IT was a 15th century clergyman named John Mirk who is credited with coining the phrase “Children should be seen but not heard”.
It was the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse chair, Justice Peter McClellan, in 2015 who highlighted how dangerous that concept is, particularly when adults around children have an unquestioning respect for the authority of institutions.
“The societal norm that ‘children should be seen but not heard’, which prevailed for unknown decades, provided the opportunity for some adults to abuse the power which their relationship with the child gave them,” Justice McClellan said in a speech to the Uniting Church in Perth in July, 2015.
“The power of the institution must never again be allowed to silence a child.”
Nearly three years later, in a Newcastle courtroom on Tuesday, prosecutor Gareth Harrison showed how far Australian society has shifted in just a few short years, after thousands of silenced children spoke out – first to the media and police and then to the royal commission, about the child sex crimes committed against them.
The sentence of former Hunter priest Philip Wilson, who was Archbishop of Adelaide when he was convicted in May of concealing the crimes of Hunter priest colleague Jim Fletcher, had to “accord with the moral sense of the community”, Mr Harrison told magistrate Robert Stone.
That “moral sense” is now based on a much fuller understanding of the potentially devastating and lifelong impacts of child sexual abuse, and recognition that it is one of the most serious of crimes.
“The community will no longer tolerate the endemic cover-up of crimes on the most vulnerable members of the community, children,” Mr Harrison said, before arguing the only appropriate sentence was jail.
Mr Harrison said Wilson lied, showed little remorse or contrition, and put the church before a child sex victim when he failed to tell police about approaches made to him by victims of Jim Fletcher in the 1970s, after Fletcher was charged with child sex crimes in 2004.
Wilson lied about his knowledge of Fletcher, and during evidence to the court, because of the “unflinching loyalty he has to the Catholic Church and protecting it at all costs”, Mr Harrison said.
Outside the court on Tuesday survivor advocate and Fletcher victim Peter Gogarty denounced the Vatican for its silence since the royal commission published its final reports in December, and said Wilson should be sacked as archbishop. Last month he was one of the first to say Wilson should be defrocked.
Pope Francis could possibly be in shock given the decades-old ticking timebombs around the world that are blowing up right now.
While it was once correct to state that Wilson was the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman in the world to be charged with concealing the child sex crimes of a priest, that title now belongs to French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who faces a trial in January, 2019 for concealing the crimes of Father Bernard Preynat.
Six other French Catholic Church officials, including Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, have also been charged with covering-up Preynat’s crimes.
In Chile all Catholic bishops agreed to resign en masse in May after years of a simmering child sex scandal.
John Mirk’s view of children prevailed for more than 500 years. And how comprehensively that is being swept away.