Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Xenophon's Descent

Sexual offenders among clergy and church workers have often used their privileged status to act as though they were above the law, and ignore general standards of what is just and fair. Senator Nick Xenophon has acted in a way that is, ironically, all too similar.

By using Parliamentary privilege to name an alleged perpetrator identified by one-time Roman Catholic priest and schismatic Anglican leader John Hepworth, even against Hepworth's expressed wishes, Xenophon has stepped across a line from the independence of spirit that has won him many admirers on questions of systemic gambling and corruption into a new territory of irresponsibility.

It may be tempting for those concerned with justice for victims and for the ongoing protection of the vulnerable to sympathize with vigilantism, especially when Church processes and other means for seeking remedy are slow, or produce results difficult to understand. There are still too many indications that authorities in the Roman Catholic Church - but also in other religious communities including Anglicanism - have often been slow to act and compromised by self-interest. The recent stories that have emerged in Ireland are the latest wave in an ongoing tide of revelations which may continue for some time yet, even if important steps are being taken by Church and civil authorities in many places. The need for truth, openness and healing and justice for victims is not yesterday's issue.

Part of what is needed however is a system of dealing with abuse claims that can stand tests more substantial than those proposed in moments of outrage and despair. To act as though the accused are already guilty, and to "out" or otherwise shame or cast public blame without the safeguards of proper process, makes the real or alleged abusers into scapegoats rather than objects of justice.

A bishop or tribunal that overlooks general principles of fairness when dealing with allegations only leaves their actions open to challenge, and thus weakens the potential of the system to defend others. Zeal for the abused without commensurate fairness for the accused has been claimed in a case currently before the Supreme Court in New South Wales, where actions by an Anglican tribunal in Newcastle are being scrutinized. Its outcome will have implications beyond the particular case, potentially casting shadows across other similar processes and their outcomes.

So accused abusers deserve justice, positively as well as negatively; they should be subject to appropriate sanctions if and when their alleged actions are established, but they must also have their own rights respected both in the course of the facts being assessed, and when consequences are determined.

The facts in these cases are usually not accessible to most of us - and in John Hepworth's probably not to anyone except him and those against whom he has made allegations. The respect proper to those who may have undergone such harrowing experiences demands that particular construals of those facts not become mere tools in the service of other agendas.

The Australian's Christopher Pearson implied this week that the different outcomes of processes regarding Hepworth's claims in the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Adelaide respectively could be attributed to the administration of the Adelaide Archdiocese being the "most liberal" in the country (a bit like calling The Australian the most liberal of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers), and that the difference was related to Hepworth's little band of conservative ex-Anglicans somehow representing a threat to Catholic liberals.

This was an unedifying if not unexpected use of Hepworth and his story as a cudgel in ecclesiastical politics. The responses made by the Adelaide Archdiocese to Xenophon's threat have suggested not lack of attention or care regarding Hepworth's story, but rather a very difficult and continuing case, involving claim and counter-claim made at many years' distance.

But at least Hepworth sought Pearson's attention and dubious advocacy. Xenophon's actions on Tuesday cannot be excused in such grounds.

Hepworth is not an ecclesiastical faction, nor a cause célèbre to be paraded in Parliament, but a fragile human being whose history has now been scrutinised in ways, and to an extent, that demonstrate scant regard for his own humanity. So too the man he has accused has been unfairly treated under the guise of privilege. In the process, the slow progress of churches towards justice for the many who have been abused under the guise of spiritual authority and leadership has been set back. The accused also must also have their dignity acknowledged, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the abused too.

This blog was also published at Eureka Street

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