Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a federal royal commission into child abuse in Australian institutions on November 12. The announcement came after growing scandals about paedophilia within the Catholic Church had reached the point where it was politically untenable for the government to continue with inaction.
With a Victorian parliamentary inquiry and a NSW Special Inquiry already underway, independent members of parliament, the Greens leadership and ALP MPs were demanding action. The leadership of the Catholic Church has been anxious for an investigation that is broader than the Church so that it can hide behind the fig leaf that other institutions may have also failed to act.
At the peak of society, a clash is beginning between modern, opportunist politics and arcane religious thought patterns.
But, most importantly, this clash is being driven from below by a demand for justice that is so deeply felt and widely spread that it could explode not just the Australian Catholic Church hierarchy but destabilise the Labor/Liberal mainstream political duopoly as well – that is, if the royal commission probes into major party political collusion with the Church.
The Church’s sexual abuse scandal has been well known for years, but it was the July Four Corners program “Unholy Silence” that broke through the culture of minimisation and denial that had characterised the position of the Catholic hierarchy and of state and federal governments.
“I think that if it had been any other organisation in the country other than the Catholic Church there would have been a Royal Commission a long time ago,” ALP left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron told ABC TV Breakfast program on November 12. “They are extremely powerful, extremely politically influential, but we must put that aside and we must say that we must protect children.”
Cameron’s call for a royal commission echoed calls from independent politicians Tony Windsor, Nick Xenophon and Craig Thompson as well as Greens leader Christine Milne.
Cameron’s statement about the Church’s power is illustrated by the pathetic response of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox’s graphic, November 8 interview on ABC TV’s Lateline. A veteran of trying to investigate abuse within the Church for decades, Fox described the horrific rape of a 12-year-old boy by priest James Fletcher.
“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church,” Fox said.
On November 12, ABC Radio National Breakfast heard from the mother of the victim of whom Fox had spoken. She said the Catholic Church offered Fletcher special “pastoral care” while he went through his trial, while turning its back on the family. Her son eventually committed suicide.
Following Fox’s whistle-blowing interview, O’Farrell announced a Special Commission of Inquiry. The inquiry’s scope was limited to examining the way in which police have handled complaints against alleged paedophile priests in the Hunter Valley and looking at claims of Church interference in police investigations. But O’Farrell held out against a Royal Commission.
The most powerful Australian Catholic Church leader, Cardinal George Pell, responded to the pressure for a national inquiry by saying the church was being unfairly targeted due to "anti-Catholic prejudice".
Pell’s stance is repulsive. It is an obvious attempt to ignore the scope and seriousness of the Church's problem and continue to deny its victims justice.
However, Pell’s refusal to engage with the real world can also be partly explained by the medieval mindset that he inhabits.
Historically, the Catholic Church resisted coming to terms with the growth of capitalism and still hankers after the power it wielded under feudalism. It was Christianity’s protestant wing that fused with the insurgent capitalist class.
Catholicism had long maintained a feudal power base within the Papal States on the Italian peninsula, which were destroyed by the 1871 unification of Italy. The Church responded by declaring the Pope infallible and by warning the faithful against “modernism” — to the extent of publishing an index of books Catholics should not read, which included Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
The Papacy bizarrely refused to recognise the existence of Italy until it reached a Concordat with the fascist government in 1929. This was so successful that another agreement was reached with Nazi Germany immediately after Hitler assumed dictatorial powers.
Following World War II, the Church teamed with the CIA in building right-wing Christian Democrat parties around the world and conniving in labour movement divisions such as the 1955 Australian Labor Party split.
Militant elements of the church, like the National Civic Council and the far-right Opus Dei movement set about grooming talented young men to enter the media and politics with a long-term strategy of influencing public opinion. Hence the shadowy, “extremely powerful, extremely politically influential” institution to which Cameron refers, which carries clout in both the Labor and Liberal parties.
However, countervailing demands for change within Catholicism opened a historical watershed in 1962 with the convening of the Second Vatican Council. While many of its progressive reforms were adopted superficially in Australia it unleashed a torrent of change in Latin America and other places.
Pope John Paul II set about winding back the liberation current and used the then Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – as his attack dog. John Paul II was able to majestically stay above the fray while Ratzinger hounded radical theologians.
As John Paul II used Ratzinger for cover, Benedict XVI has been able to use another as his attack dog when needed – Australia’s George Pell.
For example, in 2006 when Benedict found himself in hot water for slandering Islam as evil and inhuman and was forced into a mealy mouthed retraction, it was Pell who stepped in to repeat the slander, making sure that the Catholic message stayed on track.
Now, confronted by the calls for a federal royal commission, Pell is headed for a clash not just with modernism but with large segments of Australian Catholicism. If his grip on the Church were weakened Australian Catholicism could engage with new ways of thinking and possibly open into a dynamic social force.
An alternative to Pell’s thinking is represented by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who coordinated the official Catholic response to sex abuse revelations between 1997 until 2003. The experience resulted in his 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.
Robinson charged that sexual abuse of minors is committed by “a significant number of priests” and “many church authorities” are guilty of attempting “to conceal the abuse”. His solution is for the Australian Catholic church to come clean – and moreover, he challenges the entire history of Canon Law that props up the doctrine of Papal infallibility, Church autocracy, priestly celibacy, the ban on divorce and teachings on sexuality.
Robinson’s book drew a pointed silence from Pell and the Vatican. However, probably the majority of Australian Catholics, both practicing and “fallen”, would agree with Robinson. If Pell’s grip on power in the Australian Church is weakened then Robinson’s intellectual effort has already constructed an alternative pole for Catholics to support.
The royal commission must lead to far better protections for children and mark an end to the culture of denial and silence around child abuse in some of the country’s most powerful institutions. If the influence of the existing Church hierarchy was weakened, the commission could also lay a basis for Australian Catholicism to engage with new ways of thinking and become a more dynamic social force.
The politics of a federal royal commission are tempting for Labor and Gillard. A practicing Catholic, opposition leader Tony Abbott has proclaimed his devotion to the most reactionary trends in the Church. “Brand Abbott” is marked by his adherence to old-fashioned religious values.
In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott wrote of his deep regard for, and private guidance from, the National Civic Council’s long-time leader Bob Santamaria. Pell is Abbott’s personal confessor.
Having Abbott smeared by association with Pell must be an alluring prospect for Labor. The dust storm of media headlines might obscure the ALP’s unpopular policies as it heads into the 2013 election.
But the royal commission will also answer other questions, such as how committed is the ALP to preventing Australian Catholics from emerging from obscurantism with the danger of their possibly radicalising and how far into the entrails of the ALP do the claws of the Catholic hierarchy reach?