As the story has unfolded through the week, it keeps getting worse...
Covering up abuse and protecting alleged abusers
The basic line the show took is simple: the Church covered up abuse and continues to handle it badly.
This isn't old news stuff: one of the cases relates to an Australian Salesian priest whose Roman superiors are apparently still refusing to return him to Australia to deal with the accusations.
The other key accusations allege a criminal failure to report a crime to police on the part of some of Australia's more senior priests, including ACBC General Secretary Fr Brian Lucas.
The complicity of the courts and police
Four Corners' key allegation was that abuse by an Armidale priest was covered up such that when accused of abuse in court he was given a top-notch lawyer paid for by the Church and got away with it, even though the Church at the time in fact knew that he was guilty.
In reality, the story seems more complex, with several parties to blame.
A Magistrate, for example, dismissed, in 1988, the accusations out of hand at a committal hearing on the basis that the priest's word should be trusted over that of the accuser. Shouldn't that have been for a jury to assess?
Secondly, leaving aside the contested question of what Church authorities knew, the program blamed the Church for not looking for other supporting accusers - but surely given that this case reached the courts, that was actually a job for the police?
And in a subsequent case in 2004, where the priest took action against one of his victims for attempted extortion, the priest concerned apparently made admissions in court of abuse. So why wasn't he immediately charged, but instead granted an order by the court for continued suppression of his name?! And why weren't the three priests now accused of covering up his admissions back in 1992 investigated by police back then that the meeting was discussed in court?
The complicity of the secular justice system in permitting abuse to continue, covering it up, and letting off offenders either altogether, or with excessively light sentences (particularly when they happen to be members of the establishment) surely needs to be highlighted just as much as the role of the Church!
Cover up again?
The charge of cover up and protection of alleged abuser priests against the Church, though, clearly is a major issue.
The Salesian case remains unresolved, with no public response to the program being forthcoming from the order.
In relation to 'Fr F', the story claims that as far back as 1983, Church authorities were made aware of the accusations against him. Instead of action, he was shuffled between dioceses. The real heart of the matter though, relates to a meeting to consider accusations made against him in 1992.
Unfortunately, the Four Corner's team seem to have been more intent on attempting to entrap Cardinal Pell than actually getting to the bottom of the story. They asked him for his reaction to the claims on the phone from Rome - and he relied on an official record of the 1992 meeting between a panel of priests with the accused priest. Accordingly, he defended the priests in question from accusations of cover up (and continues to do so).
What the Four Corners team don't appear to have shown the Cardinal (they claim it was obtained after the show went to air) is an equally official looking letter written by one of the three priests involved to the Bishop of Armidale (in whose diocese the priest concerned was incardinated) which clearly states that the priest concerned did make admissions of abuse, thus contradicting the 'official' Sydney record. Fr F, moreover, subsequently stated in court (in 2004) that he had admitted to child abuse at the 1992 meeting.
And what makes this 1992 meeting look particularly smelly, on the face of it, is that as a result of the meeting, strong action was taken against the priest concerned. Two of the priests (Fathers Brian Lucas and John Usher) involved claim that this was because they were not satisfied with Fr F's credibility. The letter to the then bishop of Armidale by the third, Msgr Peters, provides a much stronger justification for Fr F's suspension (in 1992), though presumably it was his admissions in a second court case in 2004 that triggered his subsequent laicization (in 2005).
In the meantime, Bishop Kennedy of Armidale, perhaps the person Four Corners should have been talking to in the first place given that who has jurisdiction over the issue, has launched a full investigation into the matter. Both the Armidale and Sydney dioceses have indicated that they have contacted police and will co-operate with their investigations.
A Royal Commission?
Four Corners story added its weight to the ongoing calls for a Royal Commission.
I'm not terribly convinced - first, why pick just on the Catholic Church? It is surely clear by now that many institutions have been contaminated by the scourge of child abuse and other immorality, and handled them (and continue to handle them) just as badly.
Still, the Church's credibility would be greatly enhanced if it was actually seen to be a tad more transparent, a tad more pro-active in its response to these kinds of accusations.
The ACBC statement put out yesterday goes some way down this track with its admission that:
"Since the advent of Towards Healing in December 1996, the Australian Catholic Church has committed itself publicly to a more victim-centred response when evil of this nature became known.
In the years since, the Church’s new intentions have not always been in evidence."
There is a lot more that could be done to get in front of this issue, and it would be nice if it was done now, rather than continuing to provide fuel for the fire...