The Guardian August 28, 2002


Howard shows his true colours

A storm erupted last week when allegations of child abuse were levelled 
against Australia's most prominent Catholic, Sydney Archbishop George Pell. 
Yet it was Prime Minster John Howard who found himself the centre of media 
attention.

This is not the first time Archbishop Pell has been called to respond on 
the child sex abuse issue.

He has even provoked outrage for being publicly dismissive of claims made 
against Clergy: "I ... mentioned that the church is being attacked for [sex 
abuse] sometimes by elements that are a bit anti-Christian".

And also: "Abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing 
young people."

Yet even in the face of this Dr Pell has been forced to admit that the 
Church, under his direction, had in the past paid "hush money" to people 
who had been abused by Catholic Priests as children.

Now the allegations have been levelled directly at Dr Pell.

The Archbishop has the right to declare his innocence. Certainly, it is the 
very basis of our legal system that he must be presumed innocent unless 
proven guilty.

So too, the person making the allegations must be taken seriously, and have 
their claims investigated thoroughly.

Yet in this instance, and without hesitation, John Howard, committed a 
blatant abuse of his office as Prime Minster when he publicly declared a 
verdict on the issue: "I believe completely George Pell's denial".

When asked on what basis Mr Howard was able to declare such unequivocal 
support, all he could offer was: "I rang him this evening and spoke to him 

However, the Prime Minister stands alone in his unequivocal support for Dr 
Pell.

Even arch-Catholic, arch-reactionary Workplace Relations Minister Tony 
Abbott tempered his comments on the affair: "[Dr Pell] has done absolutely 
the right and the honourable thing to step aside and I have to say that the 
allegation as so far reported strikes me as being absolutely out of 
character.

"But ... these are serious allegations and they need to be fully 
investigated."

Instead, it has been Mr Howard who has found himself strongly condemned 
from all quarters.

Says Labor leader Simon Crean: "The church has taken the correct action. 
The Archbishop has taken the correct action. It's the Prime Minister's 
comments, in my view, that are inappropriate in the circumstances because 
the process has to run its course".

Greens Senator Bob Brown said, "Interesting there, the difference in the 
Prime Minister's approach, following the accusations by Senator [Bill] 
Heffernan, which were found to be totally wrong, and the approach on this 
occasion".

When allegations of sexual misconduct were made in Parliament in March 
against High Court Justice Michael Kirby, the Prime Minster openly declared 
his support for Senator Heffernan, the accuser, and his doubts about 
Justice Kirby's innocence.

"I have no independent knowledge as to whether those claims are true of 
false ... they need to be further assessed and, depending on what comes out 
of that further assessment, people will make judgements  I suspend mine 
until such time as that further assessment is made", said the Prime 
Minster, responding to a Question in Parliament.

Yet, unlike his completely unfounded support for Dr Pell, Mr Howard "did" 
have independent knowledge of Justice Kirby's innocence.

Just moments later in Question Time, he confessed he was aware of a 
statement by the NSW Police Minster that read:

"I am advised that police have previously investigated information provided 
to them by Senator Heffernan. I am advised that those investigations did 
not warrant the laying of any charges in connection with the matters 
recently raised by the Senator."

Yet the Prime Minister condoned Senator Heffernan's outrageous behaviour. 
"Any suggestion that he used parliamentary privilege as a first resort 
rather than as a last resort is wrong", Howard said.

The Prime Minster's support for the Bishop is blatant demonstration of his 
hypocrisy, and exposes his inability to demonstrate a fundamental 
democratic principle: The separation of Church and State.

It is also a reflection of his jaundiced and reactionary outlook.

Dr Pell is an arch-conservative who was moved to Sydney to get rid of the 
progressive elements in the Church there. He lies at the extreme right of 
the political spectrum along with the Pope and John Howard.

He is publicly and viciously homophobic, anti-abortion and strongly opposes 
women's rights, whereas Justice Kirby is gay, educated, enlightened, 
tolerant and for a High Court judge relatively progressive.

Mr Howard's mismanagement of the issue has now left him ducking for cover 
and refusing to repeat his earlier statement.

Interestingly also, while a search on the Labor Party website brings up 
dozens of press releases under the words "Pell" and "Kirby", the Prime 
Minister's website conspicuously returns no related documents at all.

"The Vicar-General of Melbourne Diocese has now has asked that anyone with 
outstanding allegations come forward to the church, or go directly to the 
police with their information."

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