a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Don’t worry about Hepworth, read this

with 2 comments

Kelly Vincent MP, shining a light on the rights and needs of the disabled

Some follow-up stuff. I posted at length on the Hepworth case and its implications for the Catholic Church here in Adelaide, but a recent Four Corners program provided, I think, greater insight into the problems the Church faces – problems largely of its own making, in dealing straightly with cases of sexual abuse. The fact that this occurred in Adelaide is neither here nor there. It could’ve happened anywhere and has happened just about everywhere, because of an international-Catholic-hierarchical approach that seeks to maximise damage control and secrecy [which it prefers to call ‘confidentiality’].

The case involves a paedophile, Brian Perkins, who in 1986 was hired as a bus driver by St Ann’s Special School, a Catholic school for intellectually disabled children. Due to his helpful and enthusiastic nature, Perkins was permitted to engage in other activities with the children, unsupervised. The woodwork shed, in particular, was a favourite site for his activities, and he sometimes locked himself in with the children.

Of course, back in the eighties, employees and volunteers were less subject to scrutiny than they are today, and police checks weren’t mandatory. Perkins had ‘struck gold’, you might say, having all these kids at his mercy in the woodwork shed and on the bus home. Kids whose disabilities meant – he hoped – that they couldn’t tell a coherent story to save themselves. He even invited others, including the notorious paedophile Robert Hawkes, to share in his good fortune. All in all, some thirty-odd kids were subjected to this abuse, which caused drastic, and apparently permanent, changes in mood and behaviour in many of them. Though there were individual suspicions, it took years for the parents to compare notes and to piece together what was happening. It seems the school wasn’t particularly alert to behavioural changes either.

Perkins was dismissed from his post in 1991 when, after a tip-off, police raided his home and found pictures of a number of St Ann pupils. Perkins skedaddled before he could be arrested, but nobody thought to tell the parents about what had been happening. The police informed the school principal, who informed the Office of Catholic Education. This organisation swore everyone to secrecy – sorry, confidentiality. The parents were quite deliberately kept out of the loop. Only three sets of parents were contacted, but the information they were given was minimal and they were told to keep the matter confidential, due, they were told, to ongoing police investigations [which went nowhere]. Catholic lawyers wrote a letter to the church advising it not to mention any police charges in writing. It seems clear that there was a hope that it would all go away, what with the kids being intellectually disabled and all.

After this, the affair remained more or less in limbo until 2001 [in spite of Perkins being arrested interstate – the SA police showing little interest in pursuing him], when Philip Wilson was appointed Catholic Archbishop and when a number of the parents of  former St Ann pupils met up at a party. The penny dropped, and the parents, through an advocacy group, sought some redress from the Church, but made no headway. The media became involved, and when the story hit the headlines in 2002 [the same year that the police declared the investigation into the St ann abuses closed!], the Archbishop immediately acted, and Perkins was extradited to face charges in South Australia – though not directly related to the St Ann pupils. He was convicted and died in prison in 2009.

This is a story of failure on many levels – but above all of failure to communicate adequately with the victims and their families. Archbishop Wilson issued a fine public apology and in 2004 an inquiry was held into the whole affair. This, too, was marked ‘confidential’, and it focused largely on how Perkins was hired, not on the massive effects his behaviour had on the the children he abused, and their families, who continued to be ignored. The Archbishop again cited ‘ongoing police investigations’ for this lack of communication – but of course the police ignored the victims and their families too. Finally, the church, with its usual finesse and sensitivity, sent letters to the various victims’ families offering ‘gifts’ of varying amounts of money, but pointing out that there was no evidence that their children had been abused. One parent raised the valid question of how it was decided that certain parents of these ‘non-victims’ should receive more money than others [or why indeed they should be given any money]. Could it have been decided upon the basis of the most ‘noisy’ or ‘outraged’ parents? The term ‘hush money’ here seems absolutely precise.

No actual contact was made between the church and the victims and their families, and it’s to their credit that the Four Corners team did what other institutions so signally failed to do, that is to sit down with the families, to hear their stories, to garner evidence about the life-changing impact this predation had upon the victims, to give some of the most marginalised members of our society some semblance of a voice.

There were also other voices heard in the program, voices with whose views I strongly concur. First, the voice of a parent advocate, Karen Rogers, consulted by some of the victims’ parents in the early 2000s:

If the Archbishop and Monsignor Cappo and the Catholic Education Office had come forward and said to the parents we are so sorry that this has happened, we are going to get to the bottom of it, we’re going to find out how the cover up happened and what can we do to help you, it would never have gotten as ugly as it did.

Second, the voice of Adelaide lawyer Peter Humphries, who is highly experienced in sex abuse cases:

 I don’t think there’s any doubt that what the church should have done was to ensure that the families or all the children on that bus were spoken to, to establish whether or not their child had been demonstrating any changes, obvious changes of behaviour and they should have then instituted some form of formal counselling for those children.

No doubt at all. It all seems so bleeding obvious, except to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. And it would seem obvious to them too, except that they have other priorities. Their aim is to protect the brand at all costs, and their strategy in doing this is to admit nothing. Hopefully the media and other Church watchers will continue to make them feel the moral discomfort that they so richly deserve.

Third, there is Australia’s youngest MP Kelly Vincent, who suffers from cerebral palsy, on the rights of disabled people:

Anyone who has a story to be told which these children clearly do can be cross-examined. Where there is a will, there is always a way. So maybe it’s just about finding that will to begin with.

Again, spot on. We need legal reform in this area, and if any good can come out of such an awful tragedy, let it be this.

The Hepworth case is, in my opinion, as nothing compared to this overall testament to the unworthiness of particular institutions. Everybody involved should be reconsidering what they owe to the most vulnerable members of our community.

Written by stewart henderson

October 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. yes what can I say, I’m sitting writing with goosebumps running up my body, I feel speechless with rage


    October 6, 2011 at 10:18 am

  2. Yes, I’m interested in where this will go from here.


    October 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: