We know that when Tony Abbott doesn’t approve of something, he is not backward in coming forward about it.
He’s made no secret, for instance, of his disapproval of refugees attempting to get to Australia by boat, Aboriginal people indulging their “lifestyle choices” in remote communities and women who access more than one maternity leave entitlement.
And that’s before we even get to the Islamic State, which Abbott has denounced as a “death cult” a whopping 346 times since last September.
But amid all this frenzied disapproval and moral righteousness, the abuse and sexual assault of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of children in Catholic schools, orphanages and churches, and the systematic cover-up of this abuse by the church hierarchy, fails even to rate a mention from that otherwise indefatigable moral crusader.
Asked whether he considered it morally sound for cardinal Pell to refuse to return to Australia to front the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, Abbott declined to express disapproval.
That Pell has been asked to face allegations that he offered bribes to silence sexual abuse victims, covered up priests’ crimes and failed to act on sexual abuse complaints appears to matter not a bit to Abbott who, in 2013, described the cardinal as a “fine human being” and “great churchman”.
Contrast this to the treatment of Aboriginal communities following allegations of sexual abuse in the Northern Territory in 2006. Despite the fact that one of the key anonymous informants about this alleged abuse turned out to be a former Liberal government staffer, and that not a single charge or conviction resulted from the allegations, the Howard government, of which Abbott was a cabinet minister, used the mere suggestion of abuse to launch a wave of attacks on Aboriginal communities.
The resulting Northern Territory Intervention deployed police and army personnel to Aboriginal communities, instituted paternalistic restrictions on the sale of alcohol and pornography, compulsorily acquired whole townships, suspended the permit system and abolished the Community Development Employment Projects that many Aboriginal people depended on.
Judges were told they could no longer take customary law into account in court cases. Income support payments were quarantined and recipients were forced to travel to major towns to acquire basic necessities. So unashamedly racist were the measures that the Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended in order for the parliament to approve them.
The government’s claims that “paedophile rings” were operating in Aboriginal communities – claims that were used to justify this policy – were found to be false by a 2009 Australian Crime Commission investigation.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, by its own admission is the very definition of an organised paedophile ring. Between 1996 and 2013, it distributed $48 million in compensation to sexual abuse victims through its “Towards Healing” program.
Given that the average compensation payout (based on Victorian figures) is about $36,000, the church has in effect admitted to well over a thousand sexual abuse cases already. More than 2,200 have approached the program seeking compensation, and many thousands of new claims are likely to result from the royal commission. Already, the church has put aside $150 million for such cases.
Yet there has been no punitive government intervention against the church, and no change to its privileged tax status. Catholic schools continue to receive generous public funding, and the institution enjoys ongoing political support and protection from the government and prime minister.
The mind boggles at how an Aboriginal or Muslim leader accused of the same crimes as Pell would be treated by the Abbott government.
What this rank hypocrisy exposes is that in our society, the powerful are protected no matter what they do. Child abuse, whether it be in religious institutions, orphanages, through forced poverty or in immigration detention centres, is acceptable so long as it is carried out by the powerful.
Seen in this context, moral panics about protecting children have nothing to do with concern for children. They are rather a cynical pretext for attacks on people’s rights and the demonising of minorities.
This is the sick reality of modern capitalism presided over by a craven and cynical political establishment. God really should help us.