One of Gerard Henderson’s longest held grudges is about an episode of Lateline which aired in 1975. In his words:
It was in Ashbolt’s time that the ABC phenomenon emerged where debates were held in which everyone agrees with everyone else, including the presenter — all in a leftist way. And so it came to pass on July 14, 1975, when Richard Neville presented a Lateline program on pederasty where three adult men proclaimed what a great idea it was to have sex with boys. No other view was heard on the program.
Not surprisingly, the Lateline program on pederasty was subjected to considerable criticism by, among others, the Reverend Fred Nile (then of the morally conservative Festival of Light) and The Sydney Morning Herald. Needless to say, Nile and his fellow critics were dismissed and ridiculed. In his 1979 book Outside Interference: The Politics of Australian Broadcasting, ABC friend and one-time board member Richard Harding declared that the pederasty program “was too much for the susceptibilities of some worthy citizens”.
However, the most extraordinary intervention in the debate came from the then ABC chairman, Richard Downing. He said that “in general, men will sleep with young boys and that’s the sort of thing the community ought to know about”.
In a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald, published on July 19, 1975, Downing argued that “the phenomenon of pederasty” was “appropriate for public discussion in a society which, if it is to be open, democratic and responsible, needs also to understand the diverse natures of the people who compose that society”.
In other words, Downing stated that pederasty or “boylove” was an acceptable form of sexual behaviour which needed to be understood.
This week, the suppression order was lifted on George Pell’s conviction related to sexual abuse of two children in the 1990s. Gerard Henderson has been one of the people who has consistently criticised those who thought Pell had a case to answer. He has been especially critical of the ABC: ‘It’s all of its own (taxpayer funded) amateur detective work.’ Dr Henderson (for a doctor he is) has not retracted his claims against the ABC now that we can all talk publicly about the conviction.
Instead, Dr Henderson has pivoted to quibbling over microdetails in the commentary about the conviction. Among mainstream conservatives, the possibility that the conviction might be overturned on appeal has become grounds to deny that Pell is actually guilty: ‘The reason there is a court of appeal in criminal cases turns on the fact that juries sometimes make mistakes.’
It would be wrong to say that Dr Henderson is alone in this regard. Sydney lawyer, Gray Connolly — who routinely appears on The Drum to give a ‘conservative perspective’ — spent years claiming that the ABC was pursuing Pell improperly: ‘Media esp ABC hunt for Cardinal Pell stands in distinction to its pursuit of other churches & institutions afflicted by same evils & abuses‘. When the suppression order was lifted, Connolly very broadly interpreted his duties to clients to avoid retracting his earlier claims against the ABC.
But it’s not just those on the fringes of conservative opinion who have been running cover for Pell. Even those well-established in the News Corp stable have been forthcoming with defences for the now convicted Pell.
The argument needs to be stated clearly: Australian conservatism needs to be more than in-group/out-group dynamics, and the Pell conviction has instead demonstrated the moral void at its heart.
To give a conservative take on Pell, we need to refocus the discussion. Australian Catholics have a deep emotional connexion to the Church. It is part of their identity. Australian Catholicism is also a dynamic and inconsistent identity: there are conservative Catholics, liberal Catholics, progressive Catholics, socialist Catholics — the lot. Even within Catholicism, Pell was a divisive character.
I was never Catholic (although my father was and I went to a Catholic high school for a while). After growing up among more liberal and progressive Catholics, in adulthood I find myself friends with a number of conservative Catholics. Across the spectrum, there is widespread shock at the extent to which the abuse of children stained the Church. Even among those who acknowledged that the Church had a problem with the sexual abuse of children, it was still galling to discover the true extent of the problem and the culpability of many Church leaders.
It is not difficult to understand that shock and pain. I can certainly imagine what it would be like to think that something you were apart of was a force for good in society, only to discover that there was a darkness about which you simply did not know. One thing that marks our time in Anglo history is a greater awareness about the misdeeds of those who went before us, and the scars that we left on others. There is a real difficulty being able to reconcile the way that our identities are shaped while also being able to confront the truths about colonialism.
One difficulty that we have as a society is what we do with these new truths. The dominant response has been to undermine or marginalise their acceptance. We do that in several ways, but the most cruel is the attack on survivors.
We do this so often as a society. When an atrocity occurs, we do whatever we can not to identify with the person who has committed the atrocity. A terrorist attack? They’re brown. If they’re not brown, they’re mentally unwell. If they’re not mentally unwell, they were ‘lone wolves’ who played too much Dungeons & Dragons or something. But Pell was definitely one of us. He was as much one of us as anybody could be. And one of us would never do these horrific things, so there must be something wrong with the evidence.
There are other options available to us, and those options should begin and end with our appreciation of the survivor of those awful things. Our engagement with Anglo-Australian history should begin and end with the impact that it’s had on Indigenous Australia. Through this, we can frame our successes as a society through recognition that they came at a cost to people who did not end up with a fair share of the benefits. Similarly, for all the good that Pell has done in society (from the perspective of those Australian Catholics who admire him), it came at the expense of people who deserved protection from him. Or, more broadly, for all the good that Catholics have done in Australia, it has come at the expense of people who were punished for being survivors.
On personal levels, our admiration for people is hollow and vapid if it does not engage with their darknesses as well. When allegations were raised about Pell, it was manifestly inappropriate to attack the people who made the allegations. Suggesting that there was a witch hunt, or that the ABC was pursuing the allegations for an improper purpose was morally reprehensible. The question for Pell’s supporters is whether they can still hold him in high esteem given the conviction. The question for Australian Catholics is whether they can continue to hold the Church in high esteem given what we now know of its activities. Those questions involve engagement with questions about guilt, punishment, and reconciliation — it is not open for us to jump straight to reconciliation without digesting guilt and punishment first.
Conservatives routinely — and, I think, correctly — emphasise the importance of morality in public life. The response to Pell’s conviction has shown that those morals are negotiable: if you’re one of us, we will hold you to a lower moral standard than if you are an outsider. We needed to be better than this. If we have some personal reason for standing beside Pell during this time (which we might reasonably do), we need to do that while looking directly into the eyes of his victims. It is not good enough to suggest that he might eventually be found innocent: he has been found guilty and we should not throw survivors under the bus to salvage our admiration for Pell.
I hope that, in future, people remember those who accused the ABC of improperly pursuing Pell and weigh their views on other topics accordingly.