Child abuse has been the allegation of choice used by the Coalition government to demonise refugees.

Scott Morrison stressed child abuse and sex crimes when he re-opened Christmas Island, “We can’t have those suspected of violence, sexual crimes and abuse, including against children, walking the streets in Australia.”

Only a few days before, the conviction of Cardinal George Pell on five counts of child sexual assault had sent shock waves through the Catholic Church and the Australian establishment.

But don’t expect Government Ministers or the media to vilify the Catholic Church. The list of those supporting Cardinal Pell, a convicted paedophile, reads like a conservative Who’s Who of the political and media establishment.

In court, following his conviction, former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer shook the cardinal’s hand.

Among other supporters were two former Liberal Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University Greg Craven, Murdoch journalists Miranda Devine, Paul Kelly, and Andrew Bolt as well as Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby. 

The liberal Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, a long-time defender of the Church, once wrote, “Clearly the Church cannot be left alone to get its house in order.” But in light of Pell’s conviction, Brennan has thrown his lot in with the worst defenders of the system, with his very public questioning of the verdict.

In 2007, Howard and Abbott used false allegations of child abuse to launch the Northern Territory Intervention against Aboriginal communities. Even after investigations by the Australian Crime Commission found no evidence for the existence of “paedophile rings”, they refused to relent.

In contrast, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been dominated by abuses perpetrated in the Catholic Church.

The scale and nature of abuse uncovered in Catholic institutions is staggering. Between 1980 and 2015, 4444 people reported allegations of child sexual abuse to Catholic authorities. There were 1880 Catholic leaders subject to allegations of abuse in over 1000 separate institutions. In total, 7 per cent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sexual abuse.

If the Royal Commission and the scale of abuse that has been revealed tells us anything, it is that we should expect high officers of the Church to be guilty of child abuse.

Between 2000 and 2012, the Catholic Church admitted that, “about 620 cases of criminal child abuse have been upheld by the Church in Victoria”. In the Archdiocese of Melbourne alone, 301 complaints have been upheld between 1996 and 2012.

Pillar of the system

But it is not Pell himself that the Murdoch journalists and the former Liberal Prime Ministers are rushing to defend so much as the Catholic Church itself. Despite the declining church attendances (only 12.5 per cent of Catholics regularly attend mass), the Church remains a pillar of Australian capitalism.

The Catholic Church is the biggest private employer in Australia with 180,000 employees. It is estimated that it owns $100 billion worth of properties and other assets and makes $15 billion a year from its businesses (particularly education, health and welfare services).

This position underpins the ideologically conservative role over gender, contraception, homosexuality and marriage that it plays within Australian capitalism. That role has been most recently seen in the Church’s campaign against equal marriage. The Church is now resisting changes to anti-discrimination legislation that would end their ability to continue to discriminate against LGTBI staff and students on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

Only a few days after Pell’s conviction, a French archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbari, was found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese in yet another crushing blow to the Catholic Church’s credibility.

In Ireland, the succession of scandals and official inquiries that uncovered sex abuse by priests and abuse of single mothers has seen a dramatic decline in the Church’s influence. Against the opposition of the Church, in 2015, a referendum on equal marriage was overwhelmingly carried and in May 2018, 66.4 per cent voted to repeal a constitutional amendment that in effect had banned abortion.

Pell’s conviction is global news. Millions more will be disillusioned in the institution they once looked to for solace. Calls for the equality of women in the church have started to get a hearing again. For some, Pell’s conviction is reason to celebrate Australian democracy and is evidence that we are all equal before the law.

But a closer look reveals the deep hypocrisy of capitalism’s guardians. The victims of abuse are just so much collateral damage in their unseemly rush to protect the powerful and defend their system.

By Ian Rintoul

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