Log In

Reset Password

A complete loss of moral authority

Opinion Piece

In his February 18 column “Prayer move a rejection of Christ”, Ken Orr asks why, in seven generations, we have changed dramatically from a Christian nation dedicated to love, truth and justice, to an increasingly agnostic, secular humanist society that has lost its way?

While I agree with Tony Lee that a morality instilled by fear of the supernatural provides no sound basis for good behaviour, I think that there is another reason; the complete loss of moral authority by the Catholic Church.

For centuries the church has wielded great power, and as we all know, power and corruption often go together — the greater the power, the greater the tendency to abuse it. One of the most unforgiveable examples has been the sexual abuse of children in many countries by Catholic clergy. Compounding the effect of these evil crimes has been the cover-up and the relocation of offenders to other parishes where in many cases they have gone on to reoffend multiple times.

The timing of Mr Orr’s column was therefore particularly unfortunate, as it came hot on the heels of the February 11 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which suggested that where sexual abuse of children is concerned, the Catholic Church in Australia considers itself above the law.

In 2002 John Ellis, a former altar boy and now a lawyer, confronted the Sydney archdiocese about his abuse by Father Aidan Duggan in the 1970s and 1980s. He was offered $25,000 in compensation, but he had asked for $100,000. This is a sum the church could have easily afforded because, as the SMH has shown, the Catholic Church in Australia is extremely wealthy, with assets worth over $30 billion. With its own banks, superannuation fund, news service, university, insurance company, and telecommunications provider, it’s like a state within a state. Yet the church, led by the then Archbishop George Pell, dismissed Ellis’s demand, stating that since Duggan was by now senile and demented, the case could not proceed.

But Ellis continued to fight the case. In a 2007 judgement the NSW Court of Appeal ruled that the Catholic Church could not be held liable for the conduct of its priests, and therefore could not be sued for compensation because it did not exist as a legal entity. The court ruled that its vast properties were held by a trust which is immune from legal action. As a result, “the Ellis defence”, as it became known in legal circles, meant that the Catholic Church could not be made to pay compensation to victims of sexual abuse by its clergy.

Now legally off the hook, the church went on the offensive, demanding that Ellis pay $500,000 of the church’s legal costs. This pitiless persecution of a victim of abuse by its clergy has cost the Catholic Church dearly. Andrew Morrison SC, a spokesman for the Australian Legal Association, said: “. . . the Catholic Church’s refusal to fully compensate institutional child abuse victims was reprehensible and exposed the hypocrisy behind its position. The Catholic Church’s continued treatment of the victims of clerical child abuse constitutes an utter disgrace. While the Royal Commission continues to hear evidence of the church’s appalling treatment of young people, the church is continuing to fight against liability.”

So what has this to do with Ken Orr’s call to retain the reference to Christ in the Parliamentary prayer? Actually, quite a lot.

So far as I am aware, the Catholic Church in New Zealand has made no attempt to repudiate the evil behaviour of its larger brother across the Tasman. In the absence of any such condemnation, the New Zealand Catholic Church has thus forfeited any claim to moral leadership.