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Anti-Catholic prejudice and misdirected blame won’t further the cause of justice

Wednesday 7 March 2018

OPINION: Joel Hodge, on ABC Religion and Ethics

Has debate around the Catholic Church become so polarised that it is moving towards irrational extremes?

And if so, should we re-evaluate the terms of public debate?

By no means am I advocating that the Church be exempt from robust public scrutiny. I am also not wishing to divert attention from historical abuse and grievous cover-ups in the Church. I firmly express support for the survivors who have bravely stood up to seek justice and healing.

Rather, I want to avoid prejudicial scrutiny that only leads to misdirected blame. This misdirection allows all parties to avoid proper accountability.

Take the recent six-month investigation by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald into the properties of the Catholic Church. The investigation sought to highlight issues around the transparency and accountability of the Catholic hierarchy.

It also reinforced that many people have been hurt by the Church's actions to protect itself, especially survivors of sexual abuse.

Yet, despite the purported aims of the investigation, there were some obvious flaws. These flaws highlight how resources and attention are being irrationally misdirected against the Church and could be better deployed.

For example, the Catholic Church was treated as one entity by the investigation, whereas, in fact, it is many different entities in Australia - dioceses, religious congregations, parishes, school, hospitals, aged care, social services and so on. To lump all these agencies together - like lumping all the assets and agencies of the federal, state and local governments - is misleading.

Without quibbling about the actual valuations given by the newspapers, much of the reported property cannot be liquidated for obvious reasons. There are churches, hospitals, schools, aged care and social services facilities on these properties. This is one reason why it is difficult - and even disingenuous - to value them. They could not easily be liquidated without a significant social cost and, in some cases, political negotiation.

One is left wondering, then, what was the real point of the investigation?

The Age claimed that they wished to highlight the Church's treatment of claims made by survivors of child sexual abuse, as well as question the tax-free status of the Church.

The hypocrisies and errors of the Catholic Church with respect to child sexual abuse are well known and well documented - certainly more so than other institutions. It is clear that the hierarchy of the Church made decisions that were fundamentally wrong, and for which they have apologised.

Apologies are not enough, and certainly, the Church needs to be held to high standards of accountability. Yet, it is worth at least acknowledging, that more than twenty years ago, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference instituted an independent process to address cases of child sexual abuse - it was called Towards Healing. While there were major errors made in some now infamous court cases, Towards Healing demonstrated an effort to address past abuse as one of the first such processes in the country.

The Catholic Church was also the first institution to support the national redress scheme recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for survivors of child sexual abuse. Furthermore, the Church has greatly improved its practices around child safety across the board.

Despite these actions, there seems to be a view that, by highlighting the Church's wealth, it will be embarrassed and pressured into giving more compensation and support to survivors. But it is the federal government that has set the limit on compensation, not the Church. The Church has shown willingness to pay whatever is determined by the Royal Commission and government. If the Church had not done so, I would support efforts to critique them.

Moreover, according to the Royal Commission's final report about how many people presented for private sessions, the government sector (32%) was responsible for almost as many survivors as the Catholic Church (36%). So why focus exclusively on the Catholic Church? Attention should be directed to the adequacy of the redress scheme as a whole in terms of what is needed to care for survivors. This requires a systematic analysis and proposal for support and compensation, of the kind that the Royal Commission has attempted.

For a newspaper or institution to scrutinise the Royal Commission's proposal would be welcome. It would help in the debate about whether the compensation levels adopted by the government are adequate. To focus on Church property is tangential to making a real difference.

On the other hand, debates about the tax-free status of charitable and religious organisations largely presents a different set of issues that demand separate consideration. If the Church's dioceses or agencies have used their tax-free status to accumulate wealth at the expense of survivors, this would be egregious indeed. Yet if the Church has admitted its historic errors and stands ready to pay survivors in full, on what grounds should we remove (or retain) the tax-free status of religious and/or charitable institutions?

There is a legitimate debate to be had on this issue, but it should be carefully distinguished from other issues. The Fairfax investigation did not do this. Moreover, it did not discuss the fact that any removal of exemptions will incur a cost - on churches, schools, hospitals, social services and so on. This cost would be borne by many institutions and individuals, not just by the Catholic Church. If we are going to have a debate, we need to be honest and avail ourselves of accurate, relevant data.

Finally, with any debate related to the Catholic Church in Australia, more explicit statements of prejudice rear their head. I'm not referring here to the rightful condemnation of the Church in relation to child sexual abuse. I'm speaking of irrational prejudice which, if stoked by the mainstream media, will lead to serious social tensions. In Australia, we should be especially careful because we have a long and documented history of anti-Catholic bias.

Take this letter to the editor (dated 14 February) in response to The Age''s investigation: ‘And people wonder why Chinese and Russian revolutionaries tried to crush organised religion.’ It is concerning that a mainstream press outlet would publish a letter that justifies the worst crimes against humanity in the twentieth century (and which are still happening in China). The sad irony is that the Chinese and Russian revolutionaries referred to in the letter were professesed atheists, and their regimes were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people - including many nonviolent, religiously-committed civilians.

This is not an isolated example. The ongoing focus on Cardinal George Pell is another. Regardless of Cardinal Pell's guilt or innocence, the level of public debate around his investigation is troubling. This was exemplified by Tim Minchin's celebrated but abusive song against Cardinal Pell. As I have previously argued, it was unprecedented in the disdain it hurled at an unconvicted Catholic figure.

Yet, one might respond that the Catholic Church has victimised thousands of people so they deserve everything that they get. I feel a certain sympathy with this sentiment, but there is a danger in it.

The cultural anthropologist Rene Girard warned that human groups are suspectible to use scapegoating to shore up their unity and righteousness. The most effective scapegoats in the modern age are those who are perceived to be persecutors. It is easy to feel justified in heaping vitriol on those claimed to be oppressing or persecutor the victimised. But to make such accusations without due process is to moralise public debate in an unhealthy way. It leads the tone and rationality of our public debate to take a troubling turn and can stigmatise whole groups of people.

In Australia, we tend to be sensitive to this danger and try to guard against it. For example, with Islamist terrorism we are careful not to implicate and stigmatise all Muslims - though, of course, anti-Muslim and anti-religious tendencies still persist. Nevertheless, we should be on constant guard in public debates because the danger of blaming and ostracising remains ever-present.

I know many will dismiss my cautionary note out of hand. But it is precisely because so many are prepared to reject any scrutiny of the way we currently engage in public debate - especially when it involves the Church - that I would ask for careful consideration. It is not my intention here to defend, much less justify, the Church's past actions or to protect it from deserved criticism.

I also know that members and leaders of the Church have hurt survivors and their families. I do not seek to divert attention away from the survivors and the measures that are required by the Church and other institutions to recompense and support them. These measures are the priority. But unfounded accusations and uncritical prejudice will not help this cause.

Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He is author of Resisting Violence and Victimisation: Christian Faith and Solidarity in East Timor, and co-editor of the book series Violence, Desire, and the Sacred.

Read this story on the website of ABC Religion and Ethics
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