Saturday, 4 May 2013

Those 'accidents of history' that keep happening...

The Sexual Abuse Scandal continued to generate headlines this week, both in Australia and the US.

Unfortunately, the various stories give no confidence whatsoever that those involved - police, legal system and Church officials - have actually learnt the lessons of history.

Particularly when those involved, such as the head of the Christian Brothers, giving evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, can present no better analysis of why the scandal happened than that it was an 'accident of history'!

Though I've primarily been critical of the hierarchy on this blog in relation to the handling of the Abuse Crisis, because I think the Church is called to be counter-cultural, and should be held to a higher standard of morality, let's be clear: the scandal couldn't have happened without the complicity of police, lawyers, judges, psychologists, and many others.  And the evidence that things have been fixed in those organisations is not strong either.

Still, the hierarchy continued to look bad this week.

Ballarat diocese and the religious orders

The Victorian Inquiry heard evidence from various Church officials, including the current bishop of Ballarat, Bishop Bird, and his immediate predecessor, Bishop Connors; and representatives of three religious orders, the Salesians, Christian Brothers and St John of God.

It was not a pretty story.

The Australian reported on Monday:

"A Victorian sex abuse inquiry heard yesterday that the Ballarat diocese had received 116 claims of abuse, 107 of which had been substantiated and 67 of which involved convicted pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. In a dramatic day of evidence, the inquiry also heard that the Salesian order had paid out more than $2 million in compensation to victims, and that the St John of God order had paid individual compensation of up to $200,000 to victims, including intellectually disabled children, for abuse that was "indefensible and deplorable".

Under intense questioning, Ballarat bishops Peter Connors and Paul Bird told a packed inquiry that a police officer had told bishop Ronald Mulkearns about an incident involving Ridsdale in the Victorian town of Inglewood in 1975, which church insurers would later use as a cut-off date for offences involving the pedophile priest.

Rather than removing Ridsdale from the ministry, Bishop Mulkearns sent him to the US for "therapy" and then returned him to duties in other parishes, with "horrible consequences".

Asked whether Bishop Mulkearns had been wilfully blind to the abuse, Bishop Bird said: "It wasn't wilful blindness; it was a tragic mistake on his part. It proved to be a terrible mistake."

Bishop Connors, who succeeded Bishop Mulkearns in Ballarat, said: "He got bad advice and he very naively accepted that advice."

He said Bishop Mulkearns was also "naive" in his support for another pedophile priest, Paul David Ryan, who should never have been ordained, and agreed that by moving abusers between parishes the church had facilitated further abuse of children."

The week didn't get any better for the Church as it went on, with the Christian Brothers admitting on Friday, that it's record was 'indefensible'.

The problem is, while all involved claimed that procedures had changed and these things weren't happening any more, there didn't appear to have been much soul searching as to how it could have happened in the first place.  Indeed, consider this exchange at the hearing:

"Inquiry chair Georgie Crozier asked province deputy leader Brother McDonald to explain how so many notorious paedophiles, including Best and Gerard Ridsdale, could have been allowed to offend for so long at the St Alipius Catholic School in Ballarat.

"I have no adequate explanation for that, madam chair. It's certainly an accident of history," Brother McDonald said."

In a case where a school could have only only one teacher (a laywoman) who wasn't a paedophile, there had been no investigation of whether a cover up had occurred, making the claims of another Christian Brother, Br Coldrey that the order remains in denial, all the more plausible. 

Indeed, Br McDonald went on to blame the 'spartan, repressive culture' of the time for what happened.  I would suggest that it was actually the loss of discipline and adherence to traditional morality post-Vatican II that caused the problems!

The US scandal - Fr Fugee case

The key issue for everyone is whether or not we can be confident that things really have changed in the way cases are handled.

Unfortunately, things keep coming to light to suggest that they haven't.

Consider the role of the hierarchy and diocesan officials in the Fr Fugee case in Newark Archdiocese.

An admitted homosexual/bisexual priest was accused of inappropriate behaviour towards children.  To avoid a retrial of his case (apparently the jury weren't supposed to know he was a homosexual!) he entered into an agreement prohibiting him from working with children.

A few months ago there was an outcry when it came out that instead of being laicized, his Archbishop put him in a series of positions including one relating to the professional education of priests.

And now, when it turns out that instead of abiding by the agreement he had entered into, he went off to retreats with children and heard their confessions.

The diocese initially defended him, claiming it was all above board as he did it under appropriate supervision.

Now the priest in question has admitted that he did in fact breach the agreement and has 'resigned from ministry'.

Are things any better here?  I doubt it.

Remember, for example, the Fr Knowles case, where a religious priest who had conducted a relationship for some fourteen years with a disabled woman and was all set to be 'returned to ministry' until the victim went public?

The Australian legal system

There is room too, to take a harder look at the role of the legal system in covering up abuse, or summarily rejecting the claims of victims.

There has been surprisingly little debate, for example, on the decision this week of the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions not to proceed in a case against Brother Anthony Whelan, then principal of St Patrick’s College at Sutherland in the 1970s, for his failure to report sex abuse allegations against a teacher.  There was, the DPP found, a prima facie case against him, but publication was 'not in the public interest'.

Really?  I would have thought that a test case on this subject was entirely in the public interest, particularly given that on the face of it Br Whelan's inaction led to further abuse cases occurring.

But it is far from the first time the DPP has taken this line, as this useful article from the Newcastle Herald shows.

And the article doesn't even go into the curious case of Fr Finian Egan, whose case was apparently stalled for several months in the DPP's Office, before finally headed to court seemingly after some agitation from the ABC.


In the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, the slagging match between police and the Commissioner for the Melbourne Process as to what did and didn't happen and who is to blame continues unabated.  You can read the frank and free exchanges on the subject here:

In NSW, hearings of the Special Inquiry into matters relating to the Police investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle start on Monday.  The next two weeks are scheduled to be taken up with the issue of the circumstances in which Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox was asked to cease investigating relevant matters and whether it was appropriate to do so.   Timing on the second term of Inquiry, on the Churches role, have yet to be announced.  Watch this space.

Royal Commission

We will all no doubt wait with interest to see the assessments of the competing evidence being givne to the various inquiries.

And the main game, the Royal Commission, has yet to swing into full action...


A Canberra Observer said...

I recall a learned Dominican chiding me over the use of the term 'accident of history' - in his view, a faith view, there are no accidents of history, there is providence and man's free will.

I was not very impressed by the Christian Brother arguing that it was all because of the repressive regime they lived under. Surely this is just another blind to avoid the moral responsibility for sins committed - still 'sin in structures' crap.

I am not sure the research has been done but I have the sense that the level (as in number of offenders per 100 religious) was this bad 100 years ago when presumably the rigour of the life was greater. What changed?

PM said...

I'm not sure the research has been done either, but this is clearly no issue for partisan point-scoring within the Church. The cover-ups for the appalling McAlinden in Maitland, for example, diocese started in 1951 when the bishop was on old-school Irish Redemptorist.

That said, I would suggest - on admittedly impressionistic evidence - that it got much worse in the 1960s for two reasons

- a moral formation that was often legalistic (and thus tended to see the moral law as an extrinsic imposition by a celestial Boss, rather than as the condition of happiness) and tinged with Jansenism. That very learned and orthodox Domincian Thomist Laurence Fitzgerald used to say that there was far too much pious talk of 'crushing the will' - for a Thomist, we need a strong will directed rightly

- and the dissolution of these extrinsic disciplines in the 'anything goes' pop psychology that took over in the 1960s. Someone with a proper Thomistic formation could have withstood this, but for to many there was nothing left.

Anyone hoping for much from the Royal Commission should refresh the memory about the Wood Commission in NSW in the 90s - it established that there were indeed pedophile networks protected by the police, but little came of it after that.