As children are airlifted from Nauru, a cruel and inhumane policy may finally be ending



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If refugee and asylum seekers are not resettled in Australia, the humanitarian crisis will only worsen.
AAP/Jeremy Ng

Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

Australia’s off-shore detention policy is unravelling. Predictably, after five years of detention, the mental health of adults and children who have been left in indefinite detention on Nauru is collapsing. On Monday, 11 children and their families were flown to Australia for urgent medical attention.

The New Zealand deal, under which some asylum seekers could be resettled in New Zealand as long as they are banned from ever coming to Australia, is now being seriously considered.

Good politics, bad policy

From the middle of 2013, when off-shore processing was re-started on Nauru and Manus Island, the Rudd government, and later the Abbott government, made bold and irresponsible claims that no asylum seeker attempting to enter Australia by boat would ever be resettled here.

This played well to an Australian public spooked by a dramatic rise in boat arrivals under the Rudd government between 2009 and 2013, and set the foundation for a policy that has systematically brutalised hundreds of innocent people.




Read more:
Same old rhetoric cannot justify banning refugees from Australia


The claim, in the name of deterrence, relied on hopes Australian governments would find places to resettle the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in other countries. But there was no plan as to where they might go and, predictably, resettlement proved very difficult.

An agreement with the Cambodian government failed because Cambodia lacks the capacity to resettle people of such different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Malcolm Turnbull seemed to have stumbled upon a resolution when the Obama administration agreed to take sone refugees from Nauru and Manus.

The current US administration has resettled 276 people from Nauru and rejected a further 148. There may be more resettlements to come, but there is no clear timetable, and it will be a resolution for only some of the 652 people remaining on Nauru.

Inexplicably, the Australian Government has repeatedly rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees there, fearing that people will take advantage of open migration between Australia and New Zealand and will end up resettling here.

Under renewed pressure from opposition parties, the government is reconsidering the New Zealand offer, but only if there is a travel ban preventing refugees ever coming to Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has drawn, once again, on the tired justification that to allow asylum seekers any right of entry to Australia may encourage people smuggling.

Why the people smuggling argument does not stack up

The people smuggling narrative does not withstand reasonable scrutiny. How much cruelty to innocent people on Manus and Nauru is really needed to stop the boats?

A comparison with the Howard years is instructive. From 2001 to 2008, of the 1,153 refugees and asylum seekers resettled on Nauru and Manus Island, 705 went to Australia, 401 to New Zealand and 47 to other Western countries. Most were resettled between 2002 and 2004.




Read more:
Resettling refugees in Australia would not resume the people-smuggling trade


These resettlements were not followed by a resumption of the people smuggling trade. From 2002 to 2007, 18 boats arrived with 288 asylum seekers. In addition, one boat was turned back with 14 passengers.

What remained important for deterrence was the possibility of being detained offshore with no guarantee of being settled in Australia and New Zealand. Only when this possibility was removed (when the new Rudd government dismantled the Howard government’s offshore processing and turn-back policies) was there a dramatic spike in asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The message of deterrence is clear

The systemic cruelty of detaining refugees in offshore detention centres indefinitely has sent an unequivocal message to any asylum seekers who might contemplate seeking asylum in Australia by boat. No person would countenance subjecting themselves to the mental and physical trauma suffered by detainees on Nauru and Manus Island for the chance of receiving protection in Australia. And no parent would risk subjecting their child to a lifetime of mental illness.

The Australian government has proved its mettle. It is prepared to subject innocent people to the cruellest of punishments, to disregard basic principles of human dignity, and to ignore its obligations under international law. This is deterrent enough for any prospective boat rider.

Time to end an inhumane policy

It is well past time to resettle every refugee and asylum seeker on Manus and Nauru in Australia. If this is done while the policies of boat turn backs and offshore detention remain in place, this will not lead to a resumption of people smuggling operations. And if I am wrong in this, we can be confident of stopping the boats again, as the government did with startling effectiveness in 2001 and 2013.

It seems that the government may finally be softening its untenable hard line. With no other resolutions on the table, most of the refugees on Nauru and Manus must end up in Australia or New Zealand.

Until this happens, the mental health of refugees stuck on Nauru and Manus will continue to deteriorate, and courageous whistleblowers will continue to risk their employment revealing the brutality and trauma of conditions in detention.

All this pain and suffering, and economic cost, for a deterrent that is not needed.The Conversation

Alex Reilly, Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The royal commission’s final report has landed – now to make sure there is an adequate redress scheme



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The royal commission has handed down its final report – now the real work begins.
Shutterstock

Ben Mathews, Queensland University of Technology

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has performed its task magnificently. Its scale, complexity and quality is unprecedented. Its work is already being acknowledged internationally as a model of best practice.

As a nation, we can be proud of the commissioners and their staff. We should acclaim the courage of all survivors, including those who informed the commissioners about their experiences, and we should honour those who have not lived to see this day.

We must recognise the integrity and strength of those who advocated for the inquiry, including survivors, their families, journalists and police. We should applaud former prime minister Julia Gillard for initiating the commission, and the current federal government for ensuring it was adequately resourced.

But this is not the end. The real work begins now. Australian governments and major social institutions now have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility, to create lasting social change. Their responses will be monitored here, including through requirements to report on their actions, and around the world.

The royal commission’s impact

This watershed inquiry has created the conditions for a seachange in how society deals with child sexual abuse in institutions, which can flow to our treatment of sexual abuse in other settings.

Our society’s leaders can build progress from the pain of former failings. Not meeting this responsibility would surely stick as a lifelong regret for those in positions to cement change. Fulfilling this imperative can leave a legacy of which these government and institutional leaders can be proud.

Substantial progress has already been made. The commission’s earlier reports have influenced important changes to civil justice systems, criminal justice systems, organisational governance, and prevention, including situational prevention in child and youth-serving organisations.

The Child Safe Standards now promoted by the commission are substantially embedded in legislation in several states, requiring organisations to adopt comprehensive measures to prevent, identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse.

Civil laws have been amended in most jurisdictions to allow claims for compensation, holding individuals and organisations accountable.

In some states, new requirements to report known and suspected cases apply through special “failure to report” and “failure to protect” offences in criminal laws. They also apply through separate reportable conduct schemes that add essential independent external oversight.


Read more: Royal commission recommends sweeping reforms for Catholic Church to end child abuse


Yet much remains to be done. The reforms already made in some states must be adopted elsewhere to create national consistency.

Accountability of individuals and organisations is essential to create cultural change, and needs to be achieved through both civil systems (such as following Western Australia’s recent bill enabling lawsuits against organisations that previously could not be sued, such as the Catholic Church), and criminal systems (for example, prosecuting those who harbour offenders, and removing criminal law principles that compromise criminal prosecutions).

Other state and territory mandatory reporting laws need to be harmonised, as recommended by the commission. Many of the commission’s new 189 recommendations are rightly directed towards prevention, especially through the Child Safe Standards, including their requirements for education, codes of conduct, situational prevention, and the commitment required of organisations’ leadership.

We must focus our efforts on the future, but we must also ensure we properly deal with the past. Perhaps the single most important aspect of this is the redress scheme.

What happens now with redress?

The national redress scheme is behind schedule and must be finalised with sufficient funding, and government and institutional commitment.

The bill for the scheme remains before parliament, awaiting a committee report due in March 2018. It is yet to receive the commitment of all states, territories, and relevant organisations.

The commission recommended the scheme be operational by July 1, 2017, with an upper cap of A$200,000 and an average redress payment of $65,000. Under the bill, the scheme’s cap is $150,000, substantially below the recommendation, and even further below the average payment awarded in Ireland of more than €60,000 (about A$92,200). In Ireland, the highest payment was more than €300,000 (about A$461,000).

The Australian scheme contains three elements. First, a monetary payment as tangible recognition of the wrong suffered by a survivor. Second, access to counselling and psychological services (estimated at an average of $5,500 per person). Third, if requested, a direct personal response from the responsible institution(s), such as an apology.

Not all survivors will apply to the scheme, as many are not financially motivated. However, it is an essential part of a healing response. This has been shown internationally in Canada, Ireland and elsewhere.

Redress schemes are more flexible and speedy, with less formality and cost, and less trauma and confrontation, than conventional legal proceedings. Payments are not intended to replicate the amount that would be payable under a formal civil compensation claim, and instead are far lower.

Accordingly, institutions should recognise the lower financial commitment required to discharge their ethical obligation to participate compared with their liability in formal civil compensation amounts, especially since recent reforms to civil statutes of limitation have removed time limits and allow a claim to be commenced at any time.

Ten key aspects of the proposed Australian scheme are:

  1. People are eligible to apply to the scheme if they experienced sexual abuse in an institution while they were a child, before July 1, 2018.

  2. A lower evidentiary threshold applies, meaning that eligibility for a redress payment is assessed on whether there was “a reasonable likelihood” the person suffered institutional sexual abuse as a child.

  3. Applicants who have received redress under another scheme or compensation through a settlement or court judgment are still eligible, but prior payments by the institution will be deducted from the amount of redress.

  4. Only one application per person can be made; where a person was abused in more than one institution, provisions enable the decision-maker to determine the appropriate share of each institution.

  5. Applicants can access legal assistance to help determine whether to accept the offer of redress.

  6. A person who accepts an offer of redress must sign a deed of release, meaning the institution(s) responsible for the abuse will not be subject to other civil liability.

  7. Payments are not subject to income tax.

  8. Reviews of decisions are limited to internal review, and not to merits review or judicial review.

  9. Criminal liability of offenders is not affected.

  10. The scheme is intended to open on July 1, 2018, and operate for ten years; applications need to be made at least 12 months before the closing date of June 30, 2028.


Read more: When it comes to redress for child sexual abuse, all victims should be equal


Five further factors need to be accommodated by the scheme to ensure it functions properly and complies with the clear recommendations of the royal commission.

  1. The upper cap should be $200,000 to ensure sufficient recognition of severe cases.

  2. To ensure equal access to the scheme, legal assistance must be made available to assist people in making applications.

  3. Governments and institutions should opt in as soon as possible and commit resources to discharge their duty to participate in the scheme.

  4. Governments – federal or state – should be the funder of last resort in all cases where the institution is unable to reimburse the Commonwealth (for example, where the institution no longer exists, or lacks resources to participate).

  5. The method of determining the amount of the payment, based on the severity of the abuse, its impact, and other relevant factors, must be made available as soon as possible so it can be adequately debated.

The commission’s work contributes a historic, international legacy. The sexual abuse of children in institutions will be revealed in more nations in coming years. This will involve some of the same religious institutions in which it has been found here to be so prevalent, and so heinously concealed and facilitated. Simply due to population, countless children will be shown to be affected.

The ConversationFor this reason, our governments and institutions must now ensure their actions add to the royal commission’s example, and demonstrate to other countries how civilised societies should respond.

Ben Mathews, Professor, School of Law, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Don Dale royal commission demands sweeping change – is there political will to make it happen?


Sophie Russell, UNSW and Chris Cunneen, UNSW

The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory’s final report, which was handed down on Friday, revealed “systemic and shocking failures” in the territory’s youth justice and child protection systems.

The commission was triggered following ABC Four Corners’ broadcasting of images of detainee Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a restraint chair, as well as footage of children being stripped, punched and tear-gassed by guards at the Don Dale and Alice Springs youth detention centres.

The commission’s findings demonstrate the need for systemic change. However, the commission will not, in itself, bring about that change. Its capacity to make lasting change lies with the government implementing its recommendations.

What did the commission find?

The commission found that the NT youth detention centres were not fit for accommodating – let alone rehabilitating – children and young people.

It also found that detainees were subjected to regular, repeated and distressing mistreatment. This included verbal abuse, racist remarks, physical abuse, and humiliation.

There was a further failure to follow procedures and requirements under youth justice legislation. Children were denied basic human needs, and the system failed to comply with basic human rights standards and safeguards, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The commission also found that the NT child protection system has failed to provide appropriate and adequate support to some young people to assist them to avoid prison.

Importantly, the commission found that isolation “continues to be used inappropriately, punitively and inconsistently”. Children in the high security unit:

… continue to be confined in a wholly inappropriate, oppressive, prison-like environment … in confined spaces with minimal out of cell time and little to do for long periods of time.

What did the commission recommend?

Based on these findings, the commission recommended wide-ranging reforms to the youth justice and child protection systems.

Not surprisingly, a central focus of the recommendations relate to detention. They ranged from closing the Don Dale centre to significant restrictions on the use of force, strip-searching and isolation, and banning the use of tear gas, spit hoods, and restraint chairs.

There is a focus on greater accountability for the use of detention through extending the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s monitoring role. Recommendations also cover health care (including mental health and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder screening), education, training, and throughcare services for children exiting detention.

Among its suite of proposed reforms, the commission recommended developing a ten-year strategy to tackle child protection and prevention of harm to children, and establishing an NT-wide network of centres to provide community services to families.

Youth justice reforms include improving the operation of bail to reduce the unnecessary use of custodial remand; expanding diversionary programs in rural and remote locations; and operating new models of secure detention, based on principles of trauma-informed practice.

Adequate and ongoing training and education for police, lawyers, youth justice officers, out-of-home-care staff and judicial officers in child and adolescent development is also recommended.

The commission also emphasised the importance of developing partnerships with Indigenous organisations and communities in the child protection and youth justice systems. Several organisations in written submissions to the commission identified the importance of appropriately resourcing community-controlled, and locally developed and led, programs for Indigenous young people.

Increasing the age of criminal responsibility a good place to start

One of the commission’s most significant recommendations is to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12 years, and only allowing children under 14 to be sentenced to detention for serious offences.

If this recommendation were to be implemented it is likely to have far-reaching implications across Australia. Currently, the minimum age is ten years in all states and territories.

Of particular relevance to the commission is the adverse affect of a low minimum age of criminal responsibility on Indigenous children.

The majority of children under the age of 14 who come before Australian youth courts are Indigenous. In 2015-16, 67% of children placed in detention under the age of 14 were Indigenous. This concentration is even higher among those aged 12 or younger.

Nationally, 73% of children placed in detention and 74% of children placed on community-based supervision in 2015-16 were Indigenous.

Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility opens the door to responding to children’s needs without relying on criminalisation, given its short- and long-term negative impacts.

It enables a conversation about the best responses to children who often – as the commission’s findings acknowledged – have a range of issues. These can include trauma, mental health disorders and disability, coming from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, having spent time in out-of-home care, and – particularly among Indigenous children – being removed from their families and communities.

The ConversationA positive outcome from the commission will require political will and leadership to respond effectively to broader systemic issues. Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is a good place to start.

Sophie Russell, Research Associate, UNSW and Chris Cunneen, Professor of Criminology, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia has kept disabled migrant children out for decades – it’s time we gave them protection instead


Ruth Balint, UNSW

Assistant Immigration Minister Alex Hawke recently intervened to allow a 16-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder, who had been ordered to leave Australia, to stay in the country. The Conversation

Sumaya Bhuiyan had been living in Australia for eight years, but was rejected for permanent residency in 2013. Her mother, a practising doctor in Sydney, told newspapers the immigration department had found Sumaya’s “moderate developmental delay” would be a burden to taxpayers.

Hawke’s personal intervention followed media coverage of the situation and a change.org petition that received nearly 38,000 signatures.

This isn’t the first time a minister intervened to prevent deportation of a family who have a dependent with a disability. In 2015, a Bangladeshi couple – also two doctors – with an autistic son had their application to stay in Australia approved.

For two years the Banik family exhausted all other avenues against the rejection of their autistic son for permanent residency. Their only recourse was to appeal directly to the immigration minister to intervene on compassionate grounds. After a widespread public appeal, Peter Dutton decided to let them stay.

Australia’s immigration laws require migrants to be screened for medical conditions. This is to prove they will not be a “burden” on the community, specifically its health services. Children are most affected by this policy, as costs are calculated over a lifetime.


Australia is causing significant mental harm to children in detention.

For someone found to be “burdensome”, the outcome isn’t always as positive as for Sumaya and the Baniks. A dozen or so families or their disabled members are deported from Australia every year.

Australian policies

Democracies have a long history of excluding people deemed undesirable as migrants. Those considered to have mental or physical disabilities are targeted most forcefully.

Australia has done little to ameliorate restrictions on disability in immigration policy. This is despite a 2010 parliamentary inquiry into the issue that recommended several changes to loosen them.

The chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration said at the time:

Australia needs a modern migration health assessment, with scope to positively recognise individual or overall family contributions to Australia and that takes into consideration development of contemporary medicine and social attitudes.

The Migration Act was amended in 1958 to remove restrictions based on race. But the health clause excluding people with disabilities remained. Despite ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ensured the Migration Act remained exempt from its own 1992 Disability Discrimination Act.

This means immigration is effectively quarantined from these national and international human rights instruments. The result is often that all able-bodied family members will receive permission to migrate to Australia, or gain permission to stay if they are already here, while a disabled child is refused. Families are either broken up or forced to leave.

The public has little awareness of this issue, due in part to the secrecy surrounding the formulation of migration criteria and policy.

The truly tragic dimensions of the issue were exposed most forcefully in the case of Sharaz Kiane in 2001. Kiane set himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in protest of the government refusing him a visa. This seems to have been based on the fact his 10-year-old daughter had disabilities that required expensive medical treatment.

Kiane died of his injuries. An Ombudsman’s report described the history of Kiane’s case as “one of administrative ineptitude and of broken promises”.

A history of exclusion

My research has explored stories of families who gave up their disabled children in the period after the second world war. They often did this under duress to forge new lives in countries like Australia, the US and Canada.

They were known as Displaced Persons, mainly of eastern European origin. Most had survived Nazi concentration camps and forced labour schemes. Displaced Persons’ migration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of various migration schemes.

Displaced Persons’ migration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of various migration schemes.
Wikimedia Commons

These were largely created to satisfy the labour demands of postwar economies. Physical fitness for manual work was the most important factor in assessing potential migrants for countries like Australia and Canada. Single, able-bodied men were therefore most desirable.

In family units, dependants were not allowed to outnumber breadwinners. Despite the proclaimed motives of rescue and humanitarianism towards Nazism’s victims, western migrant selection missions carefully checked each displaced person for traces of physical or mental damage. They excluded anyone who didn’t meet the strict requirements.

Many survivors of concentration camps and Nazi forced labour were rejected, as were the elderly and handicapped. A mass check of more than 100,000 displaced persons in 1948, for example, revealed half of them were still suffering from the effects of malnutrition and hardship.

Children who were disabled were also categorically rejected, often forcing parents with other children to make drastic decisions. Moral pressure by allied welfare workers to institutionalise disabled children contributed to children being left behind in Europe by families who emigrated.

The break-up of families is a relatively well-known consequence of Nazi Germany’s policies of forced labour, population transfers and liquidations. There has been far less recognition of the ways western governments furthered these separations through immigration policies that ignored postwar humanitarian ideals.

What now for Australia?

An irony is while Australia is actively excluding those classified as a burden because of their disability, it is disabling people by its policy of offshore detention.

As has been widely documented, children detained in Australia’s remote offshore detention centres suffer from sexual and physical assault. Some have self–harmed or threatened suicide.

Research also shows that children who spend time in immigration detention are often plagued by nightmares, anxiety, depression and poor concentration. They may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder for many years after the experience.

The protection of children is often hailed as the strongest evidence of a civilised society. This claim cannot, at present, be held by Australia if its most vulnerable members – children who are refugees and who might require first-world care because they are disabled – are being actively discriminated against in the name of an impoverished calculus of burden, cost and contribution.

Ruth Balint, Senior Lecturer in History, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For whom the Pell tolls: what did we learn from George Pell’s royal commission appearance?


Timothy W. Jones, La Trobe University

Cardinal George Pell returned this week to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in relation to the Ballarat and Melbourne case studies.

Giving evidence over the course of four days, via video link from Rome, Pell modified slightly his previous public positions. But, fundamentally, he insisted that he knew little, and fulfilled his duties in relation to what he did know.

On several occasions, counsel assisting the royal commission suggested that Pell’s claims to be ignorant of child sex offending in various contexts was implausible. If everyone around Pell knew, how could he not have known?

The forms of denial

One of the most important lessons we have learnt from Pell’s appearance is the church was – and still is – in a state of denial. It is in denial about the harms of sexual abuse, and about the adequacy of its responses to allegations of abuse.

Being in denial is a curious thing. In denying something, you implicitly admit that there is something to deny.

The late sociologist Stanley Cohen examined this phenomenon in his last book. Cohen argued that we have myriad techniques of keeping disturbing knowledge at bay: there are many ways of not knowing.

The simplest is literal denial. We saw plenty of this from Pell. He repeatedly said that he never knew of allegations of abuse; that he never heard rumours of Gerald Ridsdale’s offending when they shared a presbytery in Ballarat.

Even less plausibly, Pell claimed that advisors and colleagues deliberately kept information from him. As journalist David Marr wrote, Pell was apparently:

… hoodwinked decades ago by an archbishop, a bishop, his colleagues and even the Catholic Education Office.

A more nuanced way of avoiding knowledge is interpretive denial. This involves keeping knowledge at a distance by accepting a fact but giving it a different interpretation.

So, when questioned about his time as a consultor in Ballarat, Pell insisted that paedophilia was never mentioned in discussions of why priests were being moved unexpectedly between parishes. Many of his fellow consultors knew that child sex offences had been committed, and “homosexuality” may have been mentioned as the reason for the priest’s removal.

But Pell, incuriously, chose not to see the possibility that the homosexual conduct may have been intergenerational. He asked no questions, and admitted:

It was a sad story and of not much interest to me.

The most disturbing form of denial on display in Pell’s four days of testimony, however, is implicatory denial: a refusal to see the legal and moral implications that follow from information.

Pell went to great lengths to explain that, in almost all cases, he did everything that was appropriate to his role at the time. He was repeatedly challenged by counsel assisting and the commissioner, Peter McClellan, that a priest might have a moral responsibility that exceeds the literal duties assigned to their role. But Pell rejected this proposition:

He has a moral responsibility to do … what is appropriate to his position.

Pell claimed that in his positions as priest, consultor and auxilliary bishop, he did all that was appropriate to his position. He simply reported any allegations that he thought were plausible to his superiors. That they neglected their duties was not his responsibility.

What chance of change?

Pell may be right that that the lion’s share of blame for the gross miscarriages of justice being examined by the royal commission should be laid at the feet of his dead and dying former superiors. But what is also emerging is graphic evidence of the dysfunctionality of Catholic governance on this issue.

As my research has shown, Roman Catholic canon law – ironically – has the oldest and most clearly articulated legal provisions for the prosecution of sexual offences against children. Yet the enactment of these provisions is entirely in the diocesan bishop’s hands.

A diocesan bishop has a fundamental conflict of interest in the discipline of clergy in their diocese. He is simultaneously responsible for the pastoral care of the priest and for their punishment. This contravenes a basic principle of natural law – that no-one should be a judge in their own case.

If church authorities had believed the children’s allegations, investigated them and kept records of those investigations, it is possible that offending priests could have been removed and disciplined. Instead, allegations were regarded as implausible, offending priests’ denials were believed, and records were destroyed.

And where allegations were too stark to be denied, the gravity of the offending was denied, and priests were sent for “counselling” and relocated.

It is evident that Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Ronald Mulkearns neglected their responsibilities and even contravened canon law in their dealings with sexually offending clergy. But Pell’s claims to have fulfilled his moral responsibility in the face of this dysfunction ring hollow.

Pell chose to keep knowledge of his fellow priests’ offending at bay and allowed his superiors’ neglect and malpractice to continue. After the exposure of this legal dysfunction and moral cowardice, we can expect the royal commission’s recommendations will include changes to Roman Catholic governance and canon law.

The Conversation

Timothy W. Jones, Senior Lecturer in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Commercial current affairs and the case of Cardinal Pell


Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

An early finding of the ARC-funded research I and my QUT colleagues are doing on the Australian political media is the gradual withdrawal of free-to-air commercial TV from the current affairs space. If I may paraphrase an old Soviet joke – there’s as much current affairs in A Current Affair as there is truth in Pravda. Which is to say, not very much.

The reasons for this are clear. What we like to call “serious” current affairs – as opposed to the glorified product placement that comprises most of the program of that name on Channel Nine – rarely attracts the audience ratings that game shows, reality TV and other cheap and cheerful formats achieve.

In a hyper-competitive media marketplace, with more platforms and more choice for consumers than ever before, prime-time free-to-air is just too important to the shareholders’ bottom line to be given over to anything that won’t bring eyeballs to the screen.

This is a global trend. All over the world, commercial TV companies that used to make high-quality, high-impact current affairs shows such as the UK’s World In Action have abandoned the territory.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a dose of well-made reality TV as much as the next person, and can even see the point of the Kardashians. And by “quality” current affairs I don’t mean white middle-aged men in suits talking about interest rates – it can be about topics of undoubtedly human interest, dramatic and sensational, but hugely important to people’s everyday lives such as the epidemic of domestic violence, or corruption in FIFA.

Current affairs TV can and should address the personal and the private, the things that matter to us all. And there’s nothing wrong with making that material, along with the big picture issues of economic and politics, accessible to an audience not all of whom have uni degrees.

My point is that even this broad definition of current affairs is increasingly scarce in the free-to-air commercial landscape. We have the ABC, legally mandated to provide such content. And Sky News does an excellent job of providing real time news coverage of public affairs, although its audience is restricted to subscribers of Foxtel. And there are exceptions in the free-to-air space.

Andrew Bolt’s Sunday show on Channel Ten is an increasingly rare free-to-air political debate slot. And as long as you accept its provocatively controversialist style – which helps in the ratings competition, of course – it is very watchable.

And then there is 60 Minutes on Nine, which this week demonstrated what can still be done in the field of current affairs journalism by the commercial broadcasters. In 2002, Cardinal George Pell was interviewed by Richard Carlton on 60 Minutes about payments he had allegedly authorised to victims of paedophile priests, including the nephew of convicted abuser Gerald Ridsdale.

On YouTube, you can watch Pell obfuscate with cringe-inducing obviousness as the journalist pressed him on “the conspiracy of silence”. This was tough adversarial journalism of the very best kind, and very courageous for its time.

The most recent 60 Minutes update interviewed Peter Saunders, a Vatican-appointed commissioner who is investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Saunders condemned Cardinal Pell in the harshest terms, to the extent that Pell is reported to be consulting his lawyers. A bevy of Australian archbishops subsequently wrote an open letter defending Pell, so damaging was the item perceived to have been.

Now, like most stories of this kind, there is more than one side to it, and there can be no rush to judgement until Pell has had his say before the Royal Commission. But this item, when taken alongside the statements of abuse survivors who have already testified in Ballarat and elsewhere, and other evidence such as the minutes of a Church meeting where the need to move Ridsdale to another diocese was discussed, has performed a real service to the victims of paedophile priests – a public service.

Commercial television has a long and honourable history of fearless current affairs journalism, in Australia and overseas. 60 Minutes’ work on Pell exemplifies that tradition. Long may it continue.

The Conversation

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.