When an historic Melbourne church went up in flames three years ago, the actress Rachel Griffiths, who’d made her First Communion there, thrust herself into the limelight by telling the media that the destruction of the building was ‘a relief’ because of its associations with a child-abusing parish priest two decades earlier. She had not been abused and none of the reporters seemed to think this a philistine over-reaction. That the church was of importance architecturally and decoratively, and that the abuse had not taken place in it but in the still-standing presbytery, was apparently of no consequence. The important thing was that there had been a purging by fire of the parish’s inherited ‘guilt’. According to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Rachel was ‘quite elated’ when she saw the smoking ruins of the church. Before the fire it had been ‘a bit of a thorn to see it standing.’
To her and many others the church building was a burnt offering, a sacrifice in propitiation for sexual abuse of children. A few arsonists thought the same and started fires in other churches, but the fire brigade turned up in time (or perhaps, in Rachel’s view, too early) and the buildings were saved.
Well, a whole lot more churches are about to be sacrificed because of child abuse, not to the flames but to the auctioneer’s hammer. They won’t be destroyed but, what is worse, disfigured, turned to secular use. The Anglican Diocese of Tasmania is selling just under half its churches, most of them in country townships. Gothic spires and bellcotes will still proclaim their ecclesiastical origin, but these elegant, history-steeped buildings, many with graveyards and all with local associations, will mostly be turned into houses, ‘cute’ and ‘quirky’ to their new owners, adapted to their changed use with solar panels draped across their slate roofs and picture windows cut into their buttressed walls.
The purpose of this not sacrifice but holocaust of 76 churches is to raise $8.6 million as ‘compensation’ for ‘up to 200 survivors’ of sexual abuse in Tasmania.
But in fact only a quarter of the proceeds will be used for that, which leads some informed Anglicans to wonder whether the sales aren’t a convenient way for the diocese to get rid of smaller churches that are a drain on its resources (‘unsustainable for ministry in the long term,’ as the Bishop of Tasmania, Dr Condie, puts it) while being seen to be ‘caring’ towards abuse ‘victims’.
Churchgoers and others are strenuously objecting to some of the sales. Couldn’t the money be found by selling church-owned commercial properties, rather tellingly not on sale? Are not the churches held in trust for the future as much as for the present? All have been paid for and maintained by generations of parishioners.
If American statistics can be applied in Australia more than 90 per cent of child sexual abuse is committed by relatives and others known to the ‘victim’ – people like Uncle Ernie in the rock opera Tommy.
That means that in addition to the Anglican cases there must be at the very least another 2,000 children in Tasmania who’ve been abused in their families. But you seldom hear of that kind of abuse. Families hold their secrets and there’s been no official inquiry, Julia Gillard having been powerless to give the royal commission – her parting shot to the nation as her incompetent prime ministership sank beneath the waves of its own ineptitude – the authority to peer into the home. Instead, commission and media have planted in the public mind the notion that most child abuse was perpetrated by Anglican and Roman Catholic clerics, especially the latter, even though in reality they were a tiny minority of all abusers and even though the abusers were a tiny minority of clergy.
Whether the $78,000 per case to be paid out in Tasmania is worth the loss of the churches is a matter of opinion. The fact is that it won’t be the end of demands for church property to be sold for ‘compensation’. The Fairfax press has already cast a calculating eye over the ‘wealth’ of the Roman Catholic Church – that’s not hoards of gold but hospitals, schools, cathedrals – how would you sell St Mary’s Basilica and what as? – with dark mutterings about the parsimony of its pay-outs by comparison. But even Fairfax would have to admit that clerics have been anything but parsimonious in one area – breast-beating. Their profusion of apologies shows no sign of cessation. The Catholic Diocese of Ballarat is actually perpetuating its penitence, with a garden at the cathedral a-flutter with ribbons of contrition.
Which leads to the question: when will all this stop? Even the Germans stopped apologising for Hitler at a certain point. How long will the abuse juggernaut roll on? Thirty and more years after the offences took place, is it not time to give up wringing our hands? All churches say they have implemented ‘child-protection’ policies that would now make it near impossible for an abuser to operate undetected. Someone will get under the radar perhaps, but child abuse will never again be ‘institutional’. Besides, abuse is not only about ‘victims’. The tsunami of accusations has wrecked other lives. Along with the guilty, innocent reputations have been destroyed: what redress or right to compensation do they have?
It’s time for the churches to put the past behind them and get back to the job of trying to re-christianise a country that is sinking into hatred and division under the weight of the rancorous identity politics that fill the vacuum left by the decline of Christianity. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and our nation is more sorely divided than at any time in its history – divided between Aboriginal and white, divided, thanks to feminism, between men and women, and increasingly between young and old. The divisions are widening, just as the proponents of leftist ideology powerfully placed in positions of authority and influence intend them to, in their strategy to destroy Western civilisation and remake society according to the prescriptions of Gramsci and Marx. Never has our Judeo-Christian heritage been more neglected or more needed.
The Diocese of Tasmania should keep its churches and use them for the purpose they were built for. If the energy put into apologising for past misdeeds were put into evangelism they might have congregations again.
Replicated across Australia, that would be a step towards returning our country to the inherited faith and culture that once made it a happier community than it is now.