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The scandal of defending George Pell: Amanda Vanstone's moral support

By Rob Cover - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Former Howard government minister and ambassador to Italy, Amanda Vanstone, is broadly incorrect to characterise Australians as a pack mob, ignorantly going after Cardinal George Pell in the Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and in media commentary.

In recent weeks, questions have been asked in public sphere debate about whether or not Cardinal Pell's inability to complete his long-promised travel to Australia for the royal commission, and to give evidence instead by video link, is an insult to victims and to an inquiry that seeks to uncover the framework and reasoning as to why sexual abuse occurred for so long in religious institutions.

In her Age column Vanstone presents a picture of contemporary humanity as having momentarily fallen away from civilisation, fallen under the "primal" animal instincts and seeking to bring about the fall of "a decent, honest, intelligent man" because the public are not satisfied that perpetrators of child sex crimes conducted by Catholic priests and religious have been adequately punished. In other words, baying for the blood of, in her view, the wrong man, a "blood sacrifice".

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Vanstone gives an example to foster the idea of an unthinking mob seeking vigilante-like retribution for child sex crimes, referring to a past case in which an Anglican bishop in a South Australian diocese was forced to retire early after helping a priest who had molested a boy leave the country. For Vanstone, the problem was that there may have been others who knew about but failed to report the priest's crime, while the early retirement of the bishop meant one man took the fall for the failings of many, as a result of the aggressive demands of the people out for blood-any blood.

There are (at least) three problems with the way in which Vanstone is twisting the role of Cardinal Pell in public discussions, royal commission hearings and debate, and presenting a vague character reference; most of this based in an irrational misjudgement of how public debate on scandal and moral panic operates.

1. Organisational accountability

Firstly, while many people may be aware of a crime, responsibility and accountability does rest heavily on those who were in a position to discipline, prevent, report or otherwise lead in an organisational setting. In the case of both Catholic and Anglican churches, that is a diocesan head, a bishop. To ask a bishop to account for his actions in a royal commission or to explain how the knowledge of a crime did not cross his desk during a period in which he was given charge and responsibility over priests is not a call for blood. It is a very rational, coherent and well-considered request so that organisational, administrative reporting and other controls can be in place to help avoid this happening to a child in a trust setting again.

The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has terms of reference that make very clear its focus is on systemic failures by institutions that care for, support or provide services to children, with deliberate interest therefore in the governance arrangements that obscured the truth and pathways to justice for such large numbers of victims. This framework for inquiry is therefore focused not merely on recording and responding to the individual stories of abuse that happened to so many children, but on determining the veracity of the stories that have been given by church leaders as well as the failure to relate these abuses in the appropriate, legal ways. It is an inquiry into the failure of church leadership-and that will by necessity involve public sphere discussion about the leaders of the Catholic Church such as George Pell. This is not bashing-it is necessary public interest about a powerful figure within an institution that perpetrated crimes against vulnerable children.

2. Misunderstanding the role of scandal

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Second is Vanstone's misunderstanding of scandal. While the public most often understands scandal through unfair celebrity gossip today, scandal is a particularly important media tool that developed across the twentieth century as a way of helping to change attitudes of complacency towards the institutional protection of the powerful and the invisibilisation of their victims. Scandal relies on a combination of media revelation of a cover-up and a media audience positioned to express outrage at that cover up.

In Australian masculine sporting culture, for example, the scandal reporting and a growing outrage among the public has helped (a little) to turn around the perennial problem of women involved in the social aspects of elite sport being sexually assaulted, with masculine-dominated football clubs, state police, departments of public prosecution and high-profile commentators helping to bury the story so the game is not affected, while the women complainants are not given an opportunity for contemporary justice. Scandal reporting, outrage and cultural change work together to move towards a more egalitarian approach to justice.

In the case of the child sexual abuse scandal in Australia, scandal reporting includes, for example, outrage at the delays of having a senior Catholic leader (who had responsibility for governance across two archdioceses in Australia in the period of the royal commission investigation and an ongoing role in representing Australian Catholicism internationally), appear at the royal commission and the perception that a range of mechanisms are being used to prevent it being treated openly and honestly. It may be a mistaken impression, and the delays may genuinely be caused by illness, but public outrage is a tool to avoid cover-up, to ensure the information is clear and that those who held governance roles are held to account-whether innocent or not.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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