Over the past couple of days, media commentators have lauded the establishment of royal commission into institutional handling of child abuse. This powerful national commission, many have written, will finally allow for a proper investigation of the Catholic Church's handling of child abuse cases in the past 50 years. I want to emphasise something a little different – the scope of this commission. This is a commission that is not just confined to investigating the Catholic Church, but also concerns "[all] institutional responses to instances and allegations of child abuse in Australia." And this is absolutely crucialif we really want to address the problem of institutional mismanagement of sexual abuse claims.
Recent media coverage has emphasised cases of coverups within the Catholic Church. The commission will hopefully lead to prosecution of Catholic clergy where indeed there has been misconduct.
But it is naïve to think that instances of cover-ups are confined to the Catholic Church. It is very probable that equally serious cover ups have taken place in other institutions.
A recent report published by law firm DLA Piper – on behalf of the Department of Defence – has indicated widespread abuse of minors in our defences forces from the 1950s to 1980s. The report was heavily edited by the Defence department, but we are offered a few 'extracts' from sample cases indicative of general nature of the 800 or so complaints made. A number of these relate the sexual abuse of minors, and one of them concerns the repeated abuse of a boy just 13 years old.
According to the report, the ADF response to the abuse cases have been grossly inadequate. The report states that "there seems to have been very little success in calling to account and/or rehabilitating the perpetrators of abuse." In some cases, it seems that "no administrative action was taken on occasions despite an allegation of rape having been made against a member [of the defence force]". And the report indicates that "We are not entirely confident that what Defence has been able to provide is a complete picture."
There is something very suspect about the general handling of these issues in the Defence Force over the past thirty years – something akin to what is happened in the Catholic Church.
We have also been reminded over the past few days of law suits running against the Salvation Army. In just two Salvation Army boys homes in Melbourne it is alleged that 200 minors were abused. All these cases of abuse took place before 1994, and yet it was not until 2008 that the Salvation Army formally apologised to victims and established a system of compensation.
Fresh accusations of cover ups in the Australian Scouts and elite boys schools have also been made in the past few days.
All of this is simply to say that cover ups are not confined to the Catholic Church. This may seem like stating the obvious – but if you were to open up a Fairfax paper in the past week, I wouldn't blame you for thinking that paedophilia is exclusive to Catholicism.
The current commission needs to keep this clearly in sight. It needs to maintain a broad scope, looking much further than the incidents that have been reported in the mainstream media. Certainly the Church should be investigated – but all other institutions should be subject to the same scrutiny. The very best cover-ups don't reach the press. They stay confined within corrupt institutions, whilst victims continue to suffer. The commission will hopefully end this sorry situation.
I want to stress that this is not some glib justification for the tragic mismanagement of abuse cases in the Catholic Church. It's disgraceful to suggest that the Church is less culpable because abuse has happened elsewhere.
Rather I am making a very simple but crucially important statement – the cover-up of abuse is very likely a widespread phenomenon. We can profit from looking afield to other countries. Last month police in the US exposed a massive cover-up of child sex abuse in the American Boy Scouts. And in England we've seen a shocking cover-up by its best investigative news service – the BBC. Whilst indicting the Catholic Church for inaction on sexual abuse, the BBC was simultaneously suppressing news stories about Savile's heinous misdeeds.
What we have here is ultimately not a 'Catholic' problem. It's not about celibate priests, or paedophilia being considered 'just another sin'. This is an institutional problem. 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.