The Dangers of Being Catholic in Australia

November 10, 2021 Updated: November 10, 2021


As Christmas is fast approaching, it is a time for Christians, especially Catholics, to reflect on a turbulent year. Those who are even remotely interested in spiritual matters know that Christianity, especially Catholicism, is threatened.

The threat is, at least partially, a consequence of the powerlessness of the Catholic Church and its leaders to support the moral foundations and tenets of their faith. This is especially true when these come into conflict with the demands of an increasingly secular world.

The legislative attempts in several Australian states to remove the exemptions of religious schools and charities to hire people of their own faith is just an example of the unrelenting persecution suffered by Catholics (and indeed, all Christian churches) in Australia.

Religious persecution, which is a worldwide phenomenon, takes many forms. It ranges from complete disdain for the spiritual mission of religions, to violent repression of religious activity.

The former is exemplified by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) recent revision of the high school curriculum, which disregards the Christian heritage of Australia.

The latter can be illustrated by the vicious persecution of the Falun Gong faith and the Muslim Uyghurs in China, or religious minorities in Iran and Yemen where members of the Baha’i faith are treated horribly and imprisoned.

The Western world’s devaluation of the importance of the role of religion must necessarily impact its ability, or even willingness, to condemn the persecution of religion and people of faith.

In Australia, Catholic priests have been victims of the “I hear, I listen, I believe” brigade.

The most notable example, of course, is the attribution of historical sex abuse offences to Cardinal George Pell.

The High Court has since wholly exonerated him.

But Cardinal Pell’s case is merely an example of what could happen to a person’s reputation when allegations of sexual impropriety are made against him.

Epoch Times Photo
Cardinal George Pell leaves at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on in Melbourne, Australia, on May 1, 2018. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Another case is Father John Fleming, a Catholic priest who, since 2008, has been the subject of an intense campaign by The Advertiser/Sunday Mail, an Adelaide newspaper in the Murdoch media empire, to discredit his character and smear his reputation by accusing him of historical sex crimes.

However, these allegations are unsubstantiated and implausible.

He sued The Advertiser/Sunday Mail for publicising defamatory material about him, even though the police did not pursue the matter.

However, Fleming lost his defamation case in the first instance, a decision which the Full Supreme Court of South Australia upheld, and the High Court twice decided not to intervene.

The Pell and Fleming cases are eye-opening narratives that illustrate how uncorroborated allegations of sexual impropriety could irretrievably trash a person’s reputation.

These cases reveal that hostile policymakers and trendsetters assume uncritically that you are undoubtedly guilty if you are a Catholic priest because of your association with the Catholic Church.

Indeed, once a Catholic priest is accused of a serious sexual offence, he is assumed to be guilty.

Of course, there have been cases where clerics have abused their position of trust by grooming young girls and boys to serve their perverse sexual interests or treating children in their care horrendously.

But to assume that all clerics must necessarily be guilty because of their association with the Catholic Church is an apt example of present-day persecution of religion in Australia and throughout the world.

Court judgments that made adverse comments on the behaviour of Catholic priests are examples of crude utilitarianism.

Proponents of utilitarianism would look at the judges’ decision in a relevant case and, considering the consequences of the judgment, might conclude that it yields measurable benefits for society.

These benefits include the expectation that society would be a safer place for impressionable young people, even if occasionally innocent people are convicted.

However, such an approach distorts the rule of law, which requires that innocent people should go free.

Nevertheless, this utilitarian approach has recently become very trendy, especially in our #MeToo times which has facilitated the uncritical acceptance of the “I hear, I listen, I believe” mantra, according to which persons who say they are victims of sexual abuse must necessarily be believed regardless of the implausibility of their allegations.

Although such allegations prove to be true in some cases, there is always a distinct possibility that they are fictitious narratives because of the complainant’s faulty memory or because the allegations are malicious or vengeful.

Epoch Times Photo
Activists and advocates for survivors of sexual abuse gather in the Federal Building Plaza to protest the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Chicago, Illinois, on Sept. 28, 2018. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of the contentious points in court proceedings relates to the onus of proof in defamation cases.

As the complainant is always to be believed, the onus of proving that an accused person is not guilty of sexual abuse is shifted to the plaintiff.

This is a violation of the Briginshaw rule—developed by the Australian High Court in 1938—which is applied consistently in Australia’s jurisdictions, except in South Australia.

The only case in which judges have ruled that Briginshaw did not apply was Fleming’s case.

The Full Supreme Court of South Australia commented that “any references to Briginshaw as establishing an “onus” or a “standard” are incorrect. Additionally, in the several High Court cases referred to, there is no reference to Briginshaw establishing a ‘principle.’”

It is reasonable to speculate then that Briginshaw has not been applied in Fleming’s case because he is a Catholic priest.

If so, the presumption of innocence did not apply to him, and, therefore, he had to prove his innocence.

An appeal to Australia’s political rulers to recoup the right of religious freedom seems to be the only alternative left for Catholics (and those of other Christian faiths).

However, experience indicates that politicians are typically uninterested in preserving religious freedom and, more importantly, are likely to hide behind the excuse that they cannot interfere with the work of judges to not violate the separation of powers doctrine.

It will be interesting to see how the present disagreements in the Coalition government on the Religious Discrimination Bill, introduced by Senator Michaelia Cash, which includes a “Folau Clause,” making it illegal to dismiss a person for making religiously inspired comments, will be resolved, if at all.

The demonstrable persecution of religion in Australia may eventually have fatal consequences for applying the rule of law.

Indeed, if people’s faith were subjected to sustained secular attacks, a marked deterioration in the application of the rule of law would be observed over time.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published novels as well including, “A Twisted Choice,” and short story, “The Greedy Prospector” in “The Outback” anthology (Boolarong Press, 2021).