Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has just announced the formation of a royal commission into “institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse”.
The media spotlight has been on child abuse claims in the Catholic Church. But the Prime Minister is wise enough to realise that sex abuse is so widespread that it is not just a problem in one denomination. This inquiry extends beyond the highly-publicised failings of the Church to state-run institutions, government schools, non-profits like the Scouts and sporting groups, child service agencies and even the police.
It promises to be a deeply emotional affair which could last as long as five years. Two other inquiries into child sexual abuse, mostly targeting the Catholic Church, are already under way in the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
The senior Catholic prelate in Australia, Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, has agreed to cooperate fully with the royal commission. He says that it will clear the air. "We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church. We object to it being exaggerated," says Cardinal Pell. "We object to being described as the only cab on the rank. We acknowledge, with shame, the extent of the problem and I want to assure you that we have been serious in attempting to eradicate it and deal with it... This commission will enable those claims to be validated or found to be a significant exaggeration."
But the purpose of the royal commission is not merely to purge the collective psyche and bring hidden injustices into the light of day, but to strike at the root of the perversion.
“Child sexual abuse is a vile thing, it’s an evil thing, it’s done by evil people, but what we’ve seen too I think in recent revelations, it’s not just the evil of the people who do it,” said Ms Gillard. “There has been a systemic failure to respond to it and to better protect children and I particularly want to get the insights about what would stop that kind of systemic failure happening again.”
Unhappily, nailing and jailing sexual predators is the easy part. This is not a law and order crisis; it is a cultural crisis. Ensuring that it won’t happen again – in the Catholic Church and elsewhere -- could be all but impossible in a society which is awash with incitements to sexual activity.
Fortunately, the most frequent reason advanced for pessimism about change is no reason at all: that celibacy will remain mandatory for Catholic priests. Critics inside and outside the Church have claimed that celibacy is the cause of psychological disorders. This is complete nonsense. Married rabbis, scout masters, teachers and Protestant ministers have all been convicted of child sexual abuse. The causes of paedophilia are obscure, but many paedophiles are married men. Abolishing celibacy seems about as sensible as forcing bachelors to marry.
The second reason is institutional. Critics of the Church have accused it of secrecy, of turning a blind eye to abuse, and of deliberately evading the civil authorities by transferring priests to keep their crimes a secret. This has happened in the past, although protocols are in place now to ensure that offenders are brought to justice in a court, not shielded by other priests.
The recent turmoil at the BBC in Britain suggests that it takes great moral strength to resist the pressure to protect colleagues. It has emerged that Jimmy Savile, a vulgar entertainer whom the BBC lionised for decades, was a serial sexual abuser. A year after his death, at least 300 men and women have come forward to accuse him of molesting or even raping them. Incredibly, Savile used his status as a celebrity visitor to hospitals and orphanages to molest girls. This went on for decades. Some of the incidents may even have happened on BBC premises.
Did anyone know about this? Yes, they did. Or at least they had their suspicions. Did anyone at the BBC do anything about this? No, they didn’t. Instead, after his death, the BBC broadcast tributes to Savile’s memory.
Now articles are appearing which allege that a culture of abuse had existed for years at the BBC. Joan Bakewell, once called “the thinking man’s crumpet”, a well-known TV presenter who aggressively promoted liberal views on sexual taboos and was rewarded with a peerage, reminisced recently about Jimmy Savile and other ghastly figures from the 60s in the London Review of Books. Incredibly, she excused it:
“You can’t re-create the mood of an era. You just can’t get into the culture of what it was like, transfer our sensibilities backwards from today. It would be like asking Victorian factory owners to explain why they sent children up chimneys. It’s the same with the BBC that I first entered. It had habits and values that we just can’t understand from the point of view of where we are now. What we now find unacceptable was just accepted back then by many people.”
And what happened when the BBC higher-ups were confronted with Savile’s alleged crimes and evidence of cover-ups and wilful ignorance? They denied all knowledge of it. Mark Thompson, the former director-general of the BBC, and now president and CEO of the New York Times Company, is under a cloud. A columnist at the Times, Joe Nocera, was scathing: “Thompson winds up appearing willfully ignorant, and it makes you wonder what kind of an organization the BBC was when Thompson was running it — and what kind of leader he was." BBC journalists would have destroyed a bishop like that.
Institutions protect their own. They obstruct inquiries. They bluster. It takes a deep sense of justice to resist the temptation to be defensive and to accept responsibility for the failings of subordinates. If bishops are evasive, they deserve to be sanctioned, but let’s not think that the Catholic Church is the only club with dark secrets.
The third reason for pessimism is cultural. Most of the abuse which features in the headlines – even Jimmy Savile’s – is decades old. By all means bring the predators to justice, but the most urgent matter is to keep young people from becoming abusers.
In this regard, the stench of hypocrisy is unbearable. Everywhere young people are being encouraged to abuse their peers. They aren’t being told where to draw the line. In fact, they are being told that there are no lines. At the same time as Australian politicians are making indignant speeches about sexual abuse of children, the New South Wales teachers’ union is distributing sex information kits which teaches students to experiment creatively with their sexuality to see whether they are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, pansexual or omnisexual.
Encouraging adolescents to have casual sex has become so commonplace that it barely registers in the media – from popular sex columnists like Dan Savage to United Nations resolutions about reproductive health to Lena Dunham's suggestive commercial for President Obama's election campaign. Today we live in a sauna of sexuality. Does anyone really think that more experimentation will stop a new generation of sexual predators?
“We must do everything we can to make sure that what has happened in the past is never allowed to happen again.” Well said, Prime Minister. But until children and adolescents are taught that sex is a sacred power which should be reserved for a loving relationship within marriage, the cycle of abuse will happen again. And again. And again.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.