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Summer 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Editorial Comment

The Media and Archbishop Pell: Promoting the Victim Culture

Archbishop George Pell, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has been the object of persistent attacks in a number of left-liberal newspapers (such as The Age in Melbourne) for his conservative stance on many religious and social issues. For example, he has opposed the "ordination of women" and also has taken a strict position in regard to homosexuals.

Recently The Age gave extraordinary publicity to a claim by one Phillip John Scott that forty years ago the Archbishop had committed acts of indecency against him. The Church appointed the Hon. A.J. Southwell Q.C. (a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria) to investigate the matter, and on 14 October 2002 Archbishop Pell was formally cleared.

Anonymity of Complainants

A noteworthy aspect of the Scott complaint is that although Archbishop Pell was named publicly in The Age and elsewhere with some relish, Mr. Scott was not identified in the media and was, hence, able to proceed under anonymity.

The injustice of maintaining a position in which one party is anonymous and the other subjected to wide publicity is immediately evident.

Mr. Michael Barnard wrote shortly after the Archbishop was cleared:1

"Anonymity may have a place in law courts when, for instance, the life of a witness might be endangered, or national security jeopardised. But it has no place in an enquiry of the type conducted before retired Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell.

Anonymity in such cases is also a denial of natural justice, especially when the accused is a person of high public standing and the unnamed accuser can lurk in the shadows."

Mr. Barnard commented that to allow anonymity "has created a lop-sided mechanism, which inflicts on the accused (and those around him) personal pains from which the accuser is scrupulously protected." He asked, "But what of the distress caused to the loved ones of an accused and publicly identified bishop and to his broader flock of faithful? Is this not selective jeopardy?"

Phillip John Scott

The obvious injustice that arises when a complainant's identify is suppressed but that of the respondent made public becomes more serious when the complainant is a person with serious criminal convictions. In regard to the complaint against Archbishop Pell Mr. Southwell Q.C. stated:

"The complainant has been before the court on many occasions, resulting in 39 convictions from about 20 court appearances. Most of the convictions involved drink-driving or assaults, between 1969 (when he was aged 20 years) and 1975. In 1982 there were two convictions for S.P. betting, and another similar offence in 1986. In 1984 he was twice fined for contempt of and failure to answer questions of the *** Commission. In 1995 the complainant pleaded guilty in the County Court to three counts of trafficking in amphetamines, and was sentenced to imprisonment for 3 years and nine months, with a non-parole term of 2 years, which he served. The sentencing judge, in referring to mitigating factors, appeared to accept evidence that the complainant had overcome his addicton to alcohol, had been a good father, and had been ‘willing in the past to help those less fortunate than yourself out of difficulties by a generous donation of your time and energies’.

The *** report, part of which was tendered in evidence, referred to the deceptive practices engaged in by the complainant in conducting various bank accounts (knowingly aided, so it appears, by some bank officers) with the aim of concealing the profits of his illegal bookmaking activities. The complainant had also evaded taxation. That is a record notable more for alcohol and violence than dishonesty."

It may be commented on Mr. Southwell's statement that although Mr. Scott's record was notable for alcohol and violence, the evasion of taxation and deceptive practices are clearly matters that involve dishonesty. Indeed, in the Melbourne Herald of 24 April 1981 it was reported that the Royal Commisson into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers’ Union had been informed that the entire executive of the Victorian branch had criminal records and that the members of the executive included one Phillip John Scott. It would be of interest to know whether or not that Phillip John Scott was the same person as the subsequent complainant about Archbishop Pell. Further, in the Melbourne Herald of 8 June 1983 it was reported that six officials of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers’ Union refused to answer questions before the Royal Commission, and that those refusing to answer questions included one Phillip Scott (who was presumably the Phillip John Scott referred to in the report of 24 April 1981).

The Victim Culture

The clearing of Archbishop Pell took place at a time when the making of complaints had become very common, and it will be recalled that only recently The Age and other newspapers intent upon damaging Mr. John Howard, the Prime Minister, gave much publicity to claims that his appointee, Dr. Peter Hollingworth, had not investigated sufficiently complaints in the Brisbane Anglican diocese about sexual offences against students.

In these circumstances there are, unfortunately, often those who wish for reasons of their own to encourage others to complain. Sometimes the motivation is anti-clerical, born out of a grievance or animus against a church. Sometimes the motivation is political, such as attacks on Dr. Hollingworth as a device intended by The Age and others to damage Mr. John Howard.

It is by no means clear that the encouragement of complaints is beneficial either to society generally or to the claimants themselves, in particular. Church schools, for example, provide an important service to society, and it is unfortunate that their survival is often threatened by large payments of compensation to complainants who have been ill-handled by particular school employees. Further, in some cases the assumption of a victim-role by a complainant is damaging to the complainant personally. In particular, some incidents that would be better forgotten or else encouraged to be overlooked are magnified by those who wish to promote political or personal purposes, and complainants who might otherwise have had contented lives are diverted into psychologically traumatic behaviour which often is seen to lead to obsessiveness. The complainants are encouraged by their lawyers (who are concerned almost entirely with the quantum of their fees) and by their supporters (whose motives are miscellaneous) to exaggerate any stress or damage that they may have suffered. All too often it is evident that these lawyers and supporters are less concerned with the happiness and satisfaction of complainants than in pursuing their own personal objectives.

The victim culture is seen most clearly in the proliferation of claims against schools and churches. But it is found more generally in society, where there is increasing encouragement to sue for damages whenever injuries or breaches of rights take place. To a large extent this disease derives from the United States, where the legal profession is experienced in deriving substantial fees from even unpromising circumstances. But the victim culture is not beneficial to society, and it has become clear that it should be opposed and that self-reliance should be encouraged instead.


1. The Sunday Herald Sun, Melbourne, 20 October 2002.

2. Ibid.


National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003