'uncovered meat' comments which, of themselves, deserved to be and were utterly condemned.

There was no excuse for such a blistering personal outburst.

Comparatively, Bishop Fisher did indeed escape lightly for his remarks, but I can assure you a lot of Australians, Catholic or otherwise, would have been revulsed by them.

Attempts to say the Bishop's remarks were intended for the media rather than the victims of sexual assault don't wash.

The Bishop should never have considered making such a remark. It had the effect of being identified as part of the alleged cover-up.

Whether aired by the media, the Fosters, or anyone else, these were not "old wounds". The suicide of one of the raped girls was indeed quite recent.
Brian Haill | 25 July 2008

Irfan yusuf's points are well-taken.
Bishop Fisher's public comment cannot
be condoned
Bill Barry | 25 July 2008

My feelings went out to the parents of the girls repeatedly raped by the priest as well as their surviving daughter. What manner of selection criteria was used to exclude them from an audience with the Pope in Sydney last week? "...and the greatest of these is charity"
Jim | 25 July 2008

This is an extremely powerful, persuasive case, the more potent for its restrained, precise formulation - in contrast to the hysterical and sectarian outbursts it reveals and condemns. It is not at all clear that Fisher was referring to the media, but even if he was the timing, content and dismissiveness of the statement are alike repugnant.
Brian Matthews | 25 July 2008

I'm disappointed at Bishop Fisher's comments. He appeared to me to be both excited and tired in the interview. I would have preferred to hear him admit his insensitivity and say sorry at the time or shortly after. Old wounds that have not been treated with compassion still hurt for a long time. I expect more from Church leaders than damage control, and there's still time for a sincere apology. I invite the Bishop to follow the Pope's example and listen to the wounded.
Alex Nelson | 25 July 2008

It's an interesting idea Irfan, but I think you provide too little consideration of the substance of the remarks.

Indeed, I think the analogy ends with the fact that religious leaders made both comments.

The 'covered meat' remark goes entirely to the question of whether a crime was committed. It exculpates the perpetrator. It says rape is understandable in the circumstances.

Fisher's comments do nothing of the sort. They acknowledge the wound exists but question why some (and the comment was directed to media) would during a period of great public joy, be concentrating almost exclusively on the heinous cases of sex abuse.

Even if the comments were directed toward victims, they did not seek to negate that a crime happened.

From memory, media treatment of Fisher's comments were front page in the Herald and took up a great deal of discussion at the online site, on talkback radio etc. Indeed, for at least two days, those comments because the issue in World Youth Day.

For various reasons relating to the perception that Muslims are an oppressed minority, I suspect the outraged media coverage is considered unwarranted by many in the media establishment. Catholic Bishops have fewer backers like that.
Luke | 25 July 2008

Irfan, maybe no comment has reached you from the Church. However this ChurchWOMAN has been very vocal at least in writing on the subject of sexual abuse. It is a CRIME and has far reaching effects for at least the lifetime of the victim/s. Any abuse ought to be dealt with as a crime in the firsst instance. Thank you for your excellent article. Rosemary KeenanWA
Rosemary Keenan | 25 July 2008

You might be surprised, Luke, to learn that this very article was 'spiked' by the editor-in-chief of The Age newspaper. This is what I mean when I argue that secular media find it hard to get the balance right when it comes to believers' sentiments.

Then again, who am I to second-guess what those sentiments are?
Irfan | 25 July 2008

I challenge anyone to take a typical "muslim bashing" article by The Australian, the ones we take for granted now, substitute the word Jew for the word Muslim & imagine the furor, the cries of outrage if the article were published!

P.S. Submitted feedback here is unique: impressively so. People are using their real names.
david hicks | 26 July 2008

I certainly didn't think Bishop Fisher was referring to the media. It seemed to me that he was 'cranky' that he was not being allowed to keep his enthusiasm for WYD08 intact! I winced for the Fosters in the light of what they had suffered, and are still suffering. He made his comment publicly, and every decency demands that he let it be known equally publicly that he apologises to the Fosters for it.
Joe Castley | 26 July 2008

You might be surprised, Luke, to learn that this very article was 'spiked' by the editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan newspaper. This is what I mean when I argue that secular media find it hard to get the balance right when it comes to believers' sentiments.

Then again, who am I to second-guess what those sentiments are?
Irfan | 26 July 2008

Thanks Irfan for recognizing that there are Catholics who are appalled by Fisher's insensitive dismissal of such disgraceful crimes against children and their deep impact upon the victims and their families. My heart goes out to the Fosters who have had to struggle against such callous treatment from Church leaders and officials in their seeking for justice. Is this callousness the example that we want to provide for World Youth. I think not. I for one, would have welcomed a much thorough scrutiny of this in our press.
Barbara | 26 July 2008

I agree with your general point Irfan, we generally find it easier to spot the negative in others but not so good at recogising the negative impact of our own comments.

However, you are not quite correct when you say 'Ordinary Catholics shouldn't be held accountable for Fisher's comments [because] they had little or no say in his appointment any more than they have in procedures used by the Church in sexual assault matters.'

On one level this is obviously true but on another, any member of the Church, let alone the general public, who does not make an attempt to voice their opinion over church appointments and the like where they see a question mark, or anyone who does not express outrage regarding the negative or hostile comments of any religious 'leaders', regardless of the branch of faith, is to some degree culpable.
david akenson | 28 July 2008

I think Joe Castley has it right. I felt sympathy for Bishop Anthony that, in his frustration, he had made such a stupid remark. That sympathy didn't diminish my deep sorrow about the way our church has handled sexual abuse matters. Please God, we will finally face what we need to do courageously and bring some kind of comfort to the victims and their families.
Margaret McDonald | 28 July 2008

Bishop Fisher was insensitive in his comments. Skeikh El-Hilaly was much more than insensitive but also downright ignorant and set in a common view of women held by many in that part of the world where he is from. Big difference.

Fisher's comments leave room for him to reflect on being so offhand and rash. El-Hilaly's sermon was thought out and premeditated. World's apart.
Ken | 03 August 2008

Only just came across this article. I'd like to think that Bishop Fisher meant the media, but even if he was, that wasn't a sensitive thing to say. Nevertheless, I believe it is no different to the shitstorm that the Beatles found themselves in after John Lennon said they were more popular than Jesus. That may have been true, but that was another comment that caused a stir.
Mark | 25 March 2016


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