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Geoffrey Robertson vs the Catholic Church – some thoughts from the GAC

One of the most important and impactful talks given at the Global Atheist Convention was delivered by human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, and focused on his case for bringing the catholic church to justice over the thousands of known cases of child sexual abuse committed against children who were apparently "under the care" of the Catholic Church. He says there is a case against Pope Benedict which could find him liable for not reacting accordingly to the allegations against members of the clergy, and that the whole structure of the Catholic Church could come under fire for these cases. This has been an ongoing field of interest for Robertson, who says that it was a conversation with Christopher Hitchens that spurred him into action over this case.

In an interview with ABC Australia from 2010, Robertson states his case, particularly against Benedict himself:

"For 30 years, as Cardinal Ratzinger, from 1981 on, he was in charge of what to do about paedophile priests and he declined on the whole to even defrock them. It's been many centuries since a Pope has resigned but it would be a very dignified and honourable action. He is 83 after all and it would give victims worldwide - and estimates put them up to 100,000 victims - a chance to feel that something is being done, not mere words. We've got to see those tens of thousands of children who have been raped by priests ... as a human rights atrocity. It's gone on throughout the world. Wherever the church is, there have been abusers."

The problem is very widespread, and it seems that it is within the culture of the Catholic Church to accept cases of rape among their clergy perpetrated mostly on young boys, as "an undesirable thing that happens". The reaction to allegations of child abuse at the hands of clergy has been typically to sweep it under the rug and move the priest to a new location where he is unknown. Of course the only thing this does is allow the paedophile priest opportunities for new victims, and the cycle continues. In some cases the offending priests have been defrocked, stripped of their rights as a priest.

It is this very culture that makes this a difficult case to pursue. Dr Cathy Kezelman, the president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse wrote in a piece in The National Times:

"Religious institutions are predominantly closed patriarchal systems. The more closed the organisation or institution, often the greater the investment in maintaining silence and secrecy. Perpetrators use secrecy and silence to hide their crimes and if secrecy fails, they attack the credibility of victims to try to ensure that no one listens."

"In many religious institutions the hierarchical systems have perpetuated secrecy and denial, led by an inherent belief that the religious institution knows best and will handle the issue internally, thereby seeking to contain the shame and controversy around such crimes."

Currently here in Victoria, the State government has decided to go ahead with an inquiry into child sex abuse cases within the Catholic church, which is welcome news for those who have been abused. But I say this is not enough. There should be a Full Royal Commission into these abuse cases, and those found guilty should be tried and charged as any other member of society would be tried and charged. There is a danger that if this case is not handled with enough force that the rates of suicides among victims could increase. Dr Kezelman urges that this must be only the beginning of a larger investigation into child sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.

As would be expected, The Mad Monk and would-be Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Tony Abbott, says that we shouldn't just blame the church, but seek out the real causes of child abuse in society at large. In response to the Victorian government's investigation into child sex abuse claims against the Catholic church, he says:

"There has been a lot of pretty gruesome behaviour in many institutions over the years and we should be careful not to single out particular institutions, given that a lot of this has been or it was pandemic a generation ago."

While this is true, the Catholic Church's actions should not be ignored simply because the problem is more widespread. Mr Abbott is known for his strong religious views, so is it any wonder that he's loath to point the finger at the church as the source of these problems? Abbott should, if he had a conscience, be standing firmly behind the decision to investigate the paedophile priests, but his religious ties, and his pandering to the Australian Christian Lobby prevents him from doing so. But Mr Abbott is quite right in stating that it is more widespread than just the Catholic church. In 2009 the Anglican church released a report on 191 cases of abuse perpetrated between 1990 and 2008. This really is just the tip of the iceberg.

It seems to me that these cases of abuse are not taken seriously enough by those with the power to make changes, and bring these paedophiles to justice. Mr Robertson has quite a task on is hands if his case against The Pope is to prove successful, but I applaud his efforts and hope that the victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of priests can one day have some sense of respite and see justice done.



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