Church’s suicide victims
Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Jane Lee
April 13, 2012
CONFIDENTIAL police reports have detailed the suicides of at least 40 people sexually abused by Catholic clergy in Victoria, and have urged a new inquiry into these and many other deaths suspected to be linked to abuse in the church.
In a damning assessment of the church’s handling of abuse issues, the reports say it appears the church has known about a shockingly high rate of suicides and premature deaths but has “chosen to remain silent.”
Written by Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson, the reports state that while conducting lengthy inquiries into paedophile clergy, investigators have discovered “an inordinate number of suicides which appear to be a consequence of sexual offending”…
God knows how many.
(In related news, Police prepare coronial brief on Catholic Church abuse suicides, Liz Hobday, PM (ABC), April 13, 2012.)
In any case, the call for some kind of government inquiry into Church abuse and its effects has been made many times in the past — in fact, for almost the last two decades. In other words, since the early- to mid-1990s, during which time Cardinal Pell was famously photographed (August 1993) lending his support to paedophile priest Gerard Ridsdale outside Melbourne Magistrates Court — a comradely act which Pell is yet to live down.
In Ireland (see also : Philadelphia), the investigatory response by government has seemingly been quite thorough, and therefore quite distinct from that of governments in Australia, and especially Victoria. On the other hand, only one or two MPs (the Member for Oakleigh, Ann Barker, and Greens MP Colleen Hartland) appear to have registered public concern, and the great mass of Catholics in the state are silent, as is the clergy (with one or two exceptions). In terms of authorising a genuine inquiry then, and in the absence of significant public concern, the main consideration for the Baillieu government will presumably be not wanting to alienate the Church or conservative opinion. Further, given only marginal public concern, it would seem that only marginal political advantage would be obtained through paying such matters serious attention. Finally, such an inquiry risks uncovering misdeeds in very high places…
Unfortunately for both Church and State, the Cummins Report (of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry) — intended to examine general conditions faced by vulnerable children rather than Church abuse specifically, and tabled in Parliament on February 28 — made numerous recommendations, among them:
48. A formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by religious personnel within their organisations. Such an investigation should possess the powers to compel the elicitation of witness evidence and of documentary and electronic evidence.
The most recent major case involving a Catholic paedophile was that of Robert Best. In May last year it was publicly disclosed that “Best was found guilty at trial of 21 charges, including the rape of a nine-year-old disabled boy, and later pleaded guilty to a further six”. (Best is currently appealing against the 21 charges.) His conviction was of course a public relations nightmare for the Church, requiring significant and ongoing additional expenditure on top of the massive sums already invested in his legal defence. Broken Rites:
When Best’s lawyers suddenly lodged Best’s guilty plea in court on 30 May 2011, the Christian Brothers Order was ready with a public statement which it immediately sent to media outlets. The Order issued the statement through a public relations firm that handles publicity for the Catholic Church in Melbourne. The statement said that it was being issued on behalf of the Christian Brothers Oceania (that is, Australia and the Pacific). It said:
“The Christian Brothers Oceania have offered a sincere and unreserved apology to several former students sexually abused by a member of their Order.
“It was revealed in the County Court of Victoria this afternoon that, as a result of trials lasting over several months, Christian Brother Robert Best was found guilty on several counts of sexual abuse involving a total of eight complainants and pleaded guilty to several such counts in relation to a further three complainants…”
The statement gave the phone numbers of the church’s public relations firm, where the media could make any further inquiries.
The apology was specifically limited to those complainants who managed to convict Best in the 2010-2011 trials. The apology did not mention the victim in the 1996 conviction and it did not extend to any other boys who had been harmed by Best.
Of which there have almost certainly been hundreds.
In general, like any smart businessmen, Church authorities have sought to minimise or avoid legal liability and fiscal responsibility for their company’s crimes. (The legal status of paedophile priests has effectively been that of independent sub-contractors.) Thus the processes which the Catholic Church instituted in Melbourne (1996–) to address child sexual assault by its priests are widely-acknowledged (outside of the Church) as being flawed, at least in terms of obtaining justice for victims. The outcome for the Church, however, has been relatively positive, with the details of many cases effectively suppressed and at relatively low (financial) cost. (For most of its existence, the so-called Pell Process (‘Melbourne Response’) capped compensation claims at $50,000. From 1996 to 2002, the Pell Process paid 126 victims a total of $3 million, an average of $24,000 each.) Further, the Church has typically conducted vigorous legal defences of alleged paedophiles — a fact which, when combined with the fact that such cases are notoriously difficult to prove in court, makes for a pretty neat bulwark against accounting for all the dead bodies.
Chrissie Foster writes (Hell on the Way to Heaven, Bantam, 2010, pp.149–150):
By the mid-1990s, although many people had tried, no-one in Australia had ever successfully sued the Catholic Church. One particular solicitor… was David Forster. He tried to take the Church to court with civil claims of negligence and found it extremely frustrating.
‘The difficulties are enormous’, Mr Forster expressed in 1996. ‘There’s an argument being run by the Catholic Church lawyers that the Church doesn’t exist as a legal entity. That’s the legal position. They’re not a company; they’re not a registered incorporated body in the usual sense. It’s saying it’s above the law and [with] that approach it’s acting as though it’s above the law.’
The lawyer and many other solicitors could see no way around it. ‘What the Church is effectively saying to victims is sorry… we’re sorry it all happened, we know it happened but we’re not going to pay any damages, we’re not going to be responsible for it.’
And that was why the Pell Process was so effective for the Church. So many victims felt compelled by impossibility of choice to take whatever one-off payment the Church panel offered, even if it did stipulate it was ‘for any amount of abuse, by any number of priests for the rest of their lives’.
See also : Suffer the Children : Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (August 5, 2011) | The Case Of The Pope (Terry Eagleton’s review of Geoffrey Robertson’s book of the same title, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 1, 2010). *Australian readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.