By Michael Short
The Catholic Church, which has presided over a decades-long international cover-up of countless cases, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of child rape and other sexual abuse is arguably guilty of crimes against humanity.
In Australia, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, launched in 2013, has heard much harrowing evidence that for decades child rapists have been protected by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Only a few days ago, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, told the commission the response of leaders of his church to allegations of child sexual abuse amounted to “criminal negligence”.
And although it beggars belief, such despicable betrayal of natural justice and of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth continues. Also last week, County Court Judge Geoffrey Chettle declared that evidence the Catholic Church continued to pay – taking the total to as much as $1.5 million – for the defence of one of Australia’s worst paedophiles, Robert Charles Best, “just blows me away”.
Well might he say that, for Best, 76, pleaded guilty in the County Court of Victoria to the sexual abuse of 20 children between 1968 and 1988 at schools in Ballarat, Box Hill, Geelong and Moonee Ponds. With withering understatement, Judge Chettle said he was struggling to contain his emotion at the gravity and extent of Best’s abuse. “It’s hard not to get angry, and I’m trying.” A lot of Best’s victims have died by suicide. Many others have experienced mental ill-health, substance abuse, addiction and difficulty maintaining professional and personal relationships.
Child rape and other sexual crimes are a devastating abuse of power and trust. Lives are destroyed. Most of Best’s victims were boys aged between eight and 11. And yet, in 2015, the Christian Brothers said they would welcome the paedophile back into their ranks upon his release from prison, where he was serving a sentence for earlier sexual abuse.
The commission has spent the past few weeks yet again focusing on Catholic Church authorities. Child sexual abuse has been committed by people in other religions and institutions, but the Catholic Church is clearly the most egregious offender, and has so far been the focus of 16 of the commission’s 50 hearings. Here are some chilling numbers that indicate why. More than one in five members of some Catholic religious orders were allegedly perpetrators of abuse, counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness revealed earlier this month. Of orders with only religious brother members, the highest proportion of alleged perpetrators were members of St John of God (40.4 per cent), the Christian Brothers (22 per cent), the Salesians of Don Bosco (21.9 per cent), Marist Brothers (20.4 per cent) and the De La Salle Brothers (13.4 per cent). Almost 4500 people have made claims of child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church over the past 35 years.
It is ridiculous to think any institution, let alone one that has been shown to not only cover up such crimes but to spend more on avoiding justice than compensating victims, can adequately investigate and police itself. Yet in recent days the commission heard that a new body, Catholic Professional Standards (CPS) Ltd, will be pivotal to the church eradicating child rape by priests and other members of the church because it will have the power to name religious orders and-or dioceses that fail to meet its standards. Maybe the church really thinks that might work, but this move by an institution with such an abysmal record can reasonably be seen with much scepticism.
Far better that law and the lay justice system protect children. This returns us to the notion there are avenues for pursuing the Catholic Church for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. The Catholic Church’s widespread protection of paedophiles, and the crimes that were committed, can be seen to fit the definition of a crime against humanity, and the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights is testing the law in the International Criminal Court.
In Australia, there is the hope the commission’s findings will cause police to seek criminal prosecutions against those who covered up, and thus arguably encouraged, child rape by shifting paedophile priests from one diocese to another instead of denouncing the perpetrators to the police. Melbourne-based lawyer Judy Courtin, who represents victims of sexual abuse and did a doctoral thesis on the crimes now before the commission, says: “The royal commission has heard and received abundant evidence indicating that many members of the Catholic hierarchy in Australia covered up the sex crimes. That we do not have one conviction in Australia for a member of the Catholic hierarchy for the crime of concealment is preposterous. We await such prosecutions which should come out of our royal commission – for, although not a prosecutorial body, it does liaise with state and territory police and offices of public prosecutions.”
Meanwhile, the suffering and the healing continue. There is probably no place in Australia where more child rape and sexual abuse has occurred than in Ballarat, one of the locales where Best preyed rather than prayed. After years of profound pain, and so many suicides, people there are uniting to protect one another, their children and their community. A beautiful example came in recent weeks when a pair of childhood friends, Vanessa Beetham and Peter Blenkiron, gave a $12,000 cheque to Survivors of Suicide founder Kristy Steenhuis. The money was raised by an exhibition, curated by Beetham, of photography by Blenkiron, who is a survivor of abuse by a criminal Christian brother, Edward Dowlan.
The exhibition, Putting the Pieces of Self Together One Moment at a Time, and which can be seen again in May at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, was so successful in raising awareness that Blenkiron and Beetham are collaborating on a short film with filmmaker Andrew Sully. It will be released to coincide with Break the Silence week in May, and will examine Blenkiron’s ongoing trauma and how he has managed his life.