January 27th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Loy Yang just latest critical asset to go offshore

EDITORIAL Behind the power shift in the Middle East

CANBERRA OBSERVED Freedom of religion just an afterthought?

GENDER POLITICS Family Court washes hands of gender-dysphoric kids

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Western sanctions have forced Russia to upskill

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China exerts soft power on our southern neighbour

ENVIRONMENT Senate committee puts marine life before people

SEXUAL ABUSE Royal commission report ignores cause of abuse

HIGHER EDUCATION Critical thinking and the culture of skepticism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS U.S. urges Taiwan rearmament to counter China threat

PHILOSOPHY A reflection on thoughts of Richard Dawkins

MUSIC Group theory: A good band is greater than its parts

CINEMA Darkest Hour: A long time till dawn

BOOK REVIEW 'Populism' and the new social divide

BOOK REVIEW Poems outshine dross of inept introduction



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Royal commission report ignores cause of abuse

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 27, 2018

The 17-volume report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, handed down on December 17 last year, will focus national attention on the need to have a robust framework to detect and reduce the incidence of child sexual abuse.

One positive outcome is that there is likely to be a national scheme to assist victims, either replacing or supplementing existing programs, including the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response.

But it would be naive to believe that this serious social problem will be solved, if only because this is a society- wide problem and, in fact, a problem which affects all societies throughout the world.

This is certainly not just an Australian problem, nor a crisis of religious institutions, and certainly not one that affects only the Catholic Church.

Because the royal commission was instructed to examine and report on the incidence of child sexual abuse within institutions, and followed television programs documenting the cover-up of sexual abuse by several Catholic bishops and in some Catholic schools, it was inevitable that the focus of the commission’s investigation would be on these issues.

In fact, the commission’s findings and recommendations are confined to institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

Universal problem

However, child sexual abuse is widely recognised as a problem that has existed throughout human history, in many different societies. In some of these, child sexual abuse was so widespread that it was regarded as “normal”.

It is instructive to look at the problem in Australian indigenous communities, an issue the royal commission largely ignored.

The federal intervention into Northern Territory indigenous communities in 2007 was the result of a Northern Territory government investigation in 2006 that reported that in almost every remote indigenous community there were confirmed incidents of child sexual abuse. Separate inquiries conducted at about the same time in Western Australia and New South Wales showed that similar problems existed in indigenous communities in those states.

The issue is not one only for indigenous communities. The figures show that overwhelmingly, sexual abuse of children occurs within a family context, in which the perpetrator knows the child.

In the past, the very strong injunctions within Judaism and Christianity against sexual activity outside marriage meant it was rarely spoken about and never dealt with as a serious community problem.

So effective were the taboos in Western societies that most people were unaware of the problem of child sexual abuse or its prevalence, and often did not recognise sexual abuse when it occurred. In institutions, including churches and schools, the usual response was a combination of incredulity, denial and cover-up.

One result of it being taboo is that until about 1990, perpetrators were rarely held to account, with police, churches and institutions failing to treat it as a criminal matter.

To the extent that sexual abuse is a problem in families, either natural or blended, the royal commission failed to address it. This is important, as it is well established that persons who have suffered sexual abuse as a child, from whatever source, suffer long-term developmental damage that may predispose them to abuse others.

In Volume 2 of the final report, headed “Nature and cause”, chapter 5 asks how and why sexual abuse occurs. It says: “There are various and complex risk factors that may lead an adult to sexually abuse a child, including but not limited to adverse experiences in childhood; interpersonal, relationship and emotional difficulties; and distorted beliefs and ‘thinking errors’ (that is, cognitive distortions).”

This confusing language suggests that anyone could be an abuser (which is clearly untrue) and obscures the fact that sexual abuse of children is unnatural, and occurs after the sexual development of the perpetrator has been damaged, distorted or perverted.

If the causes of sexual abuse are not clearly identified, it is impossible to imagine that the solutions proposed will deal with it adequately.

One deeply concerning issue with the report is its focus on the Catholic Church, and its recommendations that the Church relax its laws on clerical celibacy and confessional secrecy.

The royal commission’s report shows that sexual abuse occurs in different churches, regardless of whether they require celibacy for clergy. It also ignores the fact that sexual abuse of children is due to distorted sexual development, not celibacy.

As American social commentator Maggie Gallagher wrote when similar proposals were raised in the United States: “Church critics are using these scandals to target clerical celibacy as the problem and married priests as the solution. Right. As if wives are the answer to the sexual urges of men who get their kicks from adolescent boys.”

Commenting on the recommendations, an American priest (who supports married clergy) said: “It’s hard to believe there are many abusers whose consciences are so sensitive that they feel the need to go to confession. Serial killers do not go; neither do serial abusers. At the same time, in most cases the priest does not know the identity of the penitent.”

The debate on the royal commission’s report will take place in 2018.

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