MURRAY HEASLEY. On witch-hunts and the Kiwi way: the proposed New Zealand Historical Abuse in State Care Royal Commission.

The New Zealand government is currently evaluating the terms of references and scope of its royal commission into child abuse. It is likely to exclude faith-based institutions on the grounds that the State was not directly involved in their operations. The New Zealand bishops withheld any support of involvement until a letter in late March 2018.

On 1 February 2018, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her government’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Tracey Martin, officially launched the nation’s Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care, in Maori, Te Kōmihana Karauna mō ngā Tūkino o Mua ki te Hunga i Tiakina e te Kāwanatanga. They also released the draft terms of reference and announced the royal commission would cover the period 1950 to 1999 and include physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.  It was not to include any abuse or neglect occurring in the 21st century.

Moreover, this Royal Commission was only to be about the victims and not the institutions, because any investigation focused on institutions would be interpreted as a “witch-hunt”. Institutions had been front and centre of all the other investigations into child abuse abroad, including Australia, but this was New Zealand.  New Zealanders, like Trump, know a witch-hunt when they see one.

The victims and survivors of abuse in faith-based institutions need not bother themselves with engagement here, unless sent to these places by the State, because this is to be an investigation into only what the State did.

At the first murmur of criticism, the PM doubled down, suggesting that any faith-based inclusion would only “dilute” the royal commission. The chairperson of the royal commission, a Catholic, Sir Anand Satayanand, chimed in, calling faith-based victims “the hinterland” and in all public pronouncements has suggested that faith-based survivors were as welcome as a dodgy Bluff oyster.

Now, as a spokesperson for a network of survivors in faith-based institutions and a true-blue Kiwi of Pākehā (outsider, foreign, Caucasian) and Māori (indigenous Ngāti Raukawa) lineage, I have found all of this a bit of a worry.

A significant number of the victims/survivors in our network are Māori, and all of them were raped, sodomised or molested by Catholic priests or brothers, the great majority of them belonging to the Marist religious congregation. Some of these abusers are still in the saddle, and even in positions of power and influence.

We Kiwis pride ourselves in the fact we have a treaty with our indigenous people: the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840.  Māori is an official language in New Zealand, and the Māori language version of the royal commission’s title is far richer and more evocative than the English language title: Tūkino means “to ill-treat with violence, rape, torture, destroy, abuse, maltreat, violate, mistreat”; Tiakina connotes “guardianship, protection, safeguarding”; Kāwanatanga  refers to  “government, dominion, rule, authority, governorship”.

After 1840, the education of the Māori people was largely removed from the realm of traditional absolute chiefly power (tino rangatiratanga) and transferred to the new government (Kāwanatanga). In the absence of government schools, this meant Anglican and Catholic schools, and in the case of Catholic schools, these were overwhelmingly run and staffed by priests and brothers of the Marist religious congregation. The initial missionary thrust from 1838 onwards was aimed at converting the Māori people to Catholicism. It was led by Marist Bishop Pompallier, supported by his Marist priest and brother confreres.

The guardianship and safeguarding of Māori school children was then, and still is, a government responsibility. The violence, rape, torture, abuse and violation the children suffered, and still suffer, at Catholic schools was played out under the authority of the government which allowed Catholic schools to operate on New Zealand soil with little or no oversight.

In 1975, the government legislated to fund the operational cost of Catholic and other sectarian schools, and this saved the schools from going belly up. No State. No Catholic schools. Period.

But how have New Zealand’s Catholic bishops responded to the government’s decision not to include the victims/survivors of faith-based institutions in the royal commission?

So far, they have done everything in their power to distance themselves from any involvement by allowing the government to do what it wants. Mr Bill Kilgallon, the former Director of the New Zealand National Office of Professional Standards and a former member of Pope Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tried manfully to have the bishops declare a willingness to engage with the royal commission, but to no avail.

This was very odd, because in November 2012 the Archbishop of Wellington and now Cardinal, John Dew, expressed precisely this willingness as the Australian royal commission was about to start.  But now, in 2018, when the Australian commission has finished its work and revealed the true horror of institutional child abuse in Australia, Cardinal Dew and his fellow New Zealand bishops have had a change of heart.

When two of the victim survivors in our network had a meeting with Cardinal Dew in February, informing him of the sexual assaults on them by a Marist priest and brother, he claimed he had no authority over the Marists, stating that they were a power unto themselves.

Later, when a group from the network visited the General Secretary of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, Bishop Charles Drennan of Palmerston North, in March 2018, he expressed openly his disdain for his Australian Episcopal confreres, who in his view relied far too much on a legalistic approach. He then waxed lyrical about the “Kiwi Way”, an informal, honest engagement with people, free of legal hocus pocus.

In any event, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, perhaps as a reaction to the growing avalanche of negative press, decided on 26 March to claim some semblance of a moral high ground by issuing a letter supporting the royal commission.

It was a fig leaf letter, however, doing nothing other than trying to hide the bishops’ nakedness: an anodyne, mealy-mouthed statement supporting what is, in effect, nothing more than a confidential listening and advisory service posing as a royal commission.

The Catholic bishops simply requested that the victim survivors of faith-based institutions be allowed to front-up to the royal commission and tell their stories. They did not call for redress, did not raise the issue of compensation, wanted no investigation into the crimes of abuse perpetrated by  Catholic clergy and religious against those children sent to its schools by trusting Māori parents, and were quite content to have no inquiry made into the systemic causes of the abuse. Sadly, this bland, innocuous letter became, in effect, the official submission of the Catholic bishops of New Zealand to the royal commission.

The pattern of remorseless abuse against Māori children is crystal clear. One glaring example is Hato Paora (St Paul’s College) in Fielding, which witnessed repeated sexual predation by Marist religious brothers. Just as troubling as the abuse itself, perhaps more so, was the habit of the Marist superiors of sending offending priests and religious to Northland.  By this action, the priapic satyrs were unleashed and given free rein to satisfy their sexual urges on the innocent Māori children of trusting Māori communities, often children as young as five years.

Church apologists have spoken of the “stain” this behaviour has caused, of a boil that needs to be lanced.  Yet, in terms of the holocaust – the actions that Catholic clergy have inflicted on the Māori people over one hundred and eighty years – these metaphors are far too saccharine.

The Catholic Church in New Zealand is littered with the bodies of indigenous and Pākehā children. It is a patient in an induced coma in intensive care, suffering a metastasising fourth-stage bone marrow cancer.  Only a proper royal commission, with ‘fair dinkum’ terms of reference, will be able to address all the issues that must be addressed.

Dr Murray Heasley, PhD (Otago University), is the spokesperson for the Network of Survivors in Faith-based Institutions and Their Supporters in New Zealand.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to MURRAY HEASLEY. On witch-hunts and the Kiwi way: the proposed New Zealand Historical Abuse in State Care Royal Commission.

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    Perhaps the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand could now decide to look at the Australian Royal Commission recommendations and take action. They might ask the Australian Bishops if they could share with them a copy of the TJHC advice and work on an “ANZAC” request to the Holy See to eliminate the Pontifical Secret from our region. The reports that go to Rome with the Ad Limina visits by NZ Bishops under canon 399 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law on the “state of the diocese” could have better data on child protection. Also some data on claims, insurance and assets at risk would help. If the NZ Episcopal Conference needs some legislative authority the Roman Pontiff could provide a NZ Code of Canon Law and shift the heat from Rome to NZ where it should be.

  2. Peter Johnstone says:

    I agree with Jim Kable’s assessment of the matter. I’m usually an admirer of NZ government and society but it appears that, in this matter, the NZ government has been successfully bullied and has hastily backed off. I’m disappointed but also angry that any government would fail to investigate properly the abuse of children, clearly on a wide scale in Catholic institutions based on local and international evidence of the Catholic Church’s protection of paedophiles. Does the NZ government consider itself not to be responsible for the wellbeing of children in Church institutions? This is a simple matter of justice where the NZ government must ignore the threats of properly frightened institutions. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, as in Australia the Church can only benefit from a royal commission exposing its dysfunctional governance and demanding reform. It’s indicative of the Church’s governance failings that its bishops have resisted an open investigation of their stewardship.

  3. Andrew Collins says:

    It could be argued that the state was complicit in the abuses that occurred in the faith-based schools. After all, the government provided them with funding to educate children. Surely this funding should have come with some sort of oversight.

  4. Jim Kable says:

    One of the ways in which unresolved childhood sexual molestation can play out is an unarticulated violence – an inchoate rage at the world in general. I am finally beginning to understand what lies beneath that rage in Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors – and lots of other representations violence within NZ Maori communities/families. If the NZ Royal commission does not hold the Marist/Catholic institutions and paedophiles to proper and frank account then how can the Maori (and Pakeha) community ever heal. Don’t stop demanding this so-called faith-based investigation – and if Jacinda Ardern is half the person Julia Gillard is – she will demand the widening of the enquiry! This I pray on behalf of ALL the victims/survivors! Nothing less will be appropriate! Honestly. Any half-hearted responses by the leaders of the Catholic Church in NZ probably represents their complicity in earlier years. More likely than not is how it will pan out. Hold on to that thought and do some investigating – now!

  5. Jim Kable says:

    Without actually hunting out the witches the proposed Royal Commission in NZ will be a travesty. The worst of that uncovered in Australia was within the Catholic run institutions – while not excusing by any means the horrors of state run/other so-called “faith-based” institutions. Widen the terms if reference and don’t be bullied by those who claim to represent Jesus – they never do – it’s all self-interest and power!

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