Murmurs in the pews: royal commission will rock churches
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.
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