As recommendations from the child abuse royal commission are swept aside by senior Catholics, The Australian newspaper continues its unwavering support for the church.
Murdoch and the royal commission
If there was any hope the Australian Catholic Church would respond with humility when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final report, the church’s leaders were quick to snuff it out.
The commission’s recommendations that the Catholic Church consider making celibacy voluntary for priests and members of religious orders, and require priests to report incidents of child abuse they hear during the sacrament of confession, prompted a swift and derisive response from Australia’s most senior Catholics. Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher dismissed the findings, saying “focusing on something like confession is just a distraction” and “would be a real hurt to all Catholics”. Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart declared he would never break the confessional seal, even to report child abuse.
If the church seemed bullish in the wake of the most forensic examination of its failings in Australian history, that may be because it knew an aggressive response would get a warm reception in at least one place. In its first editorial after the final report was published, The Australian warned that the commission’s recommendations on celibacy and the confessional “may be cases of the commission straying beyond its brief”. Victorian editor John Ferguson wrote that the commission’s “simplistic recommendations” were “tabloid attacks on basic church practices”.
Columnist Gerard Henderson claimed media reportage around the commission acted “as if it were an inquisition into one church”. Besides the irony of crying “inquisition” against a church that invented the concept, Henderson wrote that the number of victims in Catholic institutions was so high because the church “ran many more schools, orphanages and hospitals than any other church”. He argued that “sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is essentially a historical crime”.
The Australian’s Greg Sheridan took up that dubious line of reasoning on the ABC’s Q&A, saying the commission was feeding “an ugly phenomenon of using this tragedy to prosecute an agenda to chase the churches out of the public square”. Sheridan equated the confessional seal with lawyer-client privilege and misleadingly claimed “there are no real proven cases of actual child abusers telling priests about it”.
It takes some chutzpah to paint the Catholic Church as the real victim in all this, but the church and its defenders have been practising their lines for more than five years. Since late 2012, when The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, called Julia Gillard’s announcement of an in-principle royal commission “a serial exercise in populist politics and policy ignorance”, the church’s cheerleaders at The Australian and elsewhere have worked to minimise the extent of the commission’s findings against the church and head off any calls for change.
In that same column, Kelly road-tested what would become a stock defence, calling the commission an excuse for a “moral crusade” by pernicious leftists wanting a “systemic dismantling of the Catholic Church”. Kelly foresaw the focus on the confessional as well, writing that “any priest with integrity would go to jail rather than suffer the imposition” of a law requiring them to report child abuse.
Church apologists have had a dream run at The Australian since, preaching the narrative of a church persecuted wherever a willing audience can be found. In August, Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven called the idea of overhauling confession “outrageous”, accusing “media groupies” of turning the commission into “a virtual trial of the Catholic Church”. In a 2014 speech at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, then attorney-general George Brandis said Christianity was under “open attack” by “the national broadcaster and the Fairfax media”, citing a quote from former trade union royal commissioner Dyson Heydon that “anti-Catholicism in Australia now might be called the racism of the intellectuals”.
Writing for The Catholic Weekly in June, Henderson argued that the media’s focus on the Catholic Church at the expense of other institutions was due to “a high proportion of alienated ex-Catholics along with Catholics who disagree with the social conservatism of George Pell” among journalists, as well as “secular atheists, many of a sneering disposition, who resent believers”.
The idea that celibacy and confession were negligible factors in the Catholic Church’s history of child sexual abuse is overwhelmingly debunked by the commission’s evidence. Dr Marie Keenan, a psychotherapist who studied child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, told the commission that clergy offenders she interviewed often “used the sacrament of reconciliation to seek forgiveness, resolve never to do this bad thing again and in some cases to ease their conscience”. Afterwards, they went on to reoffend.
Dr Gerardine Robinson, who has treated 60 to 70 child sex abusers from the Australian Catholic clergy, told the commission she had seen the same “pattern” as Keenan: “that an offender would offend against a child victim, go to confession and feel absolved, and do exactly the same thing again”. The commission noted that “generally there appears to have been no mention during the sacrament of withholding absolution unless or until the penitent reported to the police”. This allowed offenders to clear their spiritual slates without submitting to real-world justice.
Some abusers did not just use the confessional to receive forgiveness: they used its privacy, atmosphere of divine secrecy and one-on-one access to children to commit abuse. The commission’s inquiry into the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne heard that Doveton parish priest Father Peter Searson made children kneel between his legs, sit on his lap and kiss him while they gave confession, and secretly tape recorded what they told him.
In 1968, a boy told Father Wilfred Baker in the confessional of St Colman’s church in Melbourne’s Balaclava that he was being abused by Father Ronald Pickering. Pickering confronted the boy several months later, telling him he had been “stupid” to tell anyone “about what was happening between us”. Baker had broken the confessional seal to warn Pickering his victim was talking.
The boy could not have known that Baker himself was a notorious abuser who used the confessional to prey on children. Patricia Taylor, a former principal of St James Catholic Primary School in North Richmond, remembered Catholic Education Office staff warning her “never to let children go into the confessional with Father Baker with the door closed”.
As for celibacy, the commission found the practice compounded “emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness” in clergy, and “may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction”. In such an environment, incidents of child sexual abuse were seen by some priests and religious figures as “forgivable moral lapses committed by colleagues who were struggling to live up to an ideal that for many proved impossible”. Horrifically, some abusers justified their actions because they believed abusing a child constituted a kind of loophole to restrictions on sexual activity. Robinson told the commission “some of the older clergy say things like, ‘Well, when I violated a child, I didn’t break my vow of celibacy.’ ”
Rupert Murdoch is not a Catholic, although he has flirted with the church in the past. In 2010, Murdoch and Wendi Deng’s two daughters were baptised in the River Jordan, at the same spot where John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus Christ. But Murdoch’s relationship with the church is best illustrated by an episode in 1998, when Murdoch was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory in Los Angeles. American Catholics expressed indignation that Murdoch, who was best known at the time for the topless page 3 girls in News of the World, was given a title apparently reserved for people of “unblemished character”.
Perhaps Murdoch’s on-again off-again piety explains The Australian’s curiously selective brand of Catholicism: in particular, its antipathy towards Pope Francis. In 2015 the national broadsheet responded furiously to the Vatican encyclical Laudato si', with Kelly branding Francis and his advisers as “environmental populists and economic ideologues of a quasi-Marxist bent”. Francis was “blind to the liberating power of markets and technology”, Kelly lectured, and was pushing “reactionary dogma” such as “limits on private property rights”. No one tell Kelly what Jesus said about the wealthy’s chances of getting into heaven.
But only certain people are allowed to criticise. The Australian’s Catholic tribalism showed itself again in July, when the paper rounded up church leaders to condemn ABC presenter Julia Baird’s exposé of domestic violence in Australian churches. Hart said “we are seeing many of the very good things the Christian churches are doing being minimised”, while Brisbane Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge accused the ABC of perpetuating “an antagonistic, one-sided narrative about the Catholic Church in this country”. The Australian’s deference to an institution that has long forfeited any right to moral authority goes a long way to explaining the church’s belligerence in the face of its own failures.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Front page pews".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.