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Child abuse campaigners overstep the mark in making their case

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 27 May 2003

In January this year my thoughts turned to Peter Hollingworth and I felt some empathy for him. It was the English rock legend Peter Townshend that steered me in the beleaguered G-Gs direction. I had written a comment piece in The Australian on the fact that Townshend was being treated harshly by the criminal justice system and child abuse groups in the UK. Townshend's alleged crime was to have downloaded some child porn from the Internet in his own home. Their was no suggestion that anyone else had seen the material. I speculated in this piece on whether or not Townshend should, in these circumstances, be subject to the criminal law. Shouldn't the criminal law go after the source of the material - those unscrupulous and evil individuals that exploit children sexually and place material on the Internet?

Townshend has subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing. His case helped to highlight in the UK how the criminal law in this area, if used indiscriminately, can cause injustice. A woman wrote to The Guardian newspaper to tell of her naive teenage son who went to jail for downloading child porn in his bedroom.

But this is simply an aside. The issue here is the reaction that my article caused. Two days after I wrote it, I spoke to the Australian Democrats National Conference in Sydney. I was told at the conference that some people were circulating copies of my Australian article and were demanding that I be censured or sacked from the Party. After I finished my speech on campaigning the questions from the floor were decidedly hostile. They had a touch of the Salem witch hunts about them - they were aiders and abetters of the anti-child abuse campaigning group, Bravehearts. Questioner after questioner told me that my article was highly damaging, that I was sanctioning child abuse, and that I should publically apologise for it and write a letter to The Australian retracting all that I had written.


Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and I left the conference unscathed and unbowed - it renewed my faith in the Democrats as the only party in this country that allows genuine freedom of speech among its members.

But this wasn't the end of the matter. I was helping the NSW Democrats election campaign and the State leader of the Party, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, an indefatigable campaigner on child abuse, received none too subtle threats indicating that I should be removed from the campaign team. These threats came from Bravehearts head honcho, Hetty Johnson. Mr Chesterfield-Evans rightly pointed to the Democrats leadership role on investigating of child abuse in New South Wales and resisted Ms Johnson's demands.

In fact, I spoke with Ms Johnson myself. It was a civil conversation in which we agreed to disagree. But one element of it sticks in my mind. I asked Ms Johnson whether Bravehearts was involved in trying to end the appalling child abuse that occurs daily in our infamous detention centres? No she said, she leaves that work to others. In other words, she's selective about which children she helps.

Ms Johnson and her cohorts used an Internet chatroom, to continue their campaign against me. Once again, I was accused of sanctioning child abuse. I got a message through to the owners of that chatroom that I would sue for defamation if these emails did not cease - they did.

Thus my sympathy for Hollingworth. It is not that I sanction his seemingly inadequate and insensitive response to the systemic problem of child abuse in the Anglican Church - he should take the view that if there is evidence of child abuse then it must be stamped out immediately and the source of the problem removed.

But I do empathise with Hollingworth as regards the treatment meted out to him by Ms Johnson and other child-abuse campaigners. These people have no sense of proportion. They make accusations, prosecute their case with extraordinary vigour and use any and every method to discredit individuals who they put in the gun. They have no sense of procedural fairness or that the innocent are just that until the prosecution proves its case.


Bravehearts is an organisation that does enormous good in exposing a vice in our community that has horrific consequences and, worst of all, helpless victims. But Bravehearts is selective as I noted - it has done nothing on the issue of daily abuse of children committed by the Howard government in its detention centres. As I said to Hetty Johnson, putting a child in a detention centre is abuse!

In this deeply emotional area of public policy we must remember that the basic liberties and rules of fairness should not be cast aside - Dr Hollingworth has been charged with no offence, he has been found by a church inquiry, not a court of law, to have failed in his duty as a church leader. There is not suggestion that Mr Hollingworth sanctions child abuse in any form.

Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett is right to call for a Royal Commission on Child Abuse. Only a Royal Commission, informed by facts and evidence and not finger-pointing, can help our society determine the extent of the problem, who is to blame, and what public-policy responses will be most effective in dealing with its prevention. Bravehearts can have their day "in court" like anyone else at a Royal Commission and this would be far preferable to their current tactic of zero tolerance towards any one who dissents from their line on the matter.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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