Thursday, 5 July 2012

Four Corners and the latest edition in the abuse scandal: still not learning the lessons?

This week's Australian Catholic news has been dominated by new accusations of cover up of abuse made on the ABC's Four Corners program on Monday night. 

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...


Felix said...

As you've indicated, secular authorities have previously paid deference to the moral authority of the Church in such cases. I suggest that this created a corresponding duty on the Church to investigate those cases.

(Now that it's public knowledge how shamefully negligent the Church was in handling such abuses, no court would take such a deferential approach today.)

Robert said...

There has been talk in the Melbourne newspapers of a royal commission which would examine all Australian abuse cases, not just Catholicism's. Unfortunately talk on that subject is all we have had so far.

You probably know that the Baillieu government - true to its usual form of trying to please all and actually pleasing none - has made noises about having a parliamentary enquiry. Such an enquiry would probably be still worse than no action at all.

The government is obviously hoping that having a parliamentary enquiry will cause any campaign for a royal commission to be aborted. This hope is of course ludicrous, but entirely in keeping with the Premier's lack of discernible allegiance to the reality-based community.

One reason the hope is ludicrous is that any clerical abuser with even a particle of cleverness (and heaven knows the average clerical abuser is as cunning as the proverbial rat) will have no trouble in defeating Victoria's parliamentarians, who are not, it has to be said, collectively notable for their exalted levels of intellect. If a royal commission were occurring, then, by contrast, clerical abusers would be cross-examined by extremely high-powered lawyers, just as if they were defendants in a criminal trial.

Peter said...

You say the Salesians "still" (well the letter dates from 8 and a half years ago) refuse to "return him" (what is he a parcel they can pop in the post?) to Australia to deal with the accusations."

There is nno indication that the police in Australia or anywhere else want to charge or even question him. So he cannot be accused of evading civil justice. Do you really intend to say that anytime anywhere when someone accuses a priest of abuse, he must go to wherever the accusrer is and argue it out, even when the accuser refuses to go to the police (apparently because he knows his evidence won't stand up)?

Kate Edwards said...

Peter - According to the Four Corners Report there was in fact police involvement in the earlier case (the Salesians agreed to an out of court settlement) and are currently investigating more allegations against him.

Moreover, Cardinal Pell said on the program that in cases where there are credible accusations made, the priest concerned should in fact return and face his accusers. I totally agree.

Sharon said...

I am beginning to come around to the idea that a Royal Commission to look at sexual abuse of minors, not just in the Catholic Church, but in the Australian society as a whole might be a good idea. Something perhaps along the lines of the 2002 Savi Report which looked at sexual abuse and violence in Ireland.

I have heard from family psychologists that in 80% of sexual abuse of minors there is a familial link.

In 2006 The Linacre Institute issued After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests

From Amazon:
The first study of its kind, it shows how the infiltration of therapeutic psychology on the training and lifestyles of clergy spawned a cavalier attitude in many priests and bishops about sex and prayer, causing the collapse of ascetical discipline with its devastating effects in the sex abuse crisis.

The Linacre Institue was founded within the Catholic Medical Association.

John Fisher said...

Yes Lucas is a slippery one. He is a hangover from the days of Carroll. Wasn't that weakling Clancy about at that time? Lucas is a liberal and Pell yet again is an appalling judge of character. He can't seem to grasp clergy collude and lie. I think the Armidale priest's letter to Manning is damning. Yet why wasn't Manning attacked. Remember he recently allowed a lesbian couple place a child in a Catholic school. Hypocacry if ever I have heard of it. Yet the priest was defrocked...good.
But this works both ways. The Church and State can act independently. One use secular law. The other reviewing the same evidence canon law. When the State doesnt convict...the Church can still act. The same with the State.
That Salesian can still and should still be tried under canon law. Canon law is international!