Editorial from The Record Newspaper
PO Box 75, Leederville WA 6902 17 JANUARY 2002
email: cathrec@iinet.net.au

HOW NOT TO WRITE AN EDITORIAL

It is only a myth that newspaper editorials have to be unbiased, soundly reasoned, and scrupulously fair, so we should not ask too much of them. But even with that understanding it has to be said that last week The West Australian gave us an excellent example of how not to write an editorial when it dealt with the Church's new norms for handling sexual abuse charges against priests. (See reports, Pages 1 and 3)

The editorial's headline "Church can't investigate itself" and most of its arguments could not have been written if anyone at The West had bothered to make the distinction between Church law and civil law, between the priest as citizen and the priest as priest.

This elementary distinction would have killed the front page story and the editorial so The West ploughed on, asserting that "one of the strongest criticisms of the ruling"(is) "that it takes the investigation of sexual abuse out of the civil courts". This is not a criticism of the Church's ruling; it is a criticism of a false impression of the Church's ruling.

It would require something close to superstition to believe that the Church could take cases out of civil courts. It cannot. Anyway, the Church's rules do not relate to civil courts; they relate to what is to be done about a priest in his priestly role either after a civil court has dealt with him or when the civil courts do not deal with him. Because it was committed to its own distortions, the editorial went on to say "there are strong reasons for believing.... the church should not be involved .... in any circumstances regardless of whether the complainant has elected not to involve the police".

If the Church took that as a guide to its behaviour it would have to ignore a complainant who would not go to police or even one who went to the police but whose case was not prosecuted because of inadequate evidence.

Ignoring people in these circumstances is the sort of behaviour The West Australian would probably condemn as uncaring and callous (and we would agree).

Even in this editorial, the Church is accused of having "a sorry record of dealing with allegations of sexual abuse" and the paper believes it is "difficult to feel confident that this is about to change".

The Professional Standards Committee has been operating effectively for six years, which, even for The West must be getting close to "about to change"! The other underlying problem for The West Australian is that it does not appear to have a reasonable grasp of the reality of what is happening in relation to this destructive problem, which is far from being limited to the Church.

The paper speaks as though the majority of cases the Church deals with are current cases of child sexual abuse where immediate action is necessary to prevent continuation.

The reality is that most cases are old -- up to 40 years old -- and most complainants do not want to go to the police, often do not want family or friends to know about it, and want the Church to help them or to simply do something about the offender.

To this extent, The West Australian was right in its penultimate paragraph when it said: "Investigations of criminal activity are not the province of the church, or any church representative.

That is true, but it is also true that the Church. does not investigate criminal matters under the Criminal Code for presentation in criminal courts under their rules of evidence and technical hazards. That is for the police and public prosecutors. The Church investigates pastoral matters concerning sufferers and their families, and Canon Law matters that may be the responsibility of the local Bishop or of Rome. These things truly are the province of the Church and it is a comfort to all Catholics that the Church in this Archdiocese and throughout Australia has for years had an effective method of meeting its responsibilities.

Finally, two things are to be remembered: firstly, even an offending priest deserves our forgiveness and prayers because we believe in a forgiving God; and secondly, we would do well to say an extra prayer -- for each of our priests to help them through the pain of listening almost endlessly it seems, to an implied criticism of all of them because of the actions of so few. In their celibacy, our priests and religious are a shining example of the fidelity and purity the human person is capable of.

We must not let this light be dimmer by the loose talk and harsh judgements of those who do not understand.

The opinions expressed in this editorial, and any other Record editorial, are not necessarily those of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Perth.

The original editorial appeared in The West Australian on 11 January 2001: http://www.thewest.com.au/20020111/unassigned/tw-unassigned-home-sto3967.html