The phenomenon of child abuse by priests and other religious became a public issue on a grand scale in the early 1990s. It is the tip of the iceberg of child sexual abuse which is widespread in society, much of it occurring in families, often committed by parents against their own and other children.
Wherever it occurs it should of course be subject to immediate action by police and other authorities. Abusers should be arrested, charged and dealt with by the law.
What makes abuse in institutions particularly reprehensible is that these institutions, be they government run or charitable religious bodies, are, or were, set up to care for the welfare or education of children. Religious institutions are premised on the caring maxims of mostly Christian organisations who claim for themselves a Biblical moral basis for their caring.
It is common knowledge much sexual abuse has occurred at the hands of priests, and in some cases, nuns, within particular parishes. Typically, children are groomed by an abusing priest. In some cases, the scale of the abuse over decades has run into the hundreds of abused children.
It has been reported many times that the church hierarchy's response to information about abusing priests is to move them sideways to another parish where they continue to abuse. In some instances, from the original information to the final arrest of an abuser, two decades or more have passed and very many individual lives have been ruined.
Since the early 1990s when revelations of abuse by the religious has become well-known, there has not been a single case of a bishop who knowingly moved an abusing priest, being himself arrested and facing punishment for covering-up the crimes of the abusing priest. Indeed, as noted, the abusers have usually gone on to commit more abuse, compounding their crimes, which could have been prevented had the bishop, or someone of similar authority, acted.
There are two issues that need addressing here. Why no bishop or similar has been arrested for cover-ups, and why their institutions should not be subject to sanction i.e. loss of their tax-exempt status when they have been involved in gross violation of the principle of charity through which they receive their tax-exempt status.
On the ABC's Q&A program on 4 October 2010 Geoffrey Robertson was asked by audience member, Stephanie Seaton,"Geoffrey, people and organisations can be prosecuted for knowingly withholding information from police and/or hindering criminal investigations. How is it the Catholic Church manages to avoid prosecution for hiding clergy who are alleged to have been abusing children?"
Robertson's replied: "The Catholic Church avoids prosecution because it deals with this matter under canon law." Robertson's answer was correct but not to the point of the question. He did not explain that criminal law concerning these matters is so pathetically weak that it allows bishops and others to commit what should be offences with impunity. He did not explain that canon law comes into play by default. Imagine offences committed by Muslims being quarantined for adjudication by sharia law in our legal system. There have been outcries at the suggestion. But this, it seems, is the status of Catholic canon law in our system.
Journalist Peter Ellingsen described a case study of this situation in his 4 May 2002 report in The Age, "Speak No Evil." He described a meeting between two Catholic laymen, Bryan Cosgriff and Brendan Murphy, with the archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little (now deceased) in 1978.
Cosgriff, a magistrate, and Murphy, a barrister, who later became a QC, told Archbishop Little that Father Wilfred "Billy" Baker had been molesting the son of a parishioner for a year. Ellingsen reported that Archbishop Little firstly, and amazingly, asked these elevated members of the legal profession whether they knew the meaning of the word "defamation", refusing to accept the allegation he was hearing from them.
Subsequently, Baker was shifted to another parish. He offended again. It was not until 1999 that Baker pleaded guilty to 16 charges of indecent assault of boys aged 10-12 years: "evidence was heard in the County Court that Baker was transferred from one suburb to another after the archbishop was made aware of the allegations against him in 1978."
Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.