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The unholiest of PR spin

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27 September 2012

Judy Courtin
Judy Courtin

by Judy Courtin

Facing the Truth is the title of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne's submission to State Parliament's inquiry into the handling of child abuse by churches and others. The title also becomes the leitmotif of a church press release on the submission - that the church of today has been ''open about the horrific abuse that has occurred in Victoria and elsewhere'' and ''we put the child first''.

What is designed to look like a confession and a genuine mea maxima culpa, is nothing but unholy PR spin.

First, consider the numbers. Archbishop Denis Hart claims about 620 cases of child abuse relating to crimes committed over the past 80 years have been upheld by the church in Victoria. This does not reflect the true number. According to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, a maximum of 10 per cent of people who were sexually assaulted as children will ever report those crimes to police.

Whether more or fewer people will report to the police than the church, we don't know. But broadly this figure means we have more than 6000 victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse in this state.

Second, the church claims that by ''facing the truth'' it is being open about the horrific abuse. If this were so, the church would, today, hand to police all its secret archives holding thousands of documents relating to decades of clergy sex offences and their cover-ups. On this latter point the press release is silent. The church instead hides this evidence.

If the church were serious about ''facing the truth'' and putting victims first, it would not put them through the trauma of a formal inquiry. For victims, the writing of a submission is a daunting task. A group submission to the parliamentary inquiry from about 32 people in the Ballarat region was lodged last week, yet only 11 of them contributed to the submission's content. The rest were not able to discuss or write down the horrors of their past. But they wanted to be involved and so supported the submission, which they said reflected their own experiences. Giving oral evidence to the committee will be another highly stressful experience for the victims.

If the church divulged and confronted the crimes, victims and their families would not have to be put through hell again. The sincerity of the church must be challenged when it says it is putting victims first. It vehemently continues to stand by the Ellis defence - a legal defence that disallows victims suing the church for compensation. If it is being ''open about the horrific abuse'', why spend millions of dollars defending the criminal cases of known and convicted clergy paedophiles? This money would be better spent as compensation for victims.

The church claims to have learnt from past failures and changed the way it deals with victims and offenders.

In 1996 it developed its internal complaints procedures, the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing. It argues these processes help victims, yet evidence overwhelmingly shows that the processes are abusive and traumatic for victims.

Some have committed suicide after going through them and many others developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Some say the processes are worse than the original abuse.

In relation to the offenders, the church argues that these internal processes ''take action against abusers''. Surely the best action would be for the church to report these offenders to the police. But since the Melbourne Archdiocese has not reported a single case to the police, the community can only assume these paedophiles have been shielded by the hierarchy.

The press release aims to convince the public that the church is now doing the right thing by putting preventive measures in place to protect children and vulnerable adults. There is nothing virtuous or saintly about this. Such measures are a legal requirement that secular schools and other organisations have abided by for decades.

The Victorian church's submission is to include the details of the structure and governance of the church and its many layers of authority and responsibility. This part of the submission will outline the same defence or excuse used by Cardinal George Pell, which argues that the leader of each archdiocese, diocese or religious order is not responsible for anything that happens outside his or her own plot. But what of their moral and ethical obligations? An artificial canonical boundary should not prevent a church leader from doing the right thing by all victims of the one Catholic Church, regardless of geography.

It has taken the threat of a parliamentary inquiry to force the church to act. But alas, this ecclesiastical acting is of the thespian variety only. The church is not ''facing the truth'' and ''putting victims first''. It is trying hard to be what it is not. If the regular secular leopard cannot change its spots, then neither can the offending Catholic variety.

Judy Courtin is a lawyer and PhD student in the Faculty of Law at Monash University, conducting research into sexual assault and the Catholic Church.

This article originally appeared in The Age.

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