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Issue #1686      May 27, 2015

Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

Church and govt hinder inquiry

Last week David Ridsdale testified to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse that in 1998 he told former Catholic Archbishop George Pell he had been abused by his uncle, former priest Gerald Ridsdale, but that Pell tried to bribe him to remain silent. Pell has rejected Ridsdale’s claims.

If Pell did attend the hearings in person, he himself could be cross examined and his testimony might provide grounds for a criminal prosecution.

Lawyers acting for the Catholic Church in Australia have refused to cross examine surviving victims who have testified at the hearings, despite statements from Commission chairman Peter McClellan that they should do so if they are arguing that the witnesses have given false evidence or made a mistake.

The lawyers say they declined to cross examine “out of respect for the survivor witnesses”. However, if Pell did attend the hearings in person, he himself could be cross examined and his testimony might provide grounds for a criminal prosecution.

The Church is also resorting to the “Ellis defence”, under which it claims it is not a legal entity and therefore cannot be sued by abuse victims. That tactic has in the past forced victims to seek redress under a scheme run by the Church, which caps ex-gratia payments at a miserly $75,000 and requires recipients to forego their right to sue.

The Catholic Church is not, of course, the only institution facing allegations of concealment of evidence of the abuse of children. As Cathy Kezelman, president of community group Adults Surviving Child Abuse has observed, “Child sex abuse knows no demographic, class, religious, geographic, racial or gender bounds”

Legal specialist Judy Cortin claims that 65,000 surviving Australians are victims of childhood sexual abuse. There have been 10 suicides by abuse victims within the Ballarat region alone since March last year. One 50-year old victim testified that a third of his Catholic primary school classmates have committed suicide.

The Commission has heard allegations concerning the abuse of children by members of a wide range of Australian institutions. In March the principal of private school Knox Grammar provided contradictory evidence concerning abuse allegations, and the Commission was also told that crucial records have been lost, suggesting that school authorities have concealed evidence of the abuse.

Sydney private schools Newington and St Ignatius have also notified parents about forthcoming inquiries into allegations of abuse of students at those schools.

The profit motive

The profit motive has played a role in many cases of child sexual abuse, and is also the primary reason why the incidence of child abuse is higher and concealment more likely in some institutions than in others.

Private schools, for example, are run for profit, and the possibility of a dramatic fall in enrolments after revelations of child abuse has provided some school authorities with a powerful motive for concealment.

There have undoubtedly been some cases of child abuse in public schools. However, they are run on very clear and strict rules for the public benefit, and because most of their funding is provided by government they do not have the same profit motive as the private schools to conceal cases of abuse.

That would, of course, change if the state and/or federal governments forced public schools to operate on a profit basis, as is beginning to happen.

The particularly widespread evidence of child abuse within the Catholic Church stems in part from its rigid policy that members of the clergy must remain celibate. That policy also had its origins in the profit motive; established in the 13th century with a view to ensuring that priests left their property to the church when they died.

Many members of the Church hierarchy appear to have accepted the idea that the abuse of children within the Church is inevitable, and that it must simply be concealed rather than brought to a halt.

Priests who were found by Church authorities to have abused children were transferred to another parish. This simply transferred the problem elsewhere, influenced other priests to engage in abuse and facilitated the development of a paedophile network, like a criminal virus.

The cover-up of abuse is now so well organised that there appears to be a second institution of offenders and their supporters within the institution of the Church itself.

That other institution

The third area of institutional child sexual abuse concerns the federal government.

Last year the Commission proposed the establishment of a national redress scheme for victims, to be headed by the federal government and paid for by all government and non-government institutions where the abuse occurred. The federal government was to act as “last resort” source of funding for compensation of victims from institutions that no longer exist.

The government, headed by Catholic arch-conservative Tony Abbott, arrogantly dismissed the proposal as too time-consuming, complex and expensive.

But now the government itself faces allegations of the sexual abuse of asylum seekers. Last year 44 allegations of child abuse were made during a Human Rights Commission inquiry into conditions for children asylum seekers in off shore detention centres. The Royal Commission has now formally requested documents concerning another 28 incidents from the Immigration department.

Inquiries concerning Nauru and Manus Island are beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction, but it will almost certainly investigate allegations concerning Christmas Island, and possibly mainland detention centres.

Children are protected by the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory. An inquiry could rip apart the cloak of secrecy with which the government has surrounded its cruel, vindictive and politically opportunist treatment of asylum seekers.

But the government is unlikely to co-operate. It is up to us, the public, to pressure the government and other institutions to ensure that victims of child sexual abuse receive a fair hearing and a just outcome.

Next article – Editorial – Abbott isolated amid world refugee crisis

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