This morning the Fairfax press is reporting that 95 percent of the population support the Royal Commission into child abuse. Three percent oppose it. One might ask what sort of monster wouldn’t support the Royal Commission? Well, for a start, I don’t.
This Royal Commission is policy on the run. The current government has form in this area. During the GFC it panicked and ended up wasting billions of dollars – not to mention burning down homes and four deaths in the pink-batts fiasco. Then who can forget the live export cattle ban? There the government got spooked by appalling scenes on ABC television and acted before they’d investigated the issue or even spoken to the industry or export partners.
That has happened again. The government seems to have been spooked by another ABC television show.
TONY JONES: This is actually – this is – as horrific as the litany of sexual crimes against children are, to me one of the most disturbing lines in your letter was along these lines: “I can testify from my own experience the Church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the Church.” You’re saying you have evidence of all of this?
PETER FOX: Oh, not only do I have evidence, it’s irrefutable. Most of that is fact that’s been admitted by many of them. We encounter it all the time. For people to sit back and say it’s not going on, they’ve got their head in the sand. The greatest frustration is that there is so much power and organisation behind the scenes that police don’t have the powers to be able to go in and seize documents and have them disclose things to us.
TONY JONES: If things were covered up, if there was serious cover-up, how high up the chain did it go to your sure knowledge?
PETER FOX: I have definite information that – of some covering up certainly to a number of diocese bishops. It potentially goes even higher than that.
TONY JONES: Higher than that? You mean into the top levels of the Church hierarchy, is that what you’re saying?
PETER FOX: That’s correct. I’ve got no doubt. You know, to sit back and sort of say, “Listen, each of these diocese are self-autonomous and there’s no-one above that knows what goes on at those lower levels,” we live in a real world and it would be as if, you know, I’m doing something in the police force at Raymond Terrace and I’m not accountable to somebody else at a higher level at Newcastle or in Sydney.
That’s how the chain-of-command in any organisation works. To turn around and say, “No, we work something different. We didn’t know about that,” I think most of the public are smart enough to be able to put two and two together there.
That exchange is the basis for the Royal Commission. Make no mistake those are very serious allegations and should be investigated. By the police. Let’s look again at what was said:
Tony Jones: You’re saying you have evidence of all of this?
Peter Fox: Oh, not only do I have evidence, it’s irrefutable.
If true, why are we having a Royal Commission? Why hasn’t Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox of the New South Wales police force arrested the individuals he believes to have committed a crime? Why have those individuals not appeared in open court? Why hasn’t the “irrefutable” evidence been presented to a jury? Trial by jury remains the law of the land. Trial by ABC television is an innovation that should be resisted. Big question: Why didn’t Tony Jones ask those very questions?
Then there is the question of the what outcomes a Royal Commission would produce. Jennifer Hewett has a magnificent column in the AFR ($) on this very issue.
Just what a Commonwealth commission into “institutional responses into instances and allegations of child sexual abuse’’ is expected to produce is, however, much harder to pin down. The government’s announcement is in that sense the latest example of politics as grand theatre.
It is popular with the audience. The show will go on for years, featuring villains galore. It will be cathartic for many victims – and for many institutions, including, most obviously, the Catholic Church in Australia. It will become a focal point for community anger without too many specific solutions.
I’m not sure that is the function of a Royal Commission. It is hard to see what policies the Commission will recommend beyond things like the police should hunt down and arrest criminals. Perhaps longer jail sentences for child molesters. More resources for policing, etc. We don’t need a Royal Commission to come to those conclusions.
While the appointment of a Royal Commission will be seen by many as being tough on crime there are more immediate and more practical measures that can be adopted now.
So what else is going on? Some have viewed the Royal Commission as a “Let’s get George” opportunity.
Pell and Hart really seem not to understand how they are perceived because they do not see themselves as part of the problem – as many in the pews and wider society do. In their eyes they are the solvers, the Hercules who cleaned out the Augean stables of entrenched clerical sexual abuse and cover-up.
As Paul Kelly wrote on Saturday:
Church leader George Pell played his role to perfection. Leading a deeply divided institution Pell is unable to project a convincing sense of compassion, reform and healing. His media conference this week was a catastrophe, sure to deepen hostility to the church. Pell looms as a huge liability in the institutional crisis now facing the Catholic Church in Australia.
All that is tied in with a “Let’s get Tony” agenda. Jennifer Hewett:
And unfortunately for Abbott, Cardinal George Pell is far from the best ally to have in such highly sensitive manoeuvring about just what tolerance means in modern Australian society.
Their long-standing personal association is well known – to Labor’s delight. The traditional strong Catholic influence on the right wing of the Labor Party, especially in NSW, is treated as a minor internal matter by comparison.
A third consideration is “Let’s get Church property”. The usual suspects quickly started talking about removing various tax exemptions for the church. This belongs to the “tax as a punishment” and not “tax as a source of revenue” approach to public finance. The fact of the matter is that there is a reason why not-for-profit organisations aren’t taxed. There just isn’t much ‘profit’ or ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ (whatever non-for-profits call their profits these days) to actually tax. In any event this is a government that couldn’t organise a tax to capture mining profits, so I don’t fancy their chances here either. Where it would matter is on land tax. Churches occupy some of the finest real estate in most cities. If the exemption on land tax were to be removed those churches would be unable to pay and, I imagine, the State governments would end seizing them and on-selling them to property developers (or running them themselves). So not very practical or smart.
So all up – the Royal Commission isn’t going to achieve any policy improvement that cannot or should not be undertaken immediately anyway by State government authorities. Longer prison terms, housing with the general prison population, more resources for police etc. would prove to be very popular with the electorate.