catholic connection weighs on abbott

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    Tony Walker

    On September 12, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed Protestant ministers of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the issue of his Catholicism, during which he said he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”.

    Then Kennedy came to the nub of his talk to his largely southern Baptist audience: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” he said. “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

    That was half a century ago in a nation which had not elected a Catholic president and whose constitution makes liberal reference to the Maker, unlike the Australian version.

    That Kennedy felt compelled to make such a statement tells you a lot about America of that period and the barriers that might have existed to national office.

    In Australia 50 years later no such barriers exist. We have elected five Catholics of various degrees of religiosity as prime minister: James Scullin, Joe Lyons, John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Paul Keating, and six if you count Kevin Rudd, born a Catholic but became an Anglican.

    The Coalition front bench is stacked with Catholics, a sign of Catholic upward mobility, in contrast to the days when a lonely Phillip Lynch regarded himself as the token Catholic among his Protestant peers.

    But there is no denying in this latest period that Tony Abbott’s Catholicism, or put another way, his social conservatism, is an issue politically. This is not a sectarian question, as some commentators suggest, but a matter of whether people feel comfortable with him.

    The Labor Party’s focus group polling reveals a concern with Abbott’s views that in the words of an official familiar with the findings indicates a perception of the Opposition Leader as being “old-fashioned” or “out of date”.

    I’m not sure whether being “old-fashioned” is necessarily a bad thing, but reservations about Abbott’s social conservatism are a problem potentially to the extent people might believe he would seek to impose his views on the community more generally.

    Abbott himself might profit from reading Kennedy’s speech and contemplate a talk about his faith at some stage in a forum deemed appropriate. This may well have the effect of removing whatever mystery, or stigma, surrounds his beliefs.

    He might even turn this into a positive, as Kennedy did in his Houston speech, just weeks before the election that saw him prevail narrowly over Richard Nixon, born a Quaker.

    All of this brings us to the issue that has exposed to public scrutiny once again questions surrounding Abbott’s faith, and, more to the point, his religious connections.

    Julia Gillard’s announcement this week of a royal commission into “institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia” implies awkwardness for Abbott, if mishandled.

    Gillard emphasised the inquiry would look into cases involving children in the care of “all religious organisations” but the uncomfortable detail politically for an Abbott-led Coalition is that a preponderance of cases will involve institutions run by the Catholic Church.

    Abbott had no choice but to appear to embrace the royal commission, but this hardly disguises discomfort felt in opposition ranks over this latest turn of events. As a Coalition frontbencher put it: “First we had the class wars, then we had the gender wars, now we’re getting the religious wars.” Asked whether this was a “wedge issue’’ this individual said, “No, it’s a connections issue”.

    In other words, Labor is not averse to having connections made between Abbott and the Catholic Church and, by extension, Cardinal George Pell, whom Labor apparatchiks would have you believe occupies a position in Abbott’s inner circle akin to that of Cardinal Richelieu in the court of Louis XIII.

    Abbott himself has been less effusive about Pell recently, but has let it be known that as an “imperfect Catholic” he regularly sought his counsel.

    What is undeniable in all of this is that child abuse across institutions is shocking and requires thorough investigation such as those that have been carried out elsewhere.

    In the United States, a study commissioned by the US bishops’ National Review Board found that between 1950 and 2002, 4392 clergymen were accused of abusing 10,667 people. By 2002, sex abuse cases had cost the church at least $US573?million, although the figure is certain to be much higher.

    In Australia there is no reason to believe numbers of abusers and abused are not of the same order proportionately.

    Abbott’s responses to the royal commission have been adequate, including his observation that “victims must be allowed to heal, and perpetrators must be brought to justice”, but politically he needs to do more.

    Tony Walker is the Financial Review’s international editor.
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