On uncovering a wicked evil

Very near to a decade ago I penned the letter which you are about to read, and which I present here without edit or additional comment, at an hour similar to the one we have only recently witnessed. That is the latest royal commission [1] into child abuse in which Cardinal George Pell has revealed a shocking lack of discernment.[2] How many more of these ‘commissions’ will we need? Wilful ignorance in this instance is no excuse and clergy who remain silent are in one way or another complicit in the crimes.

Given my increasing anguish at the situation I also wrote the letter because at the time I had become a first time father to a baby boy. This open letter was posted to major media outlets, relevant policing authorities, and clergy not only at some considerable risk to me, but also to my family.[3] The response was disheartening, maybe if memory serves me right, one or two private responses at best and an encouraging note from a paper in Western Australia. However, what really intrigued me was that during the evening broadcast of an SBS News presentation, an item appeared connected to the ongoing investigations at the time making direct reference to a number of points in my letter.[4] So somewhere at least, someone was listening and had found the fundamental positions of my letter in some way useful.

Right away I must add, that no religious group however lofty its claims or high profile in our community is “clean” and none are transparent on this most vile of all crimes. At the same time, to lay the blame squarely on the Church herself [if we are in this instance dealing with the Christian community] without any qualification is to make a serious error. The militant church unlike the triumphant church is neither spotless nor blameless.[5] It is made up of both clergy and lay members of various type and character [both saintly and wicked and ‘in-betweeners’] and is a microcosm of our world and society at large [as too are the legal and policing institutions]. We are living and moving and breathing not in an ideal world, but in a broken and corrupt world. Neither religion nor justice is to be condemned wholesale here. It would be like diminishing and doing away with the glory and honor of parenthood because some parents have committed crimes against their young. A ‘diseased’ mind which is prone to such dreadful and violent behaviors belongs to a sick person in whatever place or space you might find him or her. And yet they too need our help and a chance at the healing of this illness. Any form of vigilantism is wrong and it benefits no one. No social institutions, whether they be secular or sacred, are immune from treachery and corruption. “Social trust” is not an infallible thing.[6]

What I wrote during those difficult days was not a legal paper, and no doubt there are plenty of legal holes. It is one man’s simple deposition and small effort to contribute a practical footnote to this awful subject. It is depressingly sad that the document which follows is as unconditionally relevant today, as it was all those years ago when it was mostly ignored. More recently, a discriminating article (in the context of Cardinal George Pell’s latest testimony) appeared in one of our major newspapers where amongst other things, the author made two telling points which have been central to my own position: (I) The mandatory reporting of child abuse by the clergy to the relevant authorities, and (II) A change or an amendment to canon law to reflect this mandatory reporting.[7]


“On the most heinous of crimes and why some good people choose to remain silent”

By (Dr) M. G. Michael

Should we scratch beneath the surface, under that show of indignation which most of us would feel obliged to express in respectable company, many of us would rather not think about the subject too much. We might even allow for ourselves to be duped into thinking that the problem is not as widespread as some might reckon or that those in elected or responsible positions are seriously engaged in eradicating this wicked evil. I am speaking of child sexual abuse. It is a horrible, sickening topic. The facts are that this crime is widespread and that those in ‘high places’ cannot or will not face up to the reality. In this essay I am principally concerned with the church, though the template which follows would, in fact, match most organized institutions.

As individuals and as a community we are capable of both heroic and magnificent deeds. We are equally capable of terrible violence and unspeakable atrocities. Some people come close to the ideals of the heroic, whilst others nearer to the violent. In the absolute, however, both of these conditions are exceptional. Constrained by our natural abilities and opportunities, we amble at different rates somewhere in-between these moral states, “neither cold nor hot.” We struggle to do our best, having also to contend with compromise and diplomacy which play a vital part in the quest to reach our goal. According to how desperate we are to become the ‘top dog’ we might give up ethical ground and walk over others who refuse to go along or whose purpose has been served. Many of us should we be honest enough to admit it, have sold out, convincing ourselves that we have done the right thing at a time when more was required.

During this process of advancement, leagues or networks are established and woe and betide any member of these groups who does not fall into line or who does not follow the rules. Worse still, if for any ‘disloyal’ reason they go outside the select group, they are persona non grata and are to be summarily destroyed. There are resourceful ways, nowadays, both public and legally recognized, of going about this dastardly act of bloodless execution. These exclusive groups network by design and with intent, so we have the establishment of powerful and well-regarded brotherhoods where the rewards and stakes for the members become even higher. Outside well known criminal fraternities, we find this ancient and social phenomenon of the ‘brotherhood’ especially active in the religious, legal, and political establishments. Some of the world’s most horrifying evils have been hatched, fostered, and passed down from within these fraternal environments. It is true that the more access you have, the less likely you are to reveal.

It is in this atmosphere of fraternization and of pragmatic alliances that appalling crimes can be concealed, where even the perpetrators themselves might be lionized as citizens who are above suspicion and awarded grand honours. Authority and power beget even more authority and power. This promotes and fosters institutionalism, prestige, and influence. Almost, if not totally impregnable, these three foundation blocks behind authority and power are invariably supported and magnified by propaganda and by some docile sections of the media. To become the ‘prince’, we must serve the ‘prince’. History is weighed down with tragic examples of this ‘blinker’ loyalty.  It is true that even heroes may well envy the power of crass and venal men.

I am not speaking here of the everyday foibles and weaknesses common to most. We are fragile. We do crack under pressure. An elemental part of being a human being is to make mistakes. We hope to learn from these mistakes and to correct them, and where possible to ask forgiveness and to make restitution. At the end of the day, we pray to have walked closer to nobility of spirit than nearer to base animalism. All that has been said to this point has to do with ‘us’, the mature adults who have come of age and who are able to reason and to discern between what is obviously right and blatantly wrong. That is, men and women, of whatever station or rank, who possess the cognizance of consent. For the better part, as free thinking and responsible adults we ‘deserve’ each other, and must be prepared to suffer the consequences of our decisions.

There are some things however, that cannot be justified, which are outside this developmental process of our private and collective growth which the moral law, innate in most healthy human beings, has from the beginning testified against. One of these is the wilful killing of another human being. Not even manslaughter, but ‘wilful’. The other is the sexual abuse of a child. Both acts are abhorrent to the spirit of most people irrespective of culture, education, or religion. It is the second subject that I wish to address here in this abridged essay. I speak about this now, a little time after the matter again made the headlines, to make the point that we cannot simply move on to consider it the news of yesterday. We must deal with it immediately. We must do something real and precise to make sure that we come close to entirely eradicating this evil from within our society, beginning with the Church. Neither the various ecclesiastical confessions nor the State have appeared to be serious minded about meeting this awful wickedness head on. And so it is imperative to ask “why”? What is it that stops these two most powerful institutions from acting with all the due force available to them to fight this most heinous crime against children?

To what extent do the network and the loyalty code of the brotherhood come into force here? How do these strong, in effect intoxicating dynamics of ‘loyalty’ and ‘secrecy’ shape and determine the process of our private, public, and political decision making? Why would a royal commission into this monstrous evil -the sexual abuse of children in whatever institution or context- not be considered as the most urgent of all priorities when we would spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on firecracker displays, political advertisements, and ticket tape parades. What are we to believe then? That we cannot afford to hold a royal commission? Or that the problem is not sufficiently serious enough to warrant such high level investigation? The political, or rather the electoral expediency of throwing token money at the problem will, of course, not solve anything. Am I wrong, but is there not something dreadfully inconsistent and plainly rotten going on here? In the first instance, as it relates to the church, the only people who can put a stop to this crime are the religious ministers themselves. Clergymen, who are well intentioned and suffer with the knowledge that there are those from within their own ranks who are child abusers, normally cannot or will not come forward for two very specific reasons.

The first reason should be quite obvious. Religious understandably fear the terrible consequences, both to themselves and to their families, of their becoming publicly ‘executed’. The established ecclesiastical system in its corporate and bureaucratic incarnations (like most of the other established organizational systems) can be entirely pitiless. When it wants to it is fast, systematic, and always well-connected. The ‘defector’, nowadays ‘the whistle-blower’, is slandered himself through the ‘reputable’ channels of the network. Accusations of “betraying the faith,” psychological warfare, threat of income loss (in other examples churches, themselves, have become de facto ‘lending’ institutions to their ministers) and a host of other well tested and successful strategies are increasingly becoming commonplace. These high-level sponsored tactics –effectively shutting us up- have crushed and marginalized many individuals, both religious and secular.

The second reason, more often than not sensationally caricatured in novels and films, is less well known, and much more complex. Clergymen and most of the religious themselves, who belong to the historic churches, either confess to their superiors in what is known as the ‘sacrament of confession,’ or if they belong to the protestant evangelical tradition they will ‘share’ in counsel to an elder or to a senior pastor. Confession is no simple matter. For some zealous and sensitive souls it is not only a question of reconciliation with God, but also indispensable for their eternal salvation. So one can only begin to imagine the control that a confessor can exercise over a penitent, especially a priest who opens his heart and literally, one by one, numbers both perceived and actual sins (whether venial ormortal). And what if it is ‘sexual’ transgression? The exercise of power is more often than not, linked to information, which invariably translates to control.

Few religious have led completely holy and blameless lives, and those that have, will usually arrive at their sanctity through a tangled, and occasionally scandalous private history. Would the priest be willing to risk the wrath of his superior and potentially have his confessions made municipal if he himself should go public about something as ‘damaging’ to the militant church as child sexual abuse? It is nothing new, sad to say, to break the ‘seal’ of confession in an effort to ‘discredit’ and silence the messenger. There are a number of underhand ways in which this act of betrayal can be carried out in order to ‘protect’ the actual identity of the aforesaid confessor (who would under normal circumstances face defrockment and universal censure for breaking the seal of trust). Should the religious confessions be made public, there is his reputation and good name to think of, the pain and grief to his family by association, the ‘divine’ vengeance of his concelebrates who remain faithful to the ‘prince’, the agonizing and lonely process of his societal destruction. And the stinging accusation from within that he has betrayed the church which should at all costs be presented as being without “spot or blame.” Centuries of codified traditions are not easily broken. So in the history of the church, it is one of two types of men and women who have taken the risk and have gone public for a range of ‘unspeakable’ issues. The religious who comes forward is either exceptionally courageous or plain stupid.

A possible solution or at least a practical approach to the problem of the ‘confessional’ does exist. There is a way that we can help these men and women who want to speak out but who for one reason or another cannot. For if these religious do not come forward the problem will not go away; in our increasingly amoral and networked society (which includes the ‘online’ community) it will get worse. Let us as a community provide these individuals with the absolute guarantee of anonymity. Set up a royal commission. Make each of the churches in Australia publicly accountable by asking their ecclesiastical hierarchy to openly and legally support the establishment of such a commission. And if they do not, let them be condemned through their own inaction and be penalized on the levels of repute and financial support. The modern church, too, in the high places, is for the most part oiled by prestige and hard currency. At the conclusion of such a commission and after the presentation of the findings, let there be established an independent, properly constituted, and ongoing board of adjudication with a nationally respected figure as its head.

This select board would have special powers, recognized and approved by the Federal Government, to hear and consider incidents or suspected incidents of child sexual abuse and then to recommend to the appropriate authorities whether there are, in fact, grounds for further investigation. The recommendations themselves, however, should not be made public. Anonymity of potential witnesses would be a critical factor, to protect both the child, and in some instances, an innocent church minister who might have been wrongfully accused. There are, to be sure, such cases in point as well. The innocence of these individuals who are erroneously or maliciously accused for whatever reason must be protected with equal force. I am not a legal expert, I am simply, and perhaps naively for some, presenting a rough draft of what is theoretically possible if courage and goodwill existed. This model could be made universal, that is, the select board could be mandated to consider all cases of child abuse from all institutions and levels of the community.

There is perhaps a running contradiction in my terms. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?: Who will guard the guards themselves? Is not a royal commission just another “network” or “fraternity”? Perhaps it is, but for the present there is nothing more superior or more reliable as a body of inquiry with statutory power. At least the channels of corruption would be severely minimized; nevertheless, this would require a leap of faith in itself. The religious, political, and legal fraternities have become so enmeshed in the machinations and finances of the other (in some instances the same players stride across all three institutions) that it is becoming increasingly difficult to demarcate where the influence of the one ends and where the other begins. At the same time I certainly do not wish to give the impression that I am saying “all” networks are inherently wicked or corrupt. That would be a broad sweep and plainly wrong. The first of many positive support networks that most of us will be introduced into is our extended family. At the same time neither is this a blanket condemnation of all those in religious orders, on the contrary. For the greater part, these are individuals of unimpeachable character and of inspiring presence. They are faithful ministers of the Word who can be trusted with both our confessions and our alms. Nor do I wish to insinuate that every religious has to inevitably have knowledge of concelebrants engaged in this monstrous transgression of trust; nor that they remained silent if they did, in fact, possess such information.

It is a wise admonition, indeed, to let those who are without sin “cast the first stone.” Most of us, including this present essayist, live in a glass house. Each individual has a private history to consider, a biography which includes both high triumphs and unmitigated disasters. However, this is not the case here. It can never be the case here. We must not let it be the case here. We are dealing with children. Adults who harm even one hair from the heads of these little ones must have the full force of both the church and the law to reckon with. We must, therefore, not only throw stones at the crime in this instance, but boulders, and even mountains. There is no higher virtue than the protection of our children, and to the extent that we are prepared to protect these innocents whatever the personal or collective cost, we put every other virtue to the test. This might also account for the inescapable harsh words of Christ Himself in (Matthew 18:6) against those who would harm “one of these little ones.”

Finally, should anyone imagine that the author of this present essay is stealthily presenting himself as one of the “courageous” few, they would alas, be very much mistaken. If that, indeed, were the case, he would have written this essay long ago. Neither is he stupid. The truth of the matter rests elsewhere. Not least that he is the proud and protecting father of a three-year old son. It is to him that I dedicate this essay, and to every other child in need of a voice; rough and imperfect my own grown-up voice might be.


[1] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/royal-commission-to-consider-george-pell-ronald-mulkearns-appearances-20151223-glu3gw.html

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-03/cardinal-george-pell-key-moments-in-abuse-inquiry-testimony/7216742

[3] Nowadays, as a great poet has somewhere written, there a lots of different ways to “execute” somebody, it is no longer mandatory to set them up against a wall.

[4] Though my memory in recent years is nowhere near what it used to be, some things of long ago still remain clear. In this instance, I distinctly remember the news reader that night was Mary Kostakidis. A number of the things she read out during that news item mirrored opinions from my letter.

[5]  John Chryssavgis’ Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction (2000) is a seriously thoughtful and confronting reflection on where the church as a community can get it wrong and how that can be possible in a sanctified space which preaches both the vital importance of holiness and the unqualified dimension of trust. Ultimately, it will invariably be as a terrible consequence of “The Misuse of Spiritual Authority” (VIII). In one of his other chapters (IX) he deals directly and openly with child abuse in the Church.

[6] An article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007) which reviews the difference between “trustworthiness” and “trust propensity” and considers the measure of our willingness to vulnerability is useful reading: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~reetaban/triple%20helix/trust%20and%20decision%20making.pdf

[7] Canon Law [or ‘ecclesiastical law’] in contradistinction to divine revelation can and has changed many times during the centuries. It is akin to civil law in secular society.