Home » Columns

Murmurs in the pews: royal commission will rock churches

2 December 2012 7,688 views 4 Comments

The recent announcement of a royal commission on child sex abuse caught many people by surprise. Although the weight of allegations and prosecutions, especially against Australia’s clergy, had been rising alarmingly, until recently the issue of child sex abuse was still being ignored at a policy level by all of Australia’s political parties, except one.

When Fiona Patten launched the Australian Sex Party in 2009, she was the only political leader calling for a royal commission into child sex abuse. In 2000 (the same year that the Irish government announced their Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) Patten oversaw the publication of a list of all sex crimes by clergy in Australia that had come before the courts, and sent a copy to every state and federal MP and every church.

They rounded on her for her audacity to suggest that such a problem existed. She received death threats and hate mail for her courage. Her call was seen as alarmist and bizarre by many MPs some of whom wrote to her in disgust.

MNIR Story Ad

But the recent revelation by Nielsen pollsters of a 97per cent support rate in the community for the royal commission, shows just how deeply felt this issue has been with voters and how on the money Patten was. It also shows how out of touch with sexual issues politicians had become. If they couldn’t feel this rising tide of angst and anger in the community over what was clearly approaching an ”epidemic”, how in touch are they on other sexual matters like health, censorship and sexual culture in general?

On her website Patten has posted her submission regarding the terms of reference for the royal commission. She has reminded the government that politicians and indeed the Parliament itself may bear some responsibility for the way in which this problem appears to have increased and that they should not be immune from investigation from the royal commission.

The Sex Party’s high-profile NSW Senate candidate, Andrew Patterson, is a former vice-squad detective and former head of child protection in WA. He has written his own submission calling on the Attorney-General to allow various aspects of policing to be investigated by the royal commission, including the disbanding of his child protection unit by the West Australian government.

It is vital that the inquiry looks at every level of government and how they have interacted with institutions but I suspect that the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, will see the relationship that exists between both major parties and the church hierarchy, as a form of ”confessional” and not allow the public access to these discussions.

When the issue of child sex abuse in religious institutions was first brought to the attention of federal and state MPs in 2000, why was nothing done then? Ireland had just launched its inquiry at that stage and a number of different groups had started writing to state and federal MPs about the problem in the late 1990s.

Groups such as Broken Rites and the parents of abused children picked up the publication of the child sex offender index in 1999 but in the main they were dismissed as the ramblings of unstable people pitching against the established moral authority of the church. If a day is a long time in Parliament, a decade is an eternity for the families of abused children to wait for an inquiry. If the results of the Irish commission are anything to go by, religion in Australia is about to endure its darkest hour. That inquiry handed down its findings in 2009. This was about halfway through the polling process for the Global Index of Religion and Atheism conducted by the Gallup International Association, which reported earlier this year. Globally, they found that those claiming to be religious dropped by 9per cent. In Ireland that figure was a massive 22per cent decline and for the first time, pushed Ireland into the top 10 atheist nations alongside China, France and Japan.

Australia also made it into the top 10 atheist countries coming in at number nine with only 37per cent of our population saying they were religious. If our royal commission has a similar effect on faith, we could see levels of religiosity plummet to about 15per cent, which could see us sharing top spot with China (14per cent) as the world’s most atheist country.

The effects of the royal commission could have widespread and unforeseen outcomes – such has been the force of religion in Australia up to now.
Could small anti-religious political parties like the Secular Party, the Sex Party and the Liberal Democratic Party expect a boost in votes at the next Senate election? Could it cause the major parties to start preferencing away from church-based political parties like the DLP and Family First for fear of association?

Could the reporting of the nature of the sex crimes committed by clergy (many will be truly appalling) cause problems for Australia’s five church-based parties in attracting candidates?

There is no question that, even before the royal commission has begun, the reporting of child sex abuse in religious orders has been affecting the number of trainee priests.

The declining numbers of home-grown priests have been bolstered to a considerable degree by clergy from Africa, which is causing all sorts of cultural problems.

Last year the Bishop of Toowoomba, William Morris, was sacked by Rome for daring to suggest that this downturn in numbers might be better addressed by allowing married clergy to minister rather than importing Africans, who are often culturally very adrift in outback Queensland, for example.

When its findings are published, the effects of this royal commission could shake Australia’s social and political life, and as a side effect could well see religion relegated to the realms of astrology and mythology for a very long time to come.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including ‘My Name Is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’.

THE CANBERRA TIMES, December 1, 2012


  • John A. Brown said:

    A very encouraging piece and a great read and analysis of the numbers used.

    Only one point did not harmonise with me, nor did it include much of the real history of that time and prior. I can say (and can back that up with video) that the story of the outspoken on behalf of women line put out by the church is simply another smoke screen blowing over the history.

    Hopefully this Royal Commission will present an opportunity for some of those facts to reach the light of day.

  • John Miller & Brian Kelly said:

    In his article ”Murmurs in the pews: royal commission will rock churches” (Forum, December 1, p7 ) Ross Fitzgerald concludes that as a result of the royal commission on child sex abuse, ”religion may be relegated to the realms of astrology for a very long time”.

    For believers, religion is all about mankind’s relationship with God. This relationship may be good or bad, both inside and outside the church. There are sinners and saints in both places. For Jesus, the acid test was ”by their fruits you shall know them”.

    The present scandal underlines the reality and power of evil in the world. To make things better, we should give even stronger support to those who actively oppose evil, including the majority of the churches and believers who are uncorrupted.

    John Miller, Farrer, ACT

    A timely reminder of a matter that has long been swept under the carpet. As Professor Fitzgerald points out (”Murmurs in the pews: royal commission will rock churches”) the churches no longer possess the pre-eminent position in Australian society that they have enjoyed for so long. No longer are they able to be a ”law unto themselves”. They can finally be brought to account for the extraordinarily arrogant position they have been allowed to adopt. The big ”but”, of course, depends on the terms of reference finally adopted. The victims of their gross abuse deserve wide-ranging terms of reference to finally get to the bottom of what has been happening and hidden in these institutions of God. A big thanks to Professor Fitzgerald for also highlighting the long-held myth that Australia is a religious society.

    Brian Kelly, Toowong, Qld

    THE CANBERRA TIMES, December 4, 2012

  • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm said:

    Clearly, those who claim to have a special relationship with some version of the Christian god cannot be trusted to behave in manner that the general society considers to be moral, compassionate and ethically responsible. Nor can they be trusted to recognize and eradicate evil in their own ranks, or acknowledge the extent of it.

    When faced with the conflict between how they or their fellow Christians are behaving and what their doctrines insist should be the case, they choose to ignore, deny or cover up the existence of behavior that challenges these doctrines. This deliberate policy of protecting the perpetrators at the expense of failing to protect those whom they claim to serve is itself a culpable and criminal act.

    This criminal behavior has been shown to extend all the way to the top of Christian authoritarian structures. In the Catholic Christian church the Voice of God on Earth has been proved to have colluded to protect the guilty and blame the innocent. The apples with the rotten cores are not just a few lying at the bottom of the heap, they permeate the heap. Unfortunately, the rotten core is hidden from view until the apple is cut. No-one can be sure which Christians are consistently behaving in a manner that is consistent with modern non-sectarian standards of morality and which are not.

    Investigation of these matters and attempts to prevent further human damage must not be handed to those who are under instructions to minimize and hide clerical behavior that fails to conform to doctrinal “fact”. Nor should it be handed to others who have a personal need to preserve appearances that support the doctrinal implications of their particular religious faith. Devout Believers have an inbuilt bias towards moral blindness and interpretations of doctrinal convenience.

    That is, investigation, prosecution, compensation and remedial treatment should not be undertaken by anyone with a vested interest in uncritically supporting or maintaining the unmonitored authority of any of the religions whose clergy are being investigated. Conversely, such activities should not be undertaken by those who have a vested interest in denigrating these religions in order to promote their own brand of supernatural belief. We should also be wary of including investigators who have been so harmed by exposure to emotionally damaging aspects of a religion that their negative emotions get in the way of objective assessment of the extent and seriousness of the problem.

    For the purposes of blind justice and societal health, we need to keep the investigation and remediation both secular and objective.

  • Dr. Peter A. Smith said:

    An uphill battle

    Ross Fitzgerald (“Murmurs in the pews: royal commission will rock churches”, Forum, December 1, P7) is spot on to remind us that it has been 12 wasted years since Fiona Patten oversaw the publication of a list of all sex crimes by clergy in Australia that had come before the courts, and sent a copy to every state and federal MP and every church. The long overdue royal commission needs to be fully aware that the institutional change it is charged to deliver comes after years of institutional denial and obfuscation.

    Dr. Peter A. Smith, Mount Archer, Qld

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.