Comment: Pastor Bob Cotton | No confidence in church after Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse

LINGERING DOUBTS: Pastor Bob Cotton says when it comes to church reform, the "mice are still in charge of the cheese". Picture: Jonathan Carroll.
LINGERING DOUBTS: Pastor Bob Cotton says when it comes to church reform, the "mice are still in charge of the cheese". Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse is finally over but for Maitland Pastor Bob Cotton, there is still a long way to go. He has no confidence in the church – it does “not reflect or represent the goodness, purity and virtue of Jesus” – to make the required moral changes.  

Last week, Christopher Laban Bridge, a former Assemblies of God Youth Pastor and former Maitland businessman was sentenced in Gosford District Court to 2 years in prison with a non parole period of 15 months.

He committed sex offences against four boys between 1973 and 1982 while in a position of trust. The reason the penalty was so light is because at the time the offences were committed, all homosexual acts were illegal and the law did not differentiate between consenting and non consenting acts or between men with men and men with boys.

Times have changed. In 1984 homosexual acts perpetrated by men against those under 18 were enacted, in 1985 homosexuality was decriminalised and in 2017 Same Sex Marriage was legalised -  but the laws that stood in 1973-1982 remain the same.

The crimes that Bridge was sentenced for, if they were committed today, would attract a maximum sentence of 10 years. There is a massive difference in penalty but no difference whatsoever in the physical, emotional and psychological effect on the victim.

Thursday, last week, I attended the final hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse and I salute the Commissioners and their staff, the supporters, the police and most of all,  the survivors who so bravely told their accounts of betrayal to the world. The following day, I was with friends as we watched the live coverage of the Governor General receiving the report from Justice Peter McClellan.

The Royal Commission has now ended but the fight has just begun for new legislation to be passed in every State and Territory that will properly protect our children and punish those who would seek to prey upon them or protect those who do.

There has been over 400 recommendations made to help us create a safer future for our children but opposition has already been voiced by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, who has defended the “sanctity of the confessional” and has once again put canon law above the Law of the Land. This is a clear indication that the church must be put under the oversight of an external independent body when it comes to child safety.

For some time now, we have been hearing from the church that they are making things safer for children with policies and systems that they have put in place but this is not good enough. The Royal Commission has shown that across the denominations, ministers, priests and pastors who concealed child sex offences in the past have risen to positions of prominence and power today. The mice are still in charge of the cheese and so we cannot expect from them a genuine and sincere effort  for real and meaningful change because they would incriminate themselves.

If the church leadership had any genuine remorse for the lives they have destroyed and the children and families they have betrayed then they would be leading the way in putting pressure on the government to fully implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission. If they were to do this, it  would be a good start but there would still remain a need for things to go even further. Not only do we need legislation specifically targeted at those who commit or conceal child sex offences but we need it to be applied retrospectively.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is everybody’s responsibility. It cannot be left to those who have already shown that they cannot be trusted.

Pastor Bob Cotton

If that were to occur, it would mean that Child Sex Offenders like “Chris” Bridge would not continue to be sentenced under the manifestly inadequate penalties that were in effect when his crimes were committed but he would be punished under new penalties that would properly reflect the criminality of his actions and the expectations of the community.

Retrospective legislation is nothing new. The “Bottom of the Harbour” tax avoidance scheme laws passed back in the 1970’s were retrospectively applied as were laws for Crimes Committed Against Australians Overseas and again for War Crimes. One would really have to ask why our government would pass retrospective legislation for tax avoidance but not for Child Sex Offences if it were put to them. Is non payment of tax a greater crime than stealing the innocence of a child and destroying their future?

I put no hope in the institutional church. Organised religion serves nothing but itself. It does not reflect or represent the goodness, purity and virtue of Jesus who they claim to represent. If they did then they would protect the victims, not the perpetrators, their cash, assets and reputations.  If we are going to see change in the wake of the Royal Commission, then it must be the people who demand it of the politicians.  It cannot be left to the hierarchy of the church because change that reaches back into the era exposed by the Royal Commission would result in many of the current church leadership across the nation exchanging their fine robes for green track suits.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is everybody’s responsibility. It cannot be left to those who have already shown that they cannot be trusted. As one survivor recently said to me “if we couldn’t trust them back then, why should we trust them now?”

Bob Cotton (Pastor), Maitland Christian Church