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Best of 2012: No lowly scapegoats in 'necessary' Royal Commission


A Royal Commission is or should be a rare sight. A Royal Commission is a short-term, immensely powerful 'star chamber' set up by the executive. They should be few, because governments shouldn't be allowed to force people to give evidence, possibly incriminate themselves and be exposed to public obloquy, without compelling reason.

There is such reason, and the blood has been crying out for justice for far too long. Adult survivors of sex crimes against them as children, by men who presented as the personification of God, have seen their assailants protected by the institutions they worked in. They and their advocates were finally backed up, surprisingly by police. It takes the force to confront the misuse of force.

It started with the Victorian Police Commissioner's submission to the feeble Parliamentary inquiry established by Premier Baillieu this year. He was scathing about the local Catholic Church's obstruction of police investigations and its staggeringly complete failure to report known paedophile priests.

Then Peter Fox, a senior Newcastle police officer, went public and, in his own words, 'threw away' his career by demanding a Royal Commission into these cover-ups. When he was, instead, handed an inquiry into the response to reported sex crimes in his own district, the ensuing public disgust became politically necessary to assuage.

It was the quickest and most effective campaign I have ever seen, and bore fruit yesterday when the Prime Minister announced a Commission into institutional responses to sex crimes against children in their care.

Peter Fox has already been vilified as 'unstable', as it is ever the case for a whistleblower. He was a brave and decent man on last night's ABC 7.30 Report. So was Frank Brennan, the 'meddlesome priest', who told the ABC later that evening that responsibility for the repulsed investigations and the wretched decision-making that put the interests of the institution ahead of the love of God, goes high. Very high. There can be no lowly scapegoats here.

This inquiry will be different. It must, because it would be another crime to indulge in titillating tales of torture, rape and beatings, and community outrage against 'beasts' who do these things. The beasts include ourselves.

This investigation will be into the machinations of the institutions which represent the obligation of the state to protect children from exploitation and torture, and to facilitate their recovery. This duty is best set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but that has only been with us since 1990, when Australia ratified it.

But it is also into the wretched writhing of bodies who set themselves up in the name of God and religion and the eternal, who claim privileges in every day life, and who we trusted. Whom children trusted. Who betrayed them.

I have worked my entire professional life for the right of every child to be heard, treated as a human being of innate worth and dignity, and taken seriously. I have appeared in courts, written papers, books and set up a commission for children's rights.

So it is not lightly that I say that our lack of care has taken away childhoods. Adult survivors have had their souls stolen, and every insulting excuse (it was only after Vatican II; we didn't know; a man is entitled to be presumed innocent; a child can't be believed; we sent him away for treatment; we didn't know then what we know now) reminds them daily about the ultimate betrayal of trust.

This Commission must find a way to institutionalise the right of every child to be heard. It isn't about punishing the predators. We have to change, deeply. We must learn to listen to every child, as a moral equal.

One of the informing moments of my career came from the survivors of a family which had finally disclosed that an authoritarian, imposing father had beaten and raped every one of his children under the very eye of their mother, who 'noticed' when he introduced his latest sexual partner, her eldest daughter's best friend, into the bed — and came to me.

I interviewed every one of those children, and told her what they told me. In my presence and in theirs, she swore she didn't know: that it had always happened while she was working to support the family, usually on night shifts. In my presence two of those children said, 'But we told you, Mum.' She didn't hear. Even then, she didn't hear.

This is not to be an inquiry into the monsters who, like that father, take advantage of the needy and vulnerable. I expect it to reveal more than we might like about why men and women just don't hear what children say or inquire into what they might say, who don't notice patterns of behaviour  in popular or powerful men, and turn a blind eye to the demonisation of the children who go 'wild'.

I expect it to challenge some, at least, of the many men and women who, in their ordinary work and routine, deny the probability or truth of children's stories, of managers and pastors who choose to defer and refer responsibility to others and who wash their hands of the results of others' failure to achieve justice; who choose, in committees and after conferences with counsel, to decline to participate in investigations; and who may even be naive enough to accompany a paedophile to court: who escort from their desks those who try to act effectively about reporting and protecting the abuse of children's rights; who take comfort in their insurers' advice, and protect the reputations and safety deposit boxes of their respectable institutions.

It will take years — the Irish commission took ten — and millions, and will destroy some reputations and lives and ambitions: and it may not be fair. It will not target just the Catholic Church.

This is a direct call, to reassess the status of children. Compensating damaged adults and listening to them now is not enough. It sends a warning to all those comfortable people who believe in their own virtue. You should not be comfortable. Your sacred space has been defiled. Your institutions designed to protect children instead have given comfort and protection to their rapists and bullies.

May there be hope for the boys and girls who are being groomed and frightened today and tonight. May this Commission's work tie a millstone around the necks of those who have hurt these little ones, by not loving and respecting their rights. May we see a sea change.

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. 

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Royal Commission, Frank Brennan, Peter Fox, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

Let us hope that all who are called to give evidence at this commission will have the best legal help at no expense to themselves. It is always grotesquely wrong if one has to go to court for this sort of enquiry or indeed any enquiry and not have ALL their expenses paid for. It should not be a lawyer's picnic.

Peter | 08 January 2013  

Moira I agree wholeheartedly with every word. In particular your comments about the mother who doesn't see/hear what is going on under her very nose, and the demonisation of the child who goes "wild". I have seen the legacy in many years as both family and criminal lawyer and then magistrate in both adult and youth criminal and child protection courts. It is too late when we leave it to being a matter of merely financially compensating, and apologising to the devastated children as adults.

Stephanie Tonkin | 08 January 2013  

Ms Rayner is right. The inquiry is not "into the monsters". Nevertheless, the "monsters" must be held responsible for their deeds. Embedded into the faith (of these "monsters") is the notion that all crimes are forgivable under the blanket of confessions. This is why the faith concerned has drifted away from its original beliefs. The "monsters" like all monsters will always hide behind their faith to commit evil deeds.

Alex Njoo | 08 January 2013  

“The intellectual climate of the 1970s, for which the 1950s had already paved the way, contributed to this. A theory was even finally developed at that time that pedophilia should be viewed as something positive. Above all, however, the thesis was advocated-and this even infiltrated Catholic moral theology-that there was no such thing as something that is bad in itself. There were only things that were "relatively" bad. What was good or bad depended on the consequences.In such a context, where everything is relative and nothing intrinsically evil exists, but only relative good and relative evil, people who have an inclination to such behavior are left without no solid footing. Of course pedophilia is first rather a sickness of individuals, but the fact that it could become so active and so widespread was linked also to an intellectual climate through which the foundations of moral theology, good and evil, became open to question in the Church. Good and evil became interchangeable; they were no longer absolutely clear opposites.” ? Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times - A Conversation with Peter Seewald

Mark | 08 January 2013  

In your last paragraph you alluded to the words of Our Lord on the subject of those who harm the innocent--that it would be better for the perpetrators and by extension those who protect them,to have a millstone tied round their necks and be thrown into the sea. If this terrible crime is not going to happen again we the people of God must first and always keep what Jesus said about love and what he also said about its opposite as the touchstone by which we measure what we do. Too often the institution and those who are supposed to lead it are concerned with its preservation when in fact they are hiding a canker that will and has broken out to the horror of those who just want to get on with being part of Christ's Church.

Helen Walsh | 08 January 2013  

Moira I think that the church hierarchy can’t see past their own context of Institutional power. Their culture seems to bear little resemblance to the missionary heart of Jesus. Why didn’t bishops and cardinals study and ‘listen carefully’ to Scripture and the message of Jesus regarding the innocence of children? That the open and non-judgemental mind of a young child is a premium attribute that followers of Christ should aspire to. But instead they focused upon a model of Church Institution that reflected a moral and ethical code more aligned with the old Law of Moses. It is my belief that each priest, parent or pastor is personally responsible to God for their actions and chosen responses in this life and Holy Orders or claims of ‘institutional’ ignorance will not eliminate this vital fact. Jesus said: “There are many rooms in my Father’s house”. The attitude of Church leaders is bringing about their own downfall. The centuries old Vatican powerbase they have made has blinded them to the needs of innocent children. Perhaps they will all end up in heaven’s basement.

Trish Martin | 08 January 2013  

I am still amazed at the enormous 'cover up' by psychiatry that advised bishops and religious superiors; and furthermore, kept certifying now recognised recidivist pedophile priests as cured and recyclable[an approach still present in American Psychological Societies Manuals viz DSM: "In the earlier DSM-III-R, pedophilia was diagnosed as a disorder if "The person has acted out on these urges, or is markedly distressed by them". (Page 285, paragraph B of Diagnostic criteria for 302.20 Pedophilia). In DSM-IV, Paragraph B of the same section (Page 528) is changed to read, "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning." Simply acting out on the urges is no longer a basis for pedophilia being considered a disorder. If the individual is not distressed or impaired by what he is doing, then to the psychiatric community, it is healthy behavior.[NB:NO DSM REFERENCE ABOVE OF HARM TO VICTIMS MENTIONED] Identical changes in the criteria for diagnosing sexual sadism and masochism, transvestitism, voyeurism and exhibitionism have also been made in DSM-IV" Will the Royal Commission address such grave lacunae in psychological literature, and norms of perennial psychiatric praxis, given the influence of psychiatry on recycling pedophile priests [at least in the past??] http://freeministry.org/h/articles/regenera/apa.htm

Father John George | 08 January 2013  

Vis a vis my last post, one psychiatrist was reported in "Newcastle Herald Saturday, 22 September 2007 By Joanne McCarthy: "The Hunter Region's most notorious pedophile priest was "consoled" by a psychiatrist in Melbourne in 1975 with the words: "You're not the only one to have done something like this. [FrJG adds[9/1]: All in accord with DSM-IV doctrine on the "distressful and social/occupational impairment" cum desensitisation therapeutic.

Father John George | 09 January 2013  

Too bad the inquiry will not deal with the impact of Family Court orders which still result in children exposed to wicked family members, mostly father. Sexual abuse of children is not an issue on it's own. It's all too often aided by "the system" which ought to protect them.

Phil | 11 January 2013  

I plan to make a submission to the commission detailing the warped sense of morality and trust I developed due to witnessing the sex abuse of my colleagues at school. My so-called "sex education" was basically left to the hands of a sociopathic sexual predator. For three years, probably longer, so many of the boys in my school were abused by this vowed religious Brother, and all with knowledge of teachers. I want to know why I wasn't attractive enough to the Brother to be worthy of abuse too. Was there something wrong with me?

AURELIUS | 11 January 2013  

Father John George, one does not need to consult a psychiatrist to see the evil potential of paedophilia and its outcome (child sex abuse). It is wrong not because it's a psychiatric disorder, but because it damages children. Depression is also a destructive disorder. It can lead to relationship breakups - but it's not illegal to be irritable or paranoid or hyper-vigilant or even psychotic. The comparison you make to other variant sexual habits like "sexual sadism and masochism, transvestitism, voyeurism and exhibitionism" are presumably consensual fetishist activities among adults. The sexual abuse of minors is not a fetish that can be "diagnosed" by a psychiatrist.

AURELIUS | 11 January 2013  

Obviously, one doesn't need a psychiatrist to certify pedophile acts as mortal sin, but absurd DSM manual, psychiatric misdiagnosis as discussed can and has proliferated that mortal sin exponentially. Thus the past and present disaster needs uncovering at the Royal Commission![lest we miss the Freudian couches for the confessional boxes]

father john george | 12 January 2013  

As a person who returned to active Christianity only 10 or so years ago after an absence of perhaps 30 years, I find this incredibly confronting as I really had no idea it existed, at least on the scale it apparently does. I have listened to others, thought about it and prayed. I can only agree with Moira Rayner's article in its entirety. Nevertheless, the revelations are, strangely, confirming my faith, and my personal commitment as a Christian, to see that the congregation of the established Church to which I belong does all it can to take the necessary steps to rid itself of this "canker".

John Abernethy | 12 January 2013  

Well, Father George, why would the church heed the warning of psychiatry in the case of paedophilia when it ignores the consensus in other areas? In 1991 the absolute equality of homosexuality and heterosexuality was strongly defended in a paper called "The Empirical Basis for the Demise of the Mental Illness Model" (Gonsiorek, 1991).

AURELIUS | 16 January 2013  

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