MICHAEL SHORT June 25, 2012
Judy Courtin: 'This is just horrendous. It is so horrendous people can't talk about it. It is evil.' Photo: Rebecca Hallas
Judy Courtin says the rape of children by Catholic priests is best dealt with by a royal commission.
[WHO] Judy Courtin, lawyer researching sex crimes against children by Catholic clergy
[WHAT] Victims are being denied truth and justice by the church and the state
[HOW] A royal commission or full judicial inquiry is essential
WERE Jesus Christ to reappear today, the first thing he might do is walk into the golden, treasure-gorged edifice that is the Vatican and throw out not money merchants, as he did some 2000 years ago, but the very people purporting to represent him and his ideas.
The core idea, it seems to me, that this radical man so influentially ventilated is simple and beautiful: treat others as you would wish to be treated, for we are all equal and all deserve and owe decency and kindness.
It is arguably the most powerful ethical principle possible. It was not invented by Christ, and is shared by many who, like me, are not part of the Christian church or any religion. But he is widely seen to have been its most effective champion.
The Catholic Church has derived its colossal power and wealth from Christ, yet its hierarchy has trashed its moral authority and betrayed Christ by protecting clergy who have committed sexual crimes against untold thousands of children throughout the world. Many of the victims are here in Australia.
Incidental victims include not only the families and friends of those who have suffered and continue to suffer the depravity of predatory priests, but also the many decent and dedicated Catholic priests and workers and nuns and teachers and carers. Their efforts, their very lives, have been diminished.
But it is the victims, of course, who have been damaged most. Many are in a living hell. Others have taken their own lives.
Today's guest in The Zone, lawyer and doctoral researcher Judy Courtin, is fighting for justice for people who have suffered crimes that almost defy comprehension.
''People talk about child abuse. I don't like that term, because it's a benign term; it wraps it all up in a pretty little bow. We're talking about cruel rape; little children as young as five being anally, vaginally, orally raped by a grown man. How do they deal with all of that? And the clergy mess with their developing minds; they say 'don't you tell anyone, and this is all your fault'. This is a little kid, for God's sake.''
Courtin cites an example from the book Hell on the Way to Heaven by Chrissie Foster and Paul Kennedy. ''One of the little girls cried hysterically about going to the dentist. She said: 'The dentist wants me to open my mouth wider and wider and I can't open it any wider'. This is just horrendous. It is so horrendous people can't talk about it. It is evil.''
Chrissie and Anthony Foster's daughters Emma and Katie were victims. Both girls developed self-destructive behaviours as teenagers. At 15, Katie ran on to a road and was brain-damaged when hit by a car. Emma died of a drug overdose at 26.
Judy Courtin is doggedly doing the work that should be done by a proper inquiry. It is self-evident that a royal commission is the best route to truth and justice on this issue; common sense and logic tell us the Catholic Church cannot be independent when investigating itself. The church has set up a national internal complaints process, ''Towards Healing'', and the ''Melbourne Response'', which covers the Melbourne archdiocese. Victims and their lawyers report that both processes can be hugely traumatic.
In April, the Victorian government, curiously refusing to accept mounting public dismay about the issue, established a woefully inadequate parliamentary inquiry into the handling by churches and other non-government organisations of sex-crime allegations.
The investigation's terms of reference are limited, and are silent on the issue of premature deaths and suicides. There is too much scope for the church's hearings to be in secret, and it must be completed by next April, despite the committee not fully getting under way until October. The inquiry is further shackled by the fact that it is being conducted by Parliament's six-member family and community development committee, an inexperienced group already juggling two inquiries, one of which has had them on a fact-finding tour of Britain and the Netherlands.
Courtin is scathing and dismayed. ''It is grossly inadequate. The terms of reference and the announcement from the government have the Catholic Church written all over it. The government is justifying the use of a parliamentary inquiry on the basis that it is more friendly, less legalistic, less formal and much better for victims. That is sheer nonsense. Victims are neither afraid of, nor concerned about, a royal commission. They want a royal commission - they want an inquiry that has the requisite legal and forensic teeth to deal with the powerful church and that parallels the extent and seriousness of these crimes.
''The only people that would be concerned about a more legalistic and formal royal commission would be the wrongdoers - the guilty ones.''
It is also politically bizarre. ''If the church was not there, if you take them out of the equation, why would there not be a royal commission? You would think that it would be a vote-winner. The groundswell of support for the victims and for change is well and truly out there across the community.''
The vehicle for Courtin's research is a PhD at Monash University's law faculty. To her knowledge, it is the first time such a comprehensive investigation has happened in Australia. Throughout Victoria and NSW, she is talking not only to primary and secondary victims, but eminent senior counsel, barristers, solicitors and non-legal advocates.
It is all but impossible to know just how many victims are out there, but it could be tens of thousands across Australia. Only about 10 per cent of adults who were sexually assaulted as children will ever report to the police. The Melbourne archdiocese reported a year ago that 450 complaints have been lodged. It recently said it had investigated about 330 complaints. ''Either way, if that represents that 10 per cent figure, that's a lot; between 3300 and 4500. That is just the Melbourne archdiocese. The Melbourne archdiocese only deals with diocesan priests. And the Melbourne archdiocese is just one geographical area. How many victims are there across the state? The breadth of the problem is obviously vast.''
The effects of such crimes are profound and cut across the entire community.
In Ballarat alone, as many as 35 men have committed suicide, victims of two priests, Robert Best and Gerald Ridsdale. Courtin's yet-to-be-published research is suggesting other suicide clusters.
''A lot of the families have endured, sadly, the death of a loved one. The impacts on families include depression, grief, loss of faith, guilt; anger, despair, sadness and anguish. One mother said she felt a knife went through her heart when she finally found out about the multiple anal rapes of her 11-year-old son.''
Courtin says the harm for victims includes suicide, attempted suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug addiction, difficulties with forming relationships, a distrust of authority figures, grief, anger, breakdown of families and a loss of faith.
''The economic and social impact of these problems is immeasurable. Many cannot form ongoing relationships. The horrifying part for some is that it does not stop. It is ongoing. And it is always, always a struggle.''
It is a struggle made all the more frustrating by the church's protection of criminal priests.
Countless documents are being harboured by the church, and a number of convicted paedophile priests are even receiving financial support from the church for rent and health insurance.
A proper judicial inquiry is all the more necessary as a result of inherent impediments to justice. As it is not a legal entity, the Catholic Church cannot be sued. Dioceses and religious orders cannot be sued. The church and school authorities cannot be held vicariously liable. Offenders can be sued but, as sex crimes are often not reported for decades, the offender might be dead and anyway has made a vow of poverty. Only about 6 per cent of child sex matters reported to police result in conviction and more than half of those are appealed.
The Catholic Church is relying on these barriers. The government's inquiry is structurally unable to breach them.
The Catholic Church's leaders have failed to ask one simple question: what would Jesus Christ do? Until they do, and change their position, they invite being seen as sinners and hypocrites.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114 or visit beyondblue.org.au