Friday, 9 November 2012

St John's, the abuse scandal and the limits to 'natural justice'

The Sydney Morning Herald today has an article providing the latest update on the St John's College affair, in the form of an explanation from the criminal barrister  - one of the culprits' mother - who acted for the students.

And it's a classic articulation of the American legal disease that has infiltrated our culture, viz a demand for 'due process' and 'some rules in place so you know what you can and can't do'.

Those things which were once self-evident no longer are...

Ms Ravenscroft, the lawyer in question, claims she was concerned that the Rector's investigation of the incident that nearly resulted in the death of a girl failed to accord those in question due process (aka natural justice).

Well, we're not in a position to be able to assess that.

But on the face of it, is this really a situation where the full legal gamut of natural justice requirements as understood by our courts these days - including requirements for rules clearly set out in writing before you can be said to have breached them, the giving of appropriate warnings, chances to formally respond to accusations and so forth - really applies?

I think not.  A bunch of students behaved badly.  The head of their College imposed pretty mild penalties in my view (the most obvious response would have been to expel them), in the form of community service (no bad thing to do if you are a Catholic whether or not you are guilty) and disbarring them from holding office within the college (hardly the end of the world!).  Yet instead of accepting that they had overstepped the mark, they resisted.

It's the Bishop Morris of Toowoomba reaction to the exercize of legitimate authority: first argue that you did nothing wrong, regardless of what the evidence suggests; then argue that the authority shouldn't have stepped in at all; and if the authority in question must act, they should accord you some quasi-judicial process.

This surely reflects a mentality that simply isn't Catholic.

There is a time and place for considerations of due process and natural justice.  But there is also a time and place where we should simply acknowledge that we are sinners, and practice some docility and obedience.

We are all saints these days!

Cardinal Pell wrote a piece this week on the extinction of that species once known as 'bad catholics'.  He tells the story of a priest attempting to instruct a couple preparing for marriage who considered themselves to be good Catholics despite the fact that they never attended Mass, didn't pray, and had no sense of their sinfulness at all:

"Recently a brother priest recounted a conversation he had with a couple who came along for a Catholic marriage. "Where are you religiously", he asked. "What about your relationship with God?" It is terrific, was the answer. They explained that they never prayed or went to Mass and claimed emphatically that they were not worried by any guilt about sins or wrong doing.

The priest was flabbergasted. "How could they square this circle? What about Christ's command to repent and believe?" They were sure there was no need to worry on that score because God loved them as they were! The priest could make no progress against that conviction.

Not one of us is completely logical, but ours is an age of profound religious confusion. One Pew Research Center US finding informed us that half the sample of agnostics and one fifth of the atheists believed in some sort of deity or Supreme Intelligence. Anything is possible.

However the conviction that God and Jesus are not interested in whether we are good, bad or indifferent is new and it is not the Christian faith."

Prudence vs action

The problem is what should we do when faced with the various manifestations of this mentality. 

Should we act 'prudently' and go with the flow?  Or should we stand up and hold out for the truth regardless of the consequences?

In the case of the couple preparing for marriage, for example, did the priest refuse them a Church wedding?  Well, I'd like to hope so...

In the case of the St John's parents who  want to protect their children from the consequences of their actions, perhaps the correct approach would have been an appeal to the Cardinal in his role as Visitor to the College, rather than the mock trial that actually occurred, and that seems to have served to undermine the rector's authority (though of course, perhaps that did occur, and the process set up was a result of it?).

The bottom line though on the loss of understanding of the self-evident nature of what is right and wrong, is that one can hardly expect the laity to have a correct understanding of morality and the natural law engraved on our souls if those entrusted with the teaching office in the Church lack such an understanding.

We are coming up to that time of the year when in the traditional breviary, we read the 'minor prophets', which are full of warnings to priests for leading the people astray,  Hosea, for example, warns:

"There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder...My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me.  And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children." (4:1-6)

Abuse scandal...

 It is a timely warning in view of the continuing reports on the abuse scandal, and worse, the cover up that is implicating so many of our priests and bishops.  In Victoria, the evidence being given to the Parliamentary Inquiry continues to give scandal.  But it is not just Victoria.  Consider, for example, the latest stories:
  • 'Fr F' , whose name continues to be suppressed (who was laicized for other cases than those now in the courts yet who seems not only not to have been reported to police; not only to have evaded prosecution until now; but also seems to have been given favourable treatment by the diocese under Bishop Manning even after he was laicized), has been granted bail pending his trial;
  • senior police officer has called for a Royal Commission in NSW in the light of the continuing coverups, particularly in the Newcastle area (which allegedly implicate Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide, Fr Brian Lucas, General Secretary of the Bishop's Conference, and retired Bishop Malone);
  • allegations that members of a religious order pack raped children in its charge.
The time for 'prudence' is past; what is needed now is tough action.

1 comment:

R J said...

I think that "McLucas" should be "Lucas". Otherwise, very well said.