Events in Australia have overtaken my plans for two upcoming LibertyGibbert articles, one on Liberty and children, and the other on the Catholic Church. Yet the Gillard government’s announcement on Monday of a Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse warrants at least a few brief comments today.
On the face of it, the Royal Commission is not only welcome, but years overdue. We’ve now been aware of the scale of the problem for at least twenty years, during which time authorities have variously obfuscated, turned a blind eye, or even blamed the victims. During that period, many of the accused have died of old age and have escaped justice, of the temporal variety at least.
The Commission’s terms of reference, crucial to the inquiry’s success, are yet to be worked out; they are expected to be finalised by the end of the year. If too narrow, the Commission will be perceived by many as a witch-hunt; too broad, and it could be a decade before any findings are handed down. It is already known that the scope will cover all religions, sporting and community groups, the scouting movement, schools and government institutions. Whether or not it will include the almost unbelievable level of abuse that still occurs in so many outback aboriginal communities, is yet to be seen.
All well and good and, as I have said, long overdue. But several aspects of this announcement do not pass the smell test. Firstly, the timing. It has long been known that Tony Abbott’s first act when he is sworn in next year as Prime Minister will be to ask the Governor-General to establish a Royal Commission into corruption within registered organisations—primarily, unions. The timing of Gillard’s announcement, just when the mountain of evidence regarding her own conduct as a union lawyer in the 1990s has compelled the Victorian Police Force to commence their own formal investigation, smacks of tit-for-tat and a distraction. It certainly appears as though Gillard intends for Abbott, a practising Catholic and former seminarian, to be smeared by association.
Then there is the focus. Although all religions are included in the scope of the inquiry, the mainstream media have been indulging all week in a gleeful frenzy of Catholic-bashing. In particular, there has been slew of articles demanding that priests be forced to break the seal of the confessional to report admissions by penitent priests. It is impossible not to notice that almost all of these articles have used the word defiant in describing Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney and Australia’s senior Catholic prelate. This is strange, for Pell has publicly welcomed the announcement of a Royal Commission, and committed to working with it to supply whatever information it needs.
I don’t want to pre-empt my article on the Catholic Church too much; yet it is undeniably the case that over the last twenty years, the church has cleaned up its act, regarding both the way in which it recruits new members to the priesthood and to religious orders, and the handling of allegations of sexual abuse. The overwhelming majority of crimes likely to be investigated by the Royal Commission were committed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Some even go back to post-war orphans shipped to Australia in the late 1940s. Almost all the perpetrators of these earlier crimes are long dead. That is cold comfort to many middle-aged victims whose lives have been ruined by crimes that were covered up for so long, or to the families of the hundreds (or possibly thousands) of suicides that have resulted over the past half-century.
But if it is another five, or even ten years, before the Commission’s findings are handed down, how many of the perpetrators will still be alive to face justice? And will this really bring the closure these victims so desperately seek? And there’s this: a Royal Commission is conducted subject to the Royal Commissions Act of 1902; while judicial in nature, and having plenipotentiary powers to subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify under oath, they are not bound by the same rules of evidence as a criminal trial, and can accept circumstantial, hearsay or almost any other form of evidence the Commissioners may wish for. Much of this evidence is inadmissible at a criminal trial, so simply being named by a Royal Commission does not ensure that criminal proceedings will ensue. Try as the Commission might, a lot of guilty parties will end up going to their graves scot-free. Not only that, but the reputations of many innocent men and women, who have devoted their lives to the welfare of children, will be unjustly tarnished. Such is the imperfect nature of justice in our system.
It is a free kick for Gillard, however. By the time the Commission’s findings are released, she and her government will be long gone. Who knows? History may judge this as one of the best things her administration has done. I wonder, though, how calculated this announcement really is, and just who else might be caught up by the inquiry. I’m thinking here of the Heiner affair; last year, a motion in Federal parliament for an independent inquiry into this appalling episode failed by one vote, although now a separate inquiry is being conducted by the Queensland state government. That inquiry threatens to engulf former PM Kevin Rudd, and even the Governor-General herself.
We must wish the Royal Commission every success. But there is clearly more to this week’s announcement than meets the eye.