Catholic Church PR Unit: Maria Harries (Or: Just Look the Other Way)


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The Truth, Justice and Healing Council of the Catholic Church (the PR unit for the Royal Commission) has appointed Maria Harries. Now in private practice following 20 years at the University of WA Social Work School, she is the Chair of the (Catholic) Board of Mercy Care.

LotteryWest is the gambling organisation in Western Australia. Its Board of Commissioners is appointed by the state government, and is responsible for overseeing all of LotteryWest’s strategic and business activities. It also makes recommendations on the distribution of the grants LotteryWest makes directly to community and charitable organisations. Many people opposed to gambling feel that this is “blood money” and the government and community group beneficiaries choose to look the other way in return for hefty revenues. According to the website, Ms. Harries is a listed Board member of LotteryWest.

Ms. Harries came to prominence for her 2002 review for the West Australian Government, Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse: Evidence and Options. She concluded that there is no evidence that mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse has done anything to improve support and services for children. Further, she found that there is overwhelming evidence that, worldwide, mandatory reporting systems are in chaos.

Her report, which supplemented the report by Sue Gordon (see earlier posting), was largely responsible for the West Australian state government’s decision not to introduce mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting laws are used in every Australian State and Territory except WA.

One of the reasons given by the West Australian State Government was that it leads to a marked increase in unsubstantiated claims of abuse. Dr Harries says mandatory reporting was introduced in most Australian States as a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to high-profile cases involving the death of an abused child. She claims many jurisdictions are now trying to work out how to abandon mandatory reporting without appearing insensitive to the victims and that, internationally, there is a reaction against mandatory reporting.

Given that the Catholic Church is opposed to mandatory reporting, in the confessional context at least, it is clear why Ms. Harries has been appointed to the PR committee. People have been angered by the cover-ups as well as the original abuses, and a call for stricter mandatory reporting laws is likely to be one of the outcomes of the Royal Commission.

Ms. Harries appears to have held long term concerns for the welfare of children, especially juvenile offenders and the children of women offenders who have passed through the prison system. Her childhood experiences, including being placed away from her parents and siblings in an orphanage in Africa during a period of family disruption, contributed to her advocacy and services for Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants. She may find some difficulty sitting on the committee with one or two of the other members and may have to just look the other way at times.

She has already displayed this ability in the context of the Tasmanian state Government’s review committee for child protection laws, which she chairs. One of the committee members is Mr. Greg Barnes, a barrister and national president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. He worked for a number of Liberal leaders and ministers from 1989-1999, and ran the 1999 Republic Referendum campaign.

Bravehearts Tasmania chairman, Stephen Noone, criticized the appointment of Mr. Barns to the legislative amendment review reference committee as “offensive” to victims of child sexual assault. “Given his presence, and what he represents, it’s offensive to advocacy groups and survivors of child sexual assault that he would have a presence on that group,” Mr Noone said.

Mr Barns has acted as legal counsel for people accused of sexually assaulting children, including infamous paedophile Dennis Ferguson. After Mr Ferguson’s death earlier this month Mr Barns wrote an opinion piece for a Tasmanian newspaper that argued against the vilification of people convicted of a child sex crime and said victims of child sexual abuse were “biased” on the issue.

Mr Noone said Bravehearts wrote to Tasmanian state Children’s Minister Michelle O’Byrne requesting Mr Barns’ removal from the committee but was told he would remain. Tasmanian Liberal spokeswoman for children, Jackie Petrusma, supported Bravehearts’ call to have Mr Barns removed.

Mr. Barnes was also not in favour of the Royal Commission, describing it as a reaction by the Prime Minister “to a media and lobby group clamour by reaching for the elixir bottle marked ‘royal commission’ so that she could pour it on troubled waters”. He wrote that “the main aim will be for victims to blame institutions and individuals…. Do we want revenge and blame?”

Like a couple of other members of the Catholic Church’s Royal Commission PR unit, Ms. Harries no doubt thinks she is doing the right thing by lending it her credibility. However, she as well, may have to occasionally look the other way when the Catholic Church makes moves incompatible with her formal position on child abuse.

[Postscript: Is this a new trend? Catholic Church Sister Mary Anne Rapp pleaded guilty Monday in Orleans County Court to theft of $130,000 from her church, which she spent on gambling in New York casinos.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: The Catholic Church’s PR Unit: Greg Craven

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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