Australia is currently in the very early stages of setting up a Royal Commission into child abuse in Institutions in Australia and it naturally is going to heavily feature the Catholic Church but also include institutions like Government Departments and other religions too. From the stories appearing in the Media, it is long overdue and it may well last as long as the Irish Inquiry that took 10 years to wind up.
This is not the first investigation by the way. Indeed 2 Australian States, Victoria and New South Wales, have their own processes underway at this very moment and there have been others before them, but the game has changed due to a number of factors.
1. Historical bad behaviour
2. Higher visibility within Government
3. FaceBook and a potentially engaged population
4. Higher expectations in the Community
Firstly, the bad behaviour. We seem to be awash with personal accounts from folk who have been victims of abusers and sadly appeals to those who should control those abusers have been largely ignored. Even more infuriating has been the tactic of Blaming the Victim rather than addressing the systemic problems.
A classic example of this was when Anglican Bishop Peter Hollingworth was appointed as Governor General for Australia. He went on a TV program and defended his inaction over sex abuse claims with a hint that children can be part of the problem.
This defence used to be employed in the days when Churches were held in higher regard but those days have long since passed. Nevertheless it still look 6 months before he realised he should step down.
On the scale of annoying the Public though, the personable Bishop Hollingworth is small beer compared to Cardinal Pell over at the Catholic Church. A chap who presumed to be a moral authority for his fellow Australians and often hit the media to say so, has come up well short when it comes to dealing with Abusers within his management team.
Cardinal Pell seems to have been regarded as a rising star within the Church and is often labelled as the highest ranking Catholic in Australia, but other parts of the Church have side lined him on social issues. An interesting insight can be gained from the Cardinal’s use of words. He continually labelled those who had suffered at the hands of his employees as Complainants. Efforts he made to deal with abuse cases are looking increasingly like an aggressive suppression of the victims.
When you add to these chaps the stories from Ireland and the Vatican’s responses, you can see why the general public attitude has reached a level where action is demanded.
Higher Visibility within Government is a growing problem for those who have been ineffective in controlling their abusive members. This is an evolving situation that some politicians have failed to recognise. In times past you could hold an inquiry, stack the panel, and make the results unavailable to the population.
Those days have passed too.
The Victorian inquiry, especially, was started by the State Attorney General Robert Clark, a Christian. He appointed brand new MP’s to the panel and made the terms of reference conducive to a cover up. It looked like a nice easy whitewash was in the offing. Then the public and the Media got involved and suddenly he lost control of the play book. Now we have had horrendous headlines in the newspapers and little chance of him being able to suppress the final report.
The New South Wales inquiry was even more disastrous for those who wanted to keep things under control. When NSW Police decided to sideline Detective Inspector Fox who was complaining about the Catholic Church not co-operating, he went directly to the Media in the form of the respected LateLine program under Tony Jones.
This could well be the critical moment that broke through for the victims and those who may well end up victims if things go unchanged. Had Inspector Fox simply complained to the upper levels within NSW Police, the NSW inquiry would have petered out and everything remained the same. Instead it has exploded into the public eye and caused the current PM Julia Gillard, an Atheist, to set up a Royal Commission into child abuse across the board.
FaceBook and a potentially engaged population. Here is where things get especially interesting. In our modern day world, the agenda is driven for the most part by the media. Up till now if you have something unpleasant to deal with (or not deal with) and you had influence with the scribes, you could defuse concerns or even make them invisible through calling in a few favours. The decline in the consumption of newspapers and TV has sent folk in to the Net and suddenly things are much harder to manage.
And with any luck this is going to get even less manageable. Currently services like FaceBook have been used in a fairly shallow manner but they have the potential to become politically aware to the point where you can build up a network of folk to remind the politicians what you want them to do. This used to require enough motivation to actually write to your local member but now a simple email is just a couple of key presses away.
More importantly, as folk get involved they start to realise that they have the power to effect change. Indeed, its their job. A leg up for Democracy that has been sorely needed.
Of course its not all home and hosed though. Folk are still learning to stretch their FB muscles and there is a learning curve. I’m currently assisting to Admin a FB page that is monitoring the Aussie Royal Commission. Deflecting those who simply wish to dump on Churches and Institutions is part of the role but also discussing developments and assisting folk to make the decision to come forward is a major part too.
I think it’s working. We are getting less Conspiracy Theorists these days and some contributors like Manny Waks, have been extremely effective. Even to the point of media appearances and directly challenging their own brand of religion.
Higher expectations in the community. Nothing has really been said about this but I’m crediting Feminism with having a very positive impact of what people expect in our society. If we were still travelling in the dim dark days before the Sisterhood became active, women would still be accepting the she was asking for it model. Blindly accepting whatever the powers that be told them to accept and filling the role of dutiful 2nd class citizen wife. But nowadays the community overall (and not just feminists) realise we should expect a more even society, and demand action when it is unbalanced.
It has been a very unhealthy system. Systemic abuse is a direct result of letting the blokes run the show without questioning their behaviour. It was able to be built up by giving a level of trust that was ultimately undeserved. The phrase of absolute power corrupts absolutely nicely captures the problem.
Without the higher expectations bought to us by Feminism we would still be allowing the abuse to continue, but now we expect an improved attitude towards women and indeed other groups in society. It’s worth remembering that after years of chaps claiming Feminism has done little for women in lower socio economic groups, the evidence is quite to the contrary. Our society is moving towards equality in a whole host of areas and not just women’s issues have benefitted.
In summary, we stand at a critical point in addressing the problem of Institutional abuse. If we embrace the chance and maintain the focus we could finally see a better outcome than any attempts that have come before. But it will take a level of concentration from the public. If we drop the ball then champions like Detective Inspector Peter Fox, will have risked all for little gain and the abuse will continue.
In the initial rush the Catholic Church has born the brunt of criticism with some folk seeming to regard it as a lost cause rolling around on its death bed. I’m certainly not one of those folk. The Church has outlived every prediction of it’s demise but far more importantly, we need to embrace those within it who wish to foster real change. Supporting these brave folk, and the inevitable whistle blowers, is key to solving, or at least minimising, the abuse tragedy within the Catholic Church.
On a darker note, it may even be about to get a good deal harder. The current Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is a close friend of Cardinal Pell and underwent training for the Priesthood. He has a terrible reputation when it comes to moral issues even replying to the question on women’s rights to refuse sex of “No means no?” with “it needs to be moderated”. That suggests he stands a good deal closer to Cardinal Pell than the general public when matters of sexual conduct are involved.
In an area where suspicion of political interference gets folk nervous, Tony could well be a huge fly in the ointment.
But of course Tony Abbott is not the only one who could undermine the Royal Commission. Quite a number of lesser profile politicians have drawn their power base from religious connections and these folk are the more dangerous. Anything Mr Abbott does will get scrutinised but some of these lesser lights will be keeping their heads down but working to the same end.
Danger also lurks in the Media. Coming in to bat for the Defenders of the Faith are the hard right wing political commentators, Gerard Henderson and Andrew Bolt. Their Murdoch heritage sees them defending Church Leaders rather than being outraged and demanding better behaviour.
With the change in society’s expectations up against entrenched behaviour and powerful defenders, interesting times lie ahead.