As I listened to Tim Minchin’s ‘paean’ ( HERE ) to Cardinal Pell, I was reminded of a scene of an alpha vulture daring enough to start ripping the gizzards out of a still living, but dying animal, no longer able to offer resistance.
It is not that I want to deny my feelings of schadenfreude, or my shameless pleasure at watching a public killing. I am just as fond of watching torture and the spilling of blood as the next guy.
And it just couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke ... a typical ecclesiastical careerist and administrative tough guy in the corporatist mould. He suffered the little children to come to him, but insufficiently (not to say glacially) moved against the sublunary shenanigans of his errant priests, because he was more interested in protecting the church than the child victims of its agents. And like his corporate mates, when caught in a nasty ‘situation’, he resorted to plausible deniability.
But after all that there is only silence. All this does nothing to unravel the mystery of why virtually all institutions, whether secular or sacerdotal, singularly failed to deal with child sexual molestation, until the lack of incentive to confront it and the blocks that choked off public discussion of such a delicate subject were addressed and removed.
And it hasn’t been just been traditional institutions that have been laid bare. Whether it were Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris, or any of the other high profile media characters who have been (or are being) held to account for predatory sexual crimes against children, that they have been committing for decades, it is only now that it is all coming to light. And even the dear old BBC is now copping some serious flack for allowing Jimmy Savile to get away with egregious abuse of children, while everyone looked the other way.
Why did it take so long? The consumer cultural implant of shamelessly indulgent in-your-face-no-holds-barred sexistential volupturism is well into its third generation. Something more is at work than just the removal of taboos.
And why hasn’t the rock ‘n roll industry not come onto the radar, when so many of its leading and not so leading lights have predated on countless troops of conspicuously under-age groupies to tune up their instruments and bang their drums, back stage ... since the 1950s?
Is it just that the industry isn’t traditional enough to attract attention? Is it that rock musicians aren’t regarded as responsible adults, or expected to be? Or is it that in that context, we are so in denial about the idea of sexually aggressive adolescent girls who have acquired a taste for older males, that we do not appear to have a word for them, because we are still pretending that we have not thrust large slabs of autonomous agency at them, and that the defacto ‘age-of-consent’ is completely out of whack with the legal one.
Some years ago I was a limo driver and had to do a near midnight pick-up of a kid from a police-organized under-age Blue Light disco in Melbourne’s Southbank. As an older man, I had to avert my eyes because the 12-13 year old nymphets were wearing clothing that was so revealing they would make a St Kilda street walker blush. If they bent over at all, one could see that they were wearing G strings! And some of them were jumping into cars with young men who plainly were not under-aged, or walking into the city to kick on. The signs of parental abdication were everywhere….
At a larger level, I struggle to understand why none of the interest groups that have been responsible for prematurely sexualizing children and bestowing quasi-adult status and rights on them; who deliberately unpicked and destroyed the screen between the world of adults and children, and the parental authority/mentoring/role templating that underpinned that; who put it about that if it feels good then it is good; who persuaded us that giving into temptation was the highest social virtue; who constructed morality, social discipline and its enforcement as ‘authoritarian’, ‘repressive’ and ‘abusive’; and who deconstructed adulthood as a cultural goal in favour of adolescence; why aren’t they in this picture and carrying some of the responsibility for it?
I have been around long enough to have been personally impressed by the number of sexual interference cases in families I have been personally acquainted with, that have produced a tangle of drug abuse, chaotic and unconscionable behaviour, depression, breakdown, suicide and very messy divorces. Blended families seem to be especially vulnerable, where there is a non-blood related older male, whose parental role is weak and poorly defined, and who doesn’t have the integrity to be an unambiguously responsible adult character in his dealings with a sexually active and negligibly disciplined adolescent daughter of his partner.
Mum might suspect, but doesn’t dare say boo because if she makes a fuss, the daughter just might take off and disappear with their mutual man. And when the young lady has had enough of him, there is always the possibility of a little blackmail to keep her quiet about ‘the sexual abuse’, which might not be exactly ‘justice’, but comeuppance will do ...
Does the suggestion of permanently immature adolescent older males, lack of clear familial roles, role modelling and expectations, and out-of-control adolescence full of its rights sound familiar ...? We are living in an environment where the social infrastructure is disintegrating. So should we all be acting all shocked and surprised that seriously nasty stuff is coming onto the main menu?
“That’s dynamite, isn’t it children?” “Yes Miss”.
‘Deprived’ of normal disciplines and routines of education or productive, interdependent and honest income4effort, ‘disadvantaged’ long-term welfare dependent communities get the above in spades, because individuals and familial arrangements across those communities have become just so unstable, ‘at risk’ and deprived of even the most basic moral potty training. The ordinary templates for a coherent life have vanished. That is what you get after three generations (sometimes in the same house) and 60-70 years of laissez-faire social deregulation and degoverenancing in favour of market indulgence.
Anyone who has bothered to read the 2007 Northern Territory ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report will appreciate what can happen to welfare communities that have become morally and existentially chaotic because their system of socialization has been smashed to pieces by a culture that has replaced discipline and responsibility with disinhibition posing as liberty and indulgence posing as rights; i.e., life without boundaries.
It is quite reasonably arguable to suggest that the timing of the hideously revealing sexual molestation tell-alls that we have heard particularly since the beginning of this century, about the heinous mismanagement of paedophilia by traditional institutions, has been as much about diverting attention from the enormous problems coming out of the libertarian ‘sexual revolution’, for which social libertarians have been prime movers, as the relaxation of traditional taboos to publicly revealing all. It smacks of the same kind of melange of motivation that inspired the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into ‘The Stolen Generation’, to divert attention and blame shift onto the traditional white racist paternalists, the crippling mess that half-cocked human rightsie libertarianism has caused in aboriginal communities since the 1970s. (See Chapter 21 of The Secular Fundamentalist: Racism, Imperialism and Sorryspeak. http://www.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/866716 )
Besides making the old order traditionalists fall guys for laissez-faire governance problems emerging out of the libertarian consumer revolution, there is also the incentive to use that to delegitimize them completely in order to cement the dominance of the libertarchic administration of the social order, in the welfare, educational and legal/political system. Guys like Pell and the Catholic Church represent a continuing if attenuating barrier to that dominance. And if one can stick it on them that the ‘repressive’ character of their moral code actually ‘encourages’ the very things it is meant to stop, then it is a really ‘gotcha’ moment; an opportunity too good to miss. The fact that the people running that argument represent the baleful consequences of consumer capitalism’s ‘all you can eat’ indulgence agenda, will be easily ignored or forgotten.
I am of the view that the whole area of discourse has become a rat’s nest of obfuscation, denial and the most revolting hypocrisy, all round. What is really difficult to abide is the breath taking cheek of guys like Minchin, who represents a libertarian culture that is literally shredding our social commons. And he has the nerve to heap all the disgrace and discredit for that on one institution, as personified by the awful Cardinal Pell.
From the late sixties through to 1980, there were around 3800 Catholic priests either in parishes or orders and one submission to the current Royal Commission estimated the rate of paedophile offending amongst that cohort at between one in fifteen to twenty. That sounds like a lot until one starts to do a bit of research to find what is going on in the larger culture. Statistical analysis is extremely difficult because of the extent of under-reporting, but Bravehearts Inc reports an almost eye-popping prevalence of sexual interference with minors across society.
What is particularly difficult for Pell and his like was that not getting rid of rampant re-offenders like Father Gerald Ridsdale meant an ever-widening trail of destruction that went on for decades and left behind hundreds of victims. Not all of the perpetrators were as egregious in their offending. And for some, the old process of confession, repentance, penance and forgiveness may have been enough to stop them.
We will never really know.
But from what I can glean, that problem of lack of reporting is writ large. There seems to be a chronic unwillingness to report such crimes across society. So many of the offenders are spouses, relatives and old friends-of-the-family. The family priest is just one of many in that circle of trust who gets ‘access’ to children. And if they are suspected of ‘inappropriate behaviour’, that closeness and aura of trust makes it hard not to trigger disbelief, give benefit of the doubt, or ‘chances’.
It is really hard to go to the police and make it a criminal matter, even if absolutely certain that the worst has happened, because the family becomes so totally publicly exposed and loses all control of what comes out in the process. And then there are the potential for tough and bitter recriminations about how gullible and lacking in judgment others in the family were for not seeing the troubling signals much earlier. Or worse, it might come out, or be suggested that the evil practice was tolerated. Silence…..
No one is suggesting that the overwhelmingly main body of people working in the Catholic Church were anything but decently conscientious Christians committed to doing right, according to their lights, just as everyone is averting their eyes from the very large consequences of turning our system of social reproduction into a desert of dysfunctional and chaotic behaviour, because the only governance that is left, or allowed, are market forces.
Church celibacy and repressed Catholic sexuality are just part and parcel of the weft and weave of a much more serious plague.
The intersection of the axes of the end of cultural silence about traditional sexual abuse on the one hand and that of the rise of a culture of disinhibited abuse of the social commons on the other, is not explained merely by the end of sexual repression and shame, any more than it is by the emerging loss of social and moral compass that the consumer revolution has brought in its wake. Both sides trade in silence and silencing. Ideological correctness and moral commandism isn’t anybody’s monopoly.
Repression of sexual feeling is only ever partial, no matter how vigorously that is prosecuted. But equally, to pretend that a sexual free-for-all is going to lead to honest virtue, beauty and light, is the worst kind of self-serving blather.
What is lacking here is perspective. These days it is almost impossible to explain why in our immediate past, across the board, dealing with awkward questions about very perverse sexual behaviour has been so difficult.
As the nineteenth century moved towards its mid-point, Charles Dickens wrote passionately about the poverty and abuse of children as the industrial revolution unfolded a generation before, but of sexual abuse he was silent. It was not just that his bourgeois readers would have found such a subject too hard to countenance, but the society had very strict rules of engagement with children that robustly kept them out of the world of adults at any level. Children were told nothing about sex until they were ready to marry. Even then, they were only informed of as much as was necessary to perpetuate the species.
I remember my own father’s attempt to explain to me the ‘facts of life’ in the early 1960s. He told me the mechanical details and that was it. Some years later, he observed that my attitude to women was ‘a bit mechanical’, but it would never have occurred to him to nuance the very difficult and complex politics of men and women. Perhaps he couldn’t.
And without denying that there was a deeply subterranean and shadowy underbelly to bourgeois respectability, reinforced by a good measure of hypocrisy to conceal it, sex as a subject and concern had nothing like the preposterously over-inflated sexistentialist aura of indulgence and public interest that it does now.
Sexual repression, inhibition and guilt were everything they were cracked up to be, as were the dramatic social repercussions for scandalous behaviour, as was the shocked anger that drove them. A great deal of social effort was expended in suppressing the unwanted ‘side effects’ of sexual feeling and practice, because they were seen to be a threat to good moral governance.
To put it in Freudian terms, the super ego (armed with nothing more than consequential reason) was considered to be necessarily in charge of our behaviour, egoism was discouraged as threatening to other regarding behaviours and the id (that has all the powerful hormonal juices in its care) was considered to be a monstrous and dangerous grotesque that needed to be chained and locked in the cellar of our being, at all times, except for legitimate nuptials as part of evolving family life, by populating it with children.
There were no excuses or mercy for those who failed to curb their non-legitimate sexual appetites, because everyone understood the necessity for moral compliance, no matter what it cost; i.e., the personal struggle that everyone endured to meet the standard expected of them. Celibacy outside marriage and continence within it were non-negotiable bottom lines, and, if discovered, failure to observe that would bring deep and enduring social disgrace both to the offending individual and their entire family.
Sex outside marriage was considered heinously unconscionable behaviour. Interfering with children would have been off the map. It would have been treated with the same shock and incredulity as displayed by Queen Victoria when told about lesbianism. Children were regarded as a gift from God that could be painfully easily removed by Him. On average between a quarter and a half would be taken before they reached adulthood. Christians on the whole tried to give them the same God-fearing virtues that their own parents had tried to drum into them, because it might make the deity merciful. And while life for children could be pretty tough, it was stable and run by adults who seemed to know what they were doing and for the most part, certain about what they stood for.
But like any places on the margins, orphanages and places for the destitute would be work faces that would test the rectitude of those ran them. Few of the normal familial and community checks and balances would be available there. Anyone who was an abuser would get opportunities that they would find nowhere else. And of course, in retrospect we can now see that this would likely attract predators.
The predator would be working in an environment that even under the most favourable circumstances, it would be hard to articulate dissent or distress. There was no language of sexual discourse that was not too highly charged to be of any use. It would be as excruciatingly difficult for child victims of sexual interference to describe what had happened to them as it would be for those who had to listen to their terrible tales. It would be a kind of metaphorical flaying on all sides. And how much more hopeless would be if the matter did go to court and the child had to go over the hideous business in an incredibly intimidating public place, only this time face cross-examination by a defence lawyer?
And then, even worse, they would have to go back into the institution and be forever a marked person to be sniggered at and ridiculed for something that was too difficult to deal with for others and left them with the blame. And the institution itself would share that same odium in the public realm, no matter what they had or hadn’t done.
And because the only sexual display and conversation that occurred (and probably not very often even there) was in the marital bedroom, no-one except prostitutes and courtesans showed any trace of their sexuality in the public realm. People had to be very careful in public not to give anyone ‘the wrong impression’. Everyone subscribed to the dominant morality. And they went to church on Sunday, with all the expected sanctimony and appropriate sentiments. So it was always going to be really hard to believe something completely mortifyingly at variance with that, unless the source of information was ‘reliable’, or they were caught in the act. And how reliable would a child witness be considered to be and what sort of standing compared with an adult would they have? Not very and not much.
What if the child had ‘imagined’ it or was making it up? How would the accused person ever recover their reputation with even a hint of a suggestion of improper behaviour attributed to them? Even if found not guilty of any crime, they would still have to leave their community and very possibly emigrate to foreign parts, because their social reputation and that of their family would be damaged beyond recovery.
To confront an institution with an accusation of sexual interference with a minor by one of its servants was like walking into a room with a live grenade, minus the safety pin and the time delay fuse. Everyone would be in line for a spray of shrapnel, burns and blast injury, no matter what they had done or not done. If even a hint of such a scandal ever surfaced, it would spell ruin. So it should be no surprise that everyone would be diving for cover and trying not to vomit during the subsequent panic attack.
Such an extremely compromising and explosive accusation that came out of a place in human character that the society was trying really hard to keep contained in the subterranean netherworld, was bound to end in silence, because there were no mechanisms that had any hope of dealing with it without enormous collateral damage and trauma. So the overwhelming administrative response would be to flick pass the problem to someone or somewhere else.
In the case of the Church, there was also the problem protecting the privacy of the confessional, the hope of repentance and the prospect of divine forgiveness. No one had done the research on just how intractable sexual offending can be, even amongst people who really do believe in the wrath of God and the inevitability of facing eternal damnation for their sins. Even if their offending caused them terrible anguish and guilt, it was not enough to stop all too many of them repeat offending, over and over again.
The kind of supervisory regime that will deal realistically with sexual offenders has only very recently been put in place, mainly this century. And at least in part, this has come about because the sexual politics of our age have become such a mess and the opportunities for malfeasance so extensive and inviting, that intensive indefinite supervision is the only answer. Dealing with criminal sexual deviance can now mean a life sentence, both in and out of jail, until death.
We have only now given institutions permission to deal with sexual issues openly by providing them with pro-active, secure and legitimate procedures that will insulate them from collateral damage, as long as they act in an appropriate and timely fashion. They get motivated to report by being given credit for vigilance. Children now can feel confident that they will be taken seriously, treated with respect, care and kindness; that their privacy will be protected as much as possible and the entire affected community will support and cherish them.
But above all, the larger affected community can have some reason to have confidence that despite the emergence of a rent in the social continuum, there is a safe containment system to deal with it and move on with minimum distress and disruption.
And we need all that because we are now saddled with a global paedophile industry through the internet, which despite intensive policing, seems to be evergreen, despite vigorous international efforts to break up the rings. We live in a world drowning in pornography of every type you can imagine, and then all the stuff you haven’t. When paedophile rings are broken up, it is remarkable how socially diverse the accused parties are; many of them apparently reputable and respectable people.
Such supportive and carefully crafted infrastructure was not available in the traditional world. It would be altogether too much to suggest that it largely didn’t need it, because the industrial revolution displaced millions out of very long-standing and secure village infrastructure that ‘looked after its own’, and thrust them into much less secure urban environments, which had to scramble to assemble often very ad-hoc responses to the enormous displacements that rapid urbanization caused. And whether it were dealing with toxic water-borne health problems, the grinding poverty of wage earners, the inadequacy of traditional charitable services, the explosion of prostitution and venereal disease, demands for better education for industry or orphanages and workhouses for children with no family or adults with no job prospects, it was an enormous experiment that had to be dealt with as it went along.
But nothing could prepare anyone for the sexual revolution that came in the wake of the emergence of indulgence capitalism after World War 11. All institutions were vulnerable to it as they struggled to come to grips with a world where all the traditional norms where being pulled to bits. And it wasn’t just the incoming external pressures, but internal shifts to try and accommodate the new realities. The Second Vatican Council under the aegis of Pope John XX111 tried to institute a more flexible and open system, but its effects were traumatic and weakened the administrative structure by loosening the grip of its defence systems. Indulgence capitalism thrives on weakness and celibacy was just bound to be a leading edge.
Celibacy has always been a ‘challenge’ for Catholic clerics. During periods of institutional decline, as in the late medieval period, sexual malfeasance in the Church had become commonplace. That contributed to the emergence of the Reformation and once it was underway, the Counter-Reformation brought in its wake a very thoroughgoing clean-up and shake-out to ensure that what territory had not fallen to Protestantism was kept in the fold. And that tradition carried through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century; very strict.
The effects of that tradition were very noticeable, even as late as the 1960s. I got to know Catholic young men as a result of being a neighbour of theirs next to my family’s holiday house. They particularly enjoyed subjecting women to ‘black acts’, which were practical jokes designed to humiliate them. The Christian Brothers who had taught them at school had done such a thorough job of making sexuality an object of guilt and shame that they just couldn’t deal with women in a normal fashion. And in the 1960s, instead of good little Catholic virgins to contend with that they would have had to marry to get to first base with, they were surrounded by an environment dripping with forbidden fruit.
They had even less idea how to deal with that than I did.
And slightly earlier, during a cadet military training camp, I got a taste of the terror and distress of a Catholic boy who had been subjected to nothing more than a homosexual ‘pass’. I thought at the time it was a bit over-the-top, but then I had no idea of just how pervasive the use of guilt and fear of damnation was in the Catholic system.
And at this level, the failure of Pell and his fellow bishops to really come down fast and hard on deviants within their own ranks, takes on a special significance. I doubt that if a priest had sodomized me I would have been as permanently scarred in quite the same way the Catholic kids were, because for me, sex just didn’t have quite that negative compulsive and repressed significance that it did for them. And priests never had much influence on me. But if I had been interfered with by someone of enormous ‘divine’ authority that I absolutely trusted and who had taught me that disgusting homosexual sex meant hellfire and damnation, and I totally believed that, there is no language that could describe the kind of catastrophe that that would represent. Every time a coconut; maximum damage that would totally destroy the victim’s existential infrastructure. It was a bit like murder, except that the victim wasn’t dead.
But no-one was prepared for the sexual revolution that started to hit in the middle twentieth century. Two world wars and a depression had already caused tectonic shifts in social behaviour, but the rise of pleasure and satisfaction as the apotheosis of a good life just cut the heart out of boring self-denial. I felt that as a young man in the late sixties and early seventies, and so did some of the men of my generation, who went into the Catholic Church. With the pill and abortion-on-demand, rapid sexual satisfaction became a non-negotiable bottom line, because if one met resistance with one date, there would always be someone else, who would deliver ... And for Catholic priests who had the same attitude, they were like foxes in a chicken coup.
The excuses by Pell and his like for inaction seem weak and pusillanimous now because we live in a sexuality saturated world with mechanisms for dealing with some of its worst effects. Their enemies have used the opportunities created by that inaction to reputationally ruin them in exactly the same kind of way that traditional society would have done, if matters had come out when they should have, and in ways that would tar and feather all the good works that an entire generation of religiously-motivated people tried to give to their fellows and their community.
And worst of all, this has been twisted and mythologized to look as if there was rampant sexual interference with children because celibacy and repressed sexuality are an open invitation to abuse, and by implication, the sexual free-for-all now in ‘progress’ will ‘solve’ all these problems.
Guys like Minchen aren’t just hypocrites, but delusionists of a very modern kind, as if the pot can possibly call the kettle black, and expect to get away with it for long.
And as to Pell, may his soul acid burn in hell …
• David Marr, Guardian: George Pell wasn’t much interested in stories of abuse by priests. Which was lucky for his career ... Had Pell made a big fuss about the abuse going on all around him as a young priest, he would not be at the Vatican. But as he told the royal commission, he stayed clear of such ‘sad stories’