Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan
Topics: Archbishop Philip Wilson; the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; company tax cuts.
David Bevan: Let’s welcome our Super Wednesday panellists. Good morning to Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David.
David Bevan: Mark Butler is the Labor MP for Port Adelaide and National President of the ALP. Good morning, Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: G’day David.
David Bevan: And Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens Senator from South Australia and she speaks specifically on the issues of finance and trade but she’s a regular guest on this program. Simon Birmingham, let’s start with you. Should Archbishop Philip Wilson step down?
Simon Birmingham: David, you may well recall that my view is that politicians should always be very careful and cautious in how they handle these matters of public commentary, and back when Nick Xenophon did use parliamentary privilege to name an individual who hadn’t even faced charges, I was highly critical of that. But this is a different set of circumstances. There is now a conviction in place. I think Father Frank Brennan on 7.30 last night put what is the right position, which is that if Archbishop Wilson intends to appeal, at the very least he should stand aside now pending those appeals being heard. And ultimately if the conviction stands, well then, he should step down permanently. But nor should we use this case – and of course it is not the only one – but nor should we use this case to besmirch people of faith or the church overall. There is much good that is done. Many lessons that have been learned out of tragedy of the last few decades and this just highlights the changes that have occurred that are necessary, and that we must and the churches must be ever vigilant in the future.
David Bevan: Well hang on, Frank Brennan last night – he was saying Philip Wilson is one of the good guys. Over the last couple of decades, he’s been working to deal with this issue of sexual abuse. These offences occurred back in 2004 to 2006. I mean it’s starting to wear a bit thin, isn’t it, this line from the church that we are- well, let’s read from their statement: the Catholic Church, like other institutions, has learned a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse and has implemented stronger programs, policies and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults. They were saying that 20 years ago.
Simon Birmingham: David, they were, and I trust that the policies and procedures they have in place today are better than they are 20 years ago which are better than they were 40 years ago, and we’ve seen a lot of change in that regard. It doesn’t step away from the fact that Archbishop Wilson has now been convicted and as such, he should step aside pending any appeals or stand aside permanently if the conviction holds. I’m very clear on that regard. He’s had his day in court as such, and he has a right to appeal from here and we ought to respect those processes. But it is now a different ballgame, given that he has a conviction against his name.
David Bevan: Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: Well, I agree with Simon that Philip Wilson should now step aside and I think he should do it as a matter of some urgency as an indication that the church takes this judgment as seriously as it should. This is an incredibly important landmark judgment now. We heard over the years of the National Royal Commission but also with the Mulligan Royal Commission in South Australia of- from literally thousands and thousands of victims and survivors of child abuse. Not just about the abuse that they suffered at the hands of the perpetrators of the abuse, the direct perpetrators, like the paedophile priest Jim Fletcher in the Hunter region of New South Wales that was the subject of the Wilson case, but also of the abuse that they received by people in the institutions who put the interests of the institutions ahead of the children and covered these things up.
Now, Philip Wilson has the right to appeal and we’ll obviously all await to see if he exercises that right and what the outcome of the appeal is. But this is a truly landmark judgment, I think, that will come as a huge relief; not just for the victims of Jim Fletcher in the Hunter region of New South Wales, but for victims and survivors across Australia who have been complaining, not just about the direct abuse that they suffered at the hands of the perpetrators, but of the cover up by institutions for many, many years and decades. And so I think it is important that Philip Wilson, but also the church, recognise the importance, the landmark nature of this judgment and that Mr Wilson step aside immediately from his position as Archbishop, even if he is going to exercise his obvious rights to appeal the judgment that was handed down yesterday.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Look I think Archbishop Wilson needs to resign and he needs to resign urgently. I think of course this is a landmark judgment, but what it calls for now is national uniform laws. And the idea that people can be immune from actively covering up the abuse of a child, I find sickening, and it was a recommendation of the Royal Commission. We need to move on that quickly. The Federal Government should come out today and say they’re going to move to uniform laws to ensure that hiding, covering up, concealing child abuse is unacceptable. It will have to be obviously negotiated through the COAG process and the Government should do that as a matter of urgency.
I also think of course that the level of bravery and justice for these survivors to put their stories and themselves on the stand in court needs to be applauded. This is not just justice for the survivors but it is going to set a trend now for all people to understand that if you are an adult in a position of responsibility, you have both a moral obligation and a legal obligation to do everything you can to protect the innocence of a child. And I don’t- I think the legal argument that was put forward by Philip Wilson’s team that the reason he shouldn’t be convicted was because child abuse wasn’t considered to be a serious crime in the 1970s. I think most Australians would be just disgusted to know that that was the argument being put forward by the church. It’s time that we rid ourselves of that attitude and got on with protecting children.
David Bevan: Why is it that we need a national uniform law? I mean, doesn’t the case of Philip Wilson show that the secular law is doing its job even if the church hasn’t?
Sarah Hanson-Young: It’s because it’s in relation to the obligations of mandatory reporting and the specific groups of people that would be caught by mandatory reporting. And the Royal Commission had two very specific recommendations in relation to this, 7.3 and 7.4, and they both relate to nationally consistent laws being needed for mandatory reporting and obviously one of those recommendations which the Catholic Church is very strongly opposed to and that is in relation to knowledge that is gathered and information that is told through confession. Confession should not be used as an excuse to cover up, hide, or conceal the abuse of a child.
David Bevan: We’re going to take up the issue of the confession after nine o’clock. I’ll play you some of an interview that we did with Archbishop Philip Wilson on the very issue of the confession a few years ago. I think it says something about the mindset of a very senior person inside the church.
Let’s go to Emily. She’s called ABC Radio Adelaide. Good morning Emily.
Caller Emily: Hello, how are you?
David Bevan: Very well. You sit on the board of a Catholic school here in Adelaide, is that correct?
Caller Emily: Yeah, I do.
David Bevan: What do you want?
Caller Emily: Yeah, look, I really support the cause for the Archbishop to stand down. I think there’s a lot of frustration and anger out in the community. I was at a sporting event yesterday with a heap of mums and we’d seen the news come through, and later yesterday we got a letter through that’s been coming out in the media; it’s a statement from the Archbishop. And we’re all just really stunned that that didn’t contain a resignation. I just think his position is untenable, and…
David Bevan: Well we got a text here, Emily, from Julie, who says: why doesn’t the church make him stand down? Are they not taking this seriously?
Caller Emily: Yeah, I think the issue for me as a parent with a child in a Catholic school is that he has a fundamental leadership role in the Catholic system in South Australia and especially in the Catholic school system. He holds the future of many schools and many kids lives in his hands, in terms of funding decisions and policy decisions around religious education. And you know, my kids are preparing for their sacraments at the moment, their communion and confirmation, and they then see that the head of the Catholic Church in South Australia has been convicted for something like this on the news yesterday. That’s really hard to explain to them and it’s just, you know, it’s not what we as young Catholic families want our contemporary church to be.
David Bevan: Emily, thanks for your call. Let’s go back to Simon Birmingham. Minister, you have to leave us in a moment. I think you’ve got a meeting with the Prime Minister?
Simon Birmingham: I do, David…
David Bevan: Well we don’t want to keep him waiting. What are you going to talk to him about?
Simon Birmingham: It’s a regular meeting that just had the time changed to this morning.
David Bevan: Okay, before you leave us, you’re Federal Education Minister. What do you think of Sarah Hanson-Young’s call for a national uniform law relating to the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and also maybe taking another look at the confessional?
Simon Birmingham: Well it’s not Sarah’s call per se. Sarah’s reflecting the recommendations of the Royal Commission which have been received recently. I think it’s important that we respond and act on those recommendations. The Government will be formally responding to the hundreds of recommendations in the near future. Of course, a lot of them, including those issues via the cooperation of the states and territories, they’re laws that are enacted through State Parliament. So I’m confident that we will be working with them in relation to issues of the commission…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] So you think there will be a national uniform law?
Simon Birmingham: Look I would expect that everyone approaches the recommendations of the Royal Commission with goodwill and that I would hope the states and territories will want to cooperate in terms of ensuring that a clear, consistent benchmark is set for mandatory reporting. And frankly, I think that the church ought to think again long and hard about matters such as the confession, that there is an obligation that extends in terms of the protection of children. And I think callers like Emily are a clear sign that Archbishop Wilson through not standing aside, he’s letting down people of good faith within the church community.
David Bevan: What does it say about the mindset of the man and of the senior people in the church that he hasn’t resigned?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think, as I say, it is not just the case that it’s failing to meet the public expectation but it’s failing to meet the expectation of the overwhelming majority of Catholic parishioners who are people of good faith, good intentions, strong values and who find such crimes abhorrent, as do every Australian.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, you’ve got to go. Just one last question. Have you given up on One Nation? And I think they’ve changed their position four times on company tax. But have you’ve given up on them, and is it now time for the Government to drop its plans for tax cuts for large companies, and maybe you can use that money to deliver bigger personal income tax?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we’ll keep talking to the Senate crossbench as we always do. The Government wants to make sure that Australian companies are competitive, that in South Australian companies like Coopers or Beerenberg or Yalumba or San Remo. I mean they’re all household names, they’re largely family owned businesses, they’re part of what’s close to 200 South Australian companies who would stand to gain under the company tax reforms we’ve proposed but more importantly they stand to be more globally competitive with the tax rate they pay and have a greater capacity to reinvest in their staff, in their wages, in growing those businesses and creating more jobs in South Australia into the future.
David Bevan: So you’re going to keep plugging away. Well, thank you for your time. You’ve got to go and meet the Prime Minister. Thanks Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.
David Bevan: Lots of texts coming in on this. One person says: well, he hasn’t resigned because he believes he’s innocent of the charges and that is also why he is going to challenge the current finding. But somebody else says, Aggie says: hear hear to Emily. The Archbishop confirmed both my kids; regrettable. He should not be officiating this sacrament.
Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide, hearing Simon Birmingham saying: look, I think all of the states and territories will eventually get around to giving us a uniform law. Sounds a bit lame, doesn’t it?
Mark Butler: Well, there were a very great number of recommendations from a royal commission that took place over five years, heard from literally thousands of victims and came up with an extraordinarily insightful report. So, it’s proper that the Government and the relevant state and territory governments work through this. We’d like to see a national uniform law operate into the future around mandatory reporting. We think that it’s important that all of the governments in the country – Commonwealth and states – get a move on with dealing with this. But the Wilson case has really highlighted the historic questions. So, there is the question of what happens to leaders of institutions who covered up abuse over the past 30, 40 years, sometimes even more, and what the Wilson case – subject to appeal obviously – what the Wilson case has confirmed is that people who engaged in cover-ups can be subject to criminal prosecution and I think that’s an incredibly important landmark judgement for victims and survivors.
So yes, we do need to look at the law into the future, but we need to recognise that really what the Wilson case deals with is: what happens to people who engaged in these cover-ups over the past many, many years? And I want to take up a point that you raised as well, which is: if Philip Wilson doesn’t stand down very urgently, then what is the church going to do about this? I was really disappointed, I think, by the Catholic Bishops’ conference statement yesterday, where they said that the church has learnt a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse. If the conference is not willing to indicate its view – that Philip Wilson should stand down in light of this judgement, pending an appeal, that he has the legal right to undertake if he choses, but should not stand down in light of the fact that he has been found guilty by a court of law – then I think the conference would be letting down Australia.
David Bevan: What do you say to Ben from Brompton. He sent us this text: so someone can now work up to a church leader and say they were abused 40 years ago, and if they don’t report the incident to the police they can now be charged with concealment. He says this is rather overblowing the severity of the crime. I suspect Ben is underplaying exactly what took place here.
Mark Butler: Well, I think with respect, Ben might be. I mean, the cover-up of a crime is a criminal offence. It’s long been recognised by the criminal courts as a criminal offence. The idea of good citizenry is that you report the commission of a crime to the appropriate authorities so that the criminal can be dealt with, and that is really what is at question here: that the leaders of institutions over many years in Australia and around the world – as we’ve seen in too many other countries – too often put the interests of the institution ahead of the interests of children, and that is what the court has called out yesterday and I think it’s an extraordinary important landmark judgement.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, final word to you. It’s almost seven minutes to nine.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I think if the church doesn’t act to force Philip Wilson to resign, then it reflects very, very poorly on them, and I think the Australian public expect better. It’s not good enough just to say that they’ve learnt of the suffering and the pain that has occurred to children under their care, under their watch, historically or in contemporary times. They have to do something about it and I just find it extraordinary that he’s able to still be there, to be honest. He’s got to go and the church has to have a very, very strong statement saying that the culture of cover-up and concealment has been wrong and they’re going to fix it.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, thank you for your time. Before that, Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide. And we also heard from Simon Birmingham, the Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister.