Selective silence: Cory Bernardi, the "threat" of Islam and the Royal Commission

Senator Cory Bernardi’s announcement that he’s finally quitting the Liberal Party and starting his own conservative political movement has dominated news headlines and social media this week. The far-right Senator’s new Australian Conservatives party will attempt to capitalise on the rise in populist anti-immigration sentiment epitomised by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the domestic resurgence of One Nation.

Besides combating the prospect of same-sex marriage and campaigning to water down the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s likely the Australian Conservatives will have plenty to say on another of Bernardi’s favourite topics: Islam, or the supposed threat it poses to Australian society.

Bernardi has asserted that Islam is a “totalitarian, political and religious ideology”, called for the burqa to be banned as a “shroud of oppression”, and waged a long crusade against the halal certification of food. On Friday he’ll appear as a ‘special guest’ at a function thrown by the anti-Islamic Q Society, which has been at the forefront of efforts to stop the construction of a mosque in the Victorian town of Bendigo. In 2015 Bernardi alleged that terrorists could be among Australia’s planned intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, despite all evidence suggesting such a scenario is extremely unlikely.

But even as Bernardi commanded the spotlight, far more concerning and devastating news has been coming out of Sydney, where the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was beginning its 50th public hearing.

In her opening statement to the hearing on Monday, counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness, SC, revealed some of the Commission’s horrifying findings on the scope and severity of child sexual abuse within religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church. According to the Commission, 4,444 people alleged instances of child sex abuse against members of 93 Catholic Church authorities between 1980 and 2015.

Even more astonishing than the number of victims is the number of abusers, particularly in Catholic orders. Around 20% of the membership of two Catholic orders that run schools, the Christian Brothers and the Marist Brothers, were accused of crimes against children. In one order, the St John of God Brothers, more than 40% of religious brothers were alleged to have abused kids.

But one figure especially stands out, arguably the most horrific of all. 7% of all Australian Catholic priests since 1950 have been accused of child sexual abuse. That’s about one in every 14 priests.

It’s worth looking at how those numbers compare to Bernardi’s pet obsession, Islam and domestic terrorism. 476,291 Australians self-identified as Muslim at the 2011 Census. The exact number of Australian Muslims charged with terror offences isn’t publicly available for security reasons, but a widely-cited Monash University study from 2011 puts the number at between 20 and 33. That means around 0.0069% of Muslims in Australia have been charged with terror-related offences, at least as of 2011. One in every 14,000 or so Muslims, in other words.

Putting those two sets of numbers side by side raises some interesting questions about who we’re told poses a threat to Australian society, and who actually does. If 7% of Australian Muslims were alleged terror suspects, that would mean a massive 33,340 would-be Islamist terrorists were currently residing in Australia. To put that in perspective, imagine if everyone in the NSW town of Orange woke up one day and decided that, rather than throw an Elvis festival this year, they’ll all join ISIS instead. Bernardi would certainly have his work cut out for him.

Despite what Bernardi, Pauline Hanson and many others say, though, you could fit all the Australian Muslims charged with terror offences pretty comfortably in the back half of a tram. So which is the greater threat? One in every 14,000 Muslims? Or one in every 14 priests? And which will Bernardi’s new Australian Majority focus most of its attention on?

Given the timing, it will be extremely interesting to see if newly-independent Senator Bernardi says a word about the Royal Commission’s findings, or if he continues to talk up a comparatively miniscule threat for the sake of headlines and political capital. Given the Vatican has refused to hand over documents involving Australian priests accused of abuse to the Royal Commission, it will also be instructive to see if Bernardi feels compelled to demand greater accountability from the Church of which he is a devout member.

For the rest of us, it might be worth wondering why we obsess over threats that we rarely see and almost never directly encounter, rather than the ones right in front of us. If we’d spent the last sixty years paying even a fraction of the attention to child abusers in the Catholic Church that we devote to Islamist terrorism today, that 7% wouldn’t have been able to wreak the horrendous damage that they did.