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Church sexual abuse in the media


Cardinal George Pell

If there is anything amusing about the Iraq War, it is the reality-defying propaganda broadcasts of President Saddam Hussein’s information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, otherwise known as ‘Comical Ali’. As the Americans were closing in on Baghdad in 2003, he extolled the invincibility of the Iraqi Army and the permanence of Saddam's rule.

Those paying close attention to media coverage of clergy sexual abuse might find Cardinal George Pell’s defence of the Church hard to swallow. He suggested to The Weekend Australian on Saturday that the Church has been unfairly vilified, and is no worse than other organisations. ‘Anti-Catholic prejudice is one of the few remaining prejudices ... among some circles’. 

Then in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday, he wrote: ‘It is hard to name any other Australian organisation that has done more to produce a safe environment for young people [than the Church]’.

When you are being attacked by the media, it is natural to defend your turf, especially if you’re a Church leader and you firmly believe that the good the Church does far outweighs the evil. 

But in the context of a massive outpouring of public anger and emotion – not to mention an overwhelming body of evidence – it is surely better to approach sexual abuse in an empathetic manner before attempting to put facts on the table. Some kind of catharsis is needed as a precondition for reconciliation.

This is where Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle is leading the way. Fairfax reported yesterday that he plans to attend next month’s launch of Holy Hell, a book dealing with the abuse of an altar boy by a priest who later died in jail. 

The author is the boy’s mother Patricia Feenan. She has already lauded the bishop for his decision to attend. ‘He's a brave man. Almost as brave as my son who will come up from Tasmania for it,’ she said. 

Listening to victims without prejudgement could and should become the order of the day for the Church, perhaps in a systematic fashion, as long as it does not interfere with state inquiries. In the process, it may become clear which claims justify the most attention.

Empathy is something media investigations do well in that the victims can feel the benefit of powerful public support and understanding. But it is important that the reports not jump to conclusions and take the place of the court system.

The lesson from yesterday’s news of the resignation of BBC Director-General George Entwistle is that investigative journalism is fallible. One of the most highly regarded media investigation teams in the English-speaking world got it wrong, with its mistaken identification of a former government official as a pedophile by the BBC's Newsnight team. 

The announcement that all investigative reporting on the BBC Newsnight program is suspended indefinitely is a signal that we should regard the judgments of all investigative reporting with a degree of skepticism, though there is still important value in the catharsis that its interviews often produce. We should also remember that the much derided Comical Ali was eventually vindicated for one of his improbable claims, which was his assertion that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Comical Ali.church sexual abuse, George Pell, BBC, George Entwistle



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Existing comments

I was somewhat bemused when media asked Cardinal Pell whether a Royal Commission about sexual abuse within the Catholic church was called for and he replied in the negative. His opinion should not be sought on that matter, in my view. As Michael says, it is important that media not jump to conclusions - but media is a vital way, and sometimes the only way, for victims to have their say. I think more and more voices will be heard calling for a Royal Commission and, in the end, the government would be wise to listen to the voices of the citizens of this country.

Pam | 12 November 2012  

Timely and sage advice Michael. However, I think the Cardinal was his own worst enemy in the media. When he made the comment " the sex abuse crisis has done enormous damage to the church, and to the victims", he revealed once again the fundamental problem. He is still giving priority to the image of the Church, rather than to the plight of the victims. Reporting of this is not at risk, and no journalist need fear accusations of biased reporting. If this is what the Cardinal said, and the Church has been reminded of this mistake countless times these last 10 years or so, then "the Church" is just plain self-interested to a fault.

Garry | 12 November 2012  

Thata there is a certain amount of facttwisting and manipulation is, in my view, beyond aby doubt. That the Catholic Church is the greatest, as it is often protryaed by some circles, the greatest twister, remains to be seen and... proved.

Tony | 12 November 2012  

MIchael I found your article both a covert defence of the indefensible and a poor attempt to deflect blame onto the media. Let's get the facts straight. Did the 30 to 40 suicides of males once molested by priests and reported in the Age by a police officer occur or not? Until there is a completely independent, wide-ranging Royal Commission into the issue of widespread abuse by trusted clergy, more victims and their families will suffer. I cannot understand how people who purport to uphold moral standards in the community can perpetrate and defend such heinous crimes. As a parent of four daughters, I find the hypocrisy mind-numbing. (Were you referring to Chemical Ali, [not "Comical Ali"] so named for his use of chemical weapons to wipe out many hundreds of northern Kurds? Again, close attention to the facts?)

bill hampel | 12 November 2012  

It is pathetic to see George Pell transferring responsibility for these scandals by resorting to the age-old Catholic paranoia about anti-Catholicism. Is that all he can say? More than pathetic, indecent. As the Australian cardinal his knowledge of the facts of these scandals must go back decades. It is rather like Hans Kung’s reply to someone who asked what Pope Benedict knew about all of this business. He’s the one who knows everything, he has to. While the hierarchy stonewalls, the media will keep pushing this issue as hard as it can. The glimpses the public is now getting of these abhorrent stories of sexual abuse only reveals how widespread, systemic and serious it has been. The hierarchy and others in the church do not want to face the inevitable, but there may well have to be an implosion, a quite serious reckoning. The people of God shouldn’t be afraid of the house being put in order, but career prelates should have a lot to worry about. They are the ones who are suppressing the truth. What is needed is a Daniel come to judgement. As it is, nothing is going to solve this situation. The church authority hasn’t the willpower or the grace.

YOURS TRULY | 12 November 2012  

Has Mr. Mullins got his tongue in his cheek here, opening the door for this all to be a media fabrication and a total misunderstanding? Of course, the situation in the BBC is appalling, no question, but it hardly compares with the total denial of Cardinal Pell and those Bishops of the Catholic Church who have engineered the current situation, does it? But this not only reflects badly on the leaders of the Catholic Church, does it? Also involved, complicit in cover-ups and put-downs of the vicitims of these 'misdeeds' are numerous politicians and police officers. That much is clear just from the police officer who appeared on Lateline last week. And part of the problem is that 'the Church', that is, all religions/faiths, not just Christianity or even Catholicism, are treated as equal partners in the state, when they are not at all. By all means, let's have a thorough investigation of all religious organisations and how they operate in our world but let's start by seeing organised religion for what it is, an industry in need of oversight, with limits on its powers and state-granted privileges.

janice wallace | 12 November 2012  

I still think there are too many who don't get the fact that sexual abuse is a criminal act and we Catholics have been covering it up for decades if not centuries. Yes, lets clean out the stable and have a Royal Commission since it seems beyond us to do the job. Then we can get on with the Lords work which is what we are supposed to be here for.

Ken FULLER | 12 November 2012  

Janice Wallace makes some good points, but her understanding of Church is full of universalising and false generalisations. 'The Church' cannot be expanded to mean “all religions/faiths”, nor is it true to say that they are “treated as equal partners in the state”. This is simply not the case. It is a terrible mistake to define organised religion as an “industry”, in the way that our capitalist society wants to call everything an industry, e.g. the education industry, the health industry. Church and Christianity cannot be compartmentalised in this way, though there are governments in some countries (blessedly not Australia) that try very hard to do so. One has to be very careful in this debate to see that the church’s authority and governance, and in this case the Catholic Church’s, is not the same thing as the church itself. The ecclesiology of the Catholic Church includes a strong hierarchical structure, which is part of its history and tradition. When episcopacy works well it works brilliantly, when it doesn’t we have what is going on in Australia at the moment. Des Cahill at the Enquiry says that the present culture cannot fix the problem and he is right, but what he means is that the entrenched hierarchical nature of the church makes it impossible to proceed. Many in the church itself are stricken and angry about the revelations. It is a situation not unlike that in Ireland over the past ten-twenty years, where the hierarchy failed its people and now the Church has to rebuild from the ground up.

YOURS TRULY | 12 November 2012  

This article is not helpful to understanding the destructive nature of any and all sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Indeed Mullins is engaging in the very thing he warns against. He would have been better to have simply kept quiet.

Jennifer Herrick | 12 November 2012  

Two glorious quotes from the Cardinal: "Back in those days, they were entitled to think of pedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of. They didn't realise that in the worst cases it was an addiction, a raging addiction." "I wish I could say yes, (child abuse will stop) completely, but original sin is universal," he said yesterday. Ah, well, there you go. Original sin eh? Inevitable then isn't it? And now we have pedophilia elevated from 'sin' to 'addiction', bypassing 'crime' altogether. Truly NewSpeak from our Cardinal.

Andy Fitzharry | 12 November 2012  

Well said Ken Fuller, too true. One has to wonder just how far the Eureka Street team actually understands the appalling situation the Catholic Church is in today, with Cardinal Pell making light of the situation so readily while police officers, at last, are willing to expose themselves to career halting actions on national TV. Pam gets it, Garry gets it, Bill gets it, Yours Truly gets it, but the author of this article seems to be reluctant to get it, and he is what, the editor of Eureka Street. Not a promising thought for a balanced view into the stirrings in the Catholic Church, particularly those stirrings in priestly Y fronts.

janice wallace | 12 November 2012  

Child predators need to be kept far away from kids forever... BUT, an even more powerful danger is when high ranking church officials enable, empower, and cover up these crimes against kids. They need to be held accountable for allowing more innocent kids to be sexually abused. It is and was a crime to sexually abuse a child. Child sex abuse thrives in secrecy and secret systems that allow it to continue to this day. Keep in mind that child predators rarely have only one victim. So if you have been harmed by anyone in the church system, your silence only hurts, and by speaking up, contacting the police, and exposing the truth, there is a chance for healing, and protecting others. Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511. snapjudy@gmail.com, http://www.snapnetwork.org/ "SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) is the world's oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. SNAP was founded in 1988 and has more than 12,000 members. Despite the word priest in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, teachers, Protestant ministers and increasingly, victims who were assaulted in a wide range of institutional settings like orphanages, summer camps, athletic programs, Boy Scouts, etc." http://www.snapaustralia.org/

Judy Jones | 12 November 2012  

This issue has become an avalanche. The church has to stop hiding behind 'the confessional' and allow a Royal Commission to find out the truth. If the church isn't guilty of hiding and protecting abusers, it has nothing to fear. No doubt the shredders have been working hard though to destroy any incriminating evidence as they have been allowed to avoid scrutiny for far too many years. Victims deserve better. The longer we wait, the more records are likely to be destroyed. I for one have NO faith in the integrity of the church because of its dodging and weaving for decades on this awful issue.

Sue | 12 November 2012  

Jesus stood wrongly accused also - but knowing he was innocent and having faith that it's not earthly pride that matters - he had the courage to face his accusers. The church must do the same.

AURELIUS | 12 November 2012  

The calls for a Royal Commission are ridiculous and disproportionate (for once I find myself agreeing with Cardinal Pell!). The idea that we should have a wide-ranging inquiry into child abuse by the Catholic Church and each and every other organisation in Australia that looks after the welfare of children is ludicrous and ill-considered. Inquiries are intended to be focussed on making findings about specific allegations, rather than at-large investigations into societal problems. It's almost like saying 'let's have a national royal commission into robbery or murder'.

The number of witnesses and alleged victims would be enormous. Everyone would want to have a say. The Premier's decision to limit the inquiry to specific allegations being made about the actions of both the police and the Church in the Hunter region was correct. The ABC radio coverage of this issue this morning was pathetic and again showed its anti-catholic bias. There is a vocal minority who would like to see the end of the Catholic church.

I think Cardinal Pell is right to try and convey a sense of perspective. It does not diminish his undoubted compassion for the victims of clergy abuse. (And Michael, I thought your article was measured and helpful so I don't know why you are copping it in some of these blogs!).

George | 12 November 2012  

Aurelius, the awkward truth about Jesus is that he was without sin. He may have been wrongly accused at various junctures, but then there were a lot of people with vested interests who would do anything to get rid of him. The same cannot be said of those who have committed these crimes, nor the people in authority who have knowingly turned a blind eye to their evil acts. It is a mistake to see the church as being wrongly accused in this situation, as though the church were innocent of any wrongdoing. Cardinal Pell and his friends protest too much precisely because this whole scandal spoils the conversation at cocktail hour. Someone in the church has to take responsibility for the destruction of whole families and personal lives. Who is that person going to be, Aurelius? And who in the church is going to act to prevent further abuse and all that follows, including lifetime psychological damage and suicide? That is the “sense of perspective” that is missing from the blogger George. It’s all about the church’s power, it’s not about the crimes that are being hushed up. And until the church comes out and faces this issue of its own making, the damage will continue on all sides. If you believe in the church, you will want to see justice being done for the victims of these crimes. As you know, it is Jesus who talks about protecting children and that those who cause them harm should have a millstone put around their neck and be cast into the ocean. That is because each one of us is the child that Christ is leading into all well-being, all life.

YOURS TRULY | 12 November 2012  

you have got to be kidding - it's obvious that Mr Mullins, like Pell: hasn't got a clue about the seriousness of this matter. A Royal Commission is needed, and ultimately the Catholic Leadership will have to resign.

Janet Burchill | 12 November 2012  

Please, oh please do not try to excuse Cardinal Pell et al.

Helen Martin | 12 November 2012  

As a practising Catholic I find this terrible situation so distressing. I believe the Church has lost moral authority and credability. The suffering experienced by victims and their families is raw and real. I hope there is a Royal Commission to have all these tragic crimes and coverups brought into the open. Let the courts decide if the church has indeed done all that needs to be amended / altered so that to quote Cardinal Pell "it is hard to name any other organisation that has done more to produce a safe environment for young people" {than the church}. This may well be true now but is has been demonstrated that this was not the case until recent years. If we have nothing to hide then we should be open to scrutiny.I find the Cardinal's comment that we are no worse than any other organisation not comforting to victims and their families nor to all the Catholics in the pews, as we should represent the Gospel values of Jesus, not swim with the tide. We need a new Pentecost. Margaret M Coffey

Margaret M Coffey | 12 November 2012  

Maybe 'George' is right? Mark Scott is a Hillsong type of Christian after all, and the ABC has 'gone soft' on religions of all flavours since Stephen Crittenden was pushed off the air with his wonderful program, The Religion Report. Instead we now have to suffer all sorts of limp and flacid shows, web pages and blogs that gloss over the hard bits Crittenden seemed to delight in going straight to. Is the head of the ABC driving a sectarian wedge into Cardinal Pell? To George. You just seem to have tapped into this need for Christians to feel they are victims all the time, rather than being able to see themselves as their own worst enemy from time to time. A note to Yours Truly on religion as industry, and being on an equal footing to the state. When religions are as-of-right not taxed they are risen to the status of equals to the state. When religions are handed services by governments for the community and paid for the running of these services from tax dollars, they are in the industry zone. Charities are untaxed, industries should not be.

janice wallace | 12 November 2012  

If the Catholic Church has nothing to hide, why would a royal commission see the end of the church, George? In a commission means the number of alleged victims is "enormous" as you say, then all the more reason for it. Compassion for victims of sexual abuse is not being anti-catholic! Are you saying the victims are ant-catholic as well? No, they are Catholic!

AURELIUS | 12 November 2012  

@Aurelius. You'll be aware that Jesus was no friend to the religious establishment of his day. He despised hypocrisy and his overwhelming message was of God's love and compassion. The citizens calling for a Royal Commission cannot be equated to a 'lynch mob' - they are overwhelmingly concerned people. I believe it is in the Catholic church's interest to have a Royal Commission.

Pam | 12 November 2012  

Cardinal Pell blames Original Sin! Is this the reason our Church has failed to evolve with the rest of society? The notion of Original Sin started in the Garden of Eden where childhood innocence gave way to evil doings (the Tree of Good and Evil verses the Tree of Life). Jesus chose the Tree of Life rather than get bogged down in the legalities of who was right and who was wrong. In Eden Adam chose to blame the woman (it’s called projection), on Calvary Jesus chose the Tree of Life: a selfless pathway of greater good (he took responsibility for the evil and gave us universal salvation). If Pell chose to surrender his notion of righteousness in order to save his Church image then he could start a momentous movement towards Church leadership in reconciliation for those of us who have lost faith in his holiness. This would be a choice for greater good!

Trish Martin | 12 November 2012  

Let's have the Royal Commission, properly mandated and supported. Let's get the truth out there, whatever the twisting done by church leaders and media editors. And, in the process, let's practise justice and respect so that the victims aren't victimized all over again. If they say they don't want to go public, they shouldn't have to!Aurelius, you're right - the victims are the Church too, and in fact may be more truly the Church than its self-appointed leaders.

Joan Seymour | 12 November 2012  

Loved that Aurelius, and would like to add, the crucifixion was nothing compared to the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Our Lord certainly needed a loyal friend there.

L Newington | 12 November 2012  

I agree whith the Premier's decision to limit the inquiry to the police and the Church in the Hunter region.If the Greens demand a Royal Commission on the whole Catholic Church, then we should have a Royal Commission on all Churches, the entire police, all schools and all teachers in Government and Private schools. The attack on the whole Catholic Church is very obvious that there is a vocal minority who would like to see the end of the Catholic Church. Some of the media is known to be anti-Catholic. There are more good and holy Catholic priests than bad ones and more good practicing Catholics than dissident catholics.

Ron Cini | 12 November 2012  

George, if you had sat, as I did today, at the Victorian committee of inquiry and heard the very specific allegations of clergy crimes against vulnerable children, you would be less gung-ho about the nature of this problem. In most cases of child rape or molestation the victim was put into the care of someone they had every right to trust. Their utter betrayal is something that many never recover from. The allegations of cover ups are serious and must be confronted.

If you had seen George Pell's supporting his friend, paedophile Gerard Ridsdale in court while his many victims were left to find their own way through the trial, you would not be so cavalier in your praise for Pell's compassion for victims. He has always put the reputation of the church first, protection of perpetrators second and victims a poor third.

Frank Golding | 12 November 2012  

Bring on the Royal Commission, I say as a member of the North Adelaide Catholic Parish Pastoral Council. The truth must be revealed at any cost and the air totally cleared, before we can move on as a church, otherwise we can claim no allegiance to our founder Jesus Christ. It is more than a disgrace that the Catholic Church is prepared to retain many of its 'shifty' heirachy and yet is prepared to see a good man sacked, such as Bishop William (Bill) Morris.

John Whitehead, Nth Ade Catholic Parish Council | 12 November 2012  

Well now the Royal Commission is being set up by the Federal Government, and not before time. The Catholic Church hierarchy has proven it is incapable of real action. I read the consensus here as “George Pell doesn’t get it; Michael Mullins doesn’t get it; the victims MUST have first priority.” The victims cry out for justice. We as the “People of God” must support them, at ALL costs. Regardless of the fact that there will be “collateral damage” to the Roman Catholic Church, caused by an abject failure of the hierarchy to follow Christ’s teaching to love God and love neighbour as ourselves. I disagree vehemently with George Pell’s statement as reported in the Weekend Australian that “these crimes were largely historic and not part of a systemic failing within the church”. It most certainly is systemic: the authoritarian structure of the church has helped to hide these crimes. Using the modifier “largely” is hardly comforting to anyone nor should it be. We need a radical transformation of the church; we should not leave government of the church in the hands of the clergy. The windows levered slightly ajar by Vatican 2 need to be completely thrown open by Vatican 3 and it can’t come soon enough. The alternative is a dying church.

Frank S | 12 November 2012  

What a day! Calls to shirk responsibility from various Catholics of influence, like Pell and that Shorten character but in the end even Pell's best mate Abbott had to agree to Gillard's decision to hold a RC into the activities of child abusers. I watched Bishop Bill and Frank Brennan tonight, and I'd have to say Bill gave a better account of himself, and a more realistic understanding of the world some Catholics live in. The RC looks far too broad, so most of the abusers will get off scott free, again, as usual. Wouldn't do to have a genuine enquiry set up by a politician into religious habits, would it? Finally, a taste of the strength of Catholicism in our police forces with the inspector who initiated the expose on Lateline telling us all his career ended last week when he appeared on the show. No wonder priests and bishops have got away with murder for so long, with mates in politics and the police. It's unlikely Gillard's shotgun approach will nail any cops, and the pollies, well, they'll just pray harder to be better people no doubt.

janice wallace | 12 November 2012  

The recent announcement by the Prime Minister of a Royal Commission into child sex abuse, supported by Cardinal Pell and the two state premiers with extant commissions, seems the only way to clear up this matter. The Herald Sun has a good article about it: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/prime-minister-julia-gillard-has-called-a-royal-commission-into-child-sexual-abuse/story-e6frf7kx-1226515462336 It will enquire into all institutional child abuse. This is the Royal Commission we needed to have. As the Prime Minister says, it may take years.

Edward F | 13 November 2012  

I agree with you Pam - but I get the sense that resistance to a commission is due a perception there is a lynchmob - rightly or wrongly. There is a lynchmob out there, but there are also guilty child abusers - so, anyway, we know now that a commission will go ahead. I wonder if young people educated in Catholic institutions who were not directly abused sexually, but had their sense of sexuality/morality/justice warped by sexual abuse of their colleagues will get a chance to speak.

AURELIUS | 13 November 2012  

I hope that whoever sets up an enquiry into this mess will pay all the expenses of all sides,there will be no definitive result and a lot of lawers will be much richer.

Peter | 13 November 2012  

Thank you Michael. "Empathy is something media investigations do well in that the victims can feel the benefit of powerful public support and understanding." It is healing also. Perhaps this is about faith and Faith too. Thank you.

Ben Quinn | 13 November 2012  

At last, but I want each state to be investigated at the same time..and this not be drawn out ...Also, to hear Pell state compensation has been paid to victims by using the Catholic Development Fund is another insult.This is for hospitals and schools; Pell needs to sell off his property and mansions to pay for all compensations.He also needs to do years of community service, as so many 'ordinary' volunteers do willingly every day.The victims of his church crimes and cover ups are often found homeless, drug addicted and psychologically and SPIRITUALLY scarred - the welfare dependent. There's a lot to 'fix', and maybe we will see something of his humanity and !!! his christian faith??

Catherine | 13 November 2012  

Sorry Michael, but the message from the news of the resignation of BBC Director-General George Entwistle is not that investigative journalism is fallible (that's hardly news), rather it is that those at the top must accept responsibility for what goes on in their organisations. Entwistle did the right and honourable thing - he resigned. So should the church's hierarchy. But I won't hold my breath.

Ginger Meggs | 14 November 2012  

MM. I find your comical Ali take, on His Eminence, exemplifying precisely the media vilification that the Cardinal has noted,tragically in this instance from a Jesuit RC Mag Editor!!

father john george | 14 November 2012  

At the end of the day the Cardinal George P or the pope or other religious leaders, why you religious people give them so much power to control your lives and waste money and time on them?

We are living in the 21 century it's a modern society as science and modern technology go up and religion should comes down eventually as the law of nature.Moreover as the cliche goes religion is the root to all evil. It's time anyone with common sense wakes up.

Fortunately I am a happy and content atheist, and living my life to the fullest.

Thai bach pham | 17 November 2012  

This article is just a pathetic version of "shoot the messenger". Protect your powerful organization at all cost.

Mike | 18 November 2012  

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