During the 1990s the Australian churches began a very public media campaign to denigrate and smear the adult goods and services industry. The campaign focussed on the damage that adult goods and services were said to be doing to public morality and especially how pornography was leading to an escalation in child sex abuse. The mechanics of how this was actually happening (like so many moral panic campaigns) were never explained. They just asserted that any reasonable adult would clearly see that adult pornography mysteriously led to more child sex abuse.
Apart from the established churches, the campaign was also championed by half a dozen old-style morals campaigners. Chief among them was the lay Baptist preacher and federal ALP Member for Capricornia, Keith Wright. He called his campaign The Porn Free Zone Campaign – Save the Children. He was backed up by a US evangelist and former McDonald’s manager, Jack Sonneman. His campaign was called the Australian Federation for the Family. The Logos Foundation chief, Howard Carter was in the mix as well as Family Association chief, Bill Muehlenberg. Two other politicians felt the need to use their publicly-funded offices to defend a moral position on porn – ACT MLA and Citizens Electoral Lobby advocate, Dennis Stevenson and of course the king of morals campaigners, the old Independent grouper and former Shop Distributive and Allied Union boss from Tasmania, Senator Brian Harradine.
The first sign of what was to come appeared in 1995 – only a few years after the Eros Foundation had been launched. Eros had become a very high profile lobbying outfit and featured regularly in national newspaper reports for its evidence-based positions on moral issues. Fearing that they were being left behind, many Christian groups – especially the newer Pentecostals who had their roots in the US movement – started agitating for a similar ‘independent’ lobby group. In 1995, John Gagliardi, the leader of a large Pentecostal church in Brisbane along with two Baptist ministers in the mould of Fred Nile, formed the Australian Christian Coalition. They based themselves within a stone’s throw of the Eros office in Canberra’s Deakin West. Their immediate purpose was to provide a foil to the dialogue on public morality that Eros had started a couple of years before. Later in 2001, they adopted the more political title of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).
However much the ACL, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the phalanx of individual morals campaigners tried to ban adult media and force religious positions on secular issues, they could not control the growing number of paedophile priests being reported in the national media. In the late 1980s this behaviour was seen by the public as the exception rather than the rule and although these isolated reports gave Eros ammunition to fire at its opponents, most people still respected the moral authority of the church.
In 1990 the religious lobby suffered its first real collateral damage. After moving its ministry to Toowoomba in the early 1980s, the strident anti porn/anti abortion/anti gay, Logos Foundation was gathering considerable support for its anti-porn campaigns. Then its charismatic leader, the Rev Howard Carter, became embroiled in a series of adulterous affairs that destroyed the group’s integrity. He was also found to have led an extravagant lifestyle on church funds. Logos fell apart but many who left ended up finding a new home with the emerging Family First Party and the ACL.
Then in 1994 the anti-porn movement’s favourite son, the Baptist lay preacher with the bodgie haircut, Keith Wright, was jailed for raping an underage girl in his parliamentary office and at the girl’s home. Wright was born and bred in the Christian breeder town of Toowoomba and came within a few thousand votes of becoming Queensland Premier in the 1983 state election. But after securing a seat in the federal parliament he became known to his Labor colleagues as ‘Elmer Gantry’ because of his habit of entertaining young girls in his parliamentary office under the guise of religious training. Wright refused to admit guilt over the rapes and indecent assaults and was sentenced to eight years in jail. The damage to the morality campaigns was palpable in the community but for the rest of the pious lobby groups it was business as usual. They acted as if it had never happened and offered no explanation of how their colleague could have fallen so far. After all, there was never any suggestion he viewed pornography. He was just an assiduous bible reader.
By the late 1990s the number of paedophile priests going before the courts was reaching alarming proportions. If there had been that number of used car salesmen or plumbers before the courts there would have been a public enquiry.
But still the establishment fell in behind the churches. They ignored the very public humiliation of Keith Wright and Howard Carter as well as the overseas fallen angels like the Rev Jimmy Swaggert and the Rev Jimmy Bakker.
The church’s strategy at this stage was very clear. Find a large corporate or institutional scapegoat to point the finger at in an effort to assuage its own guilt. With a tidal wave of sexual abuse building day by day, they were acutely aware of what lay ahead when the wave eventually broke. At this point the church’s PR machine went into overdrive and almost daily condemnation of porn, adult shops, brothels, gay and lesbian sex and all manner of adult entertainment, was being distributed to the media and politicians.
It wasn’t a clever strategy in many ways. But by choosing the sex industry as their victim, the churches and the morals campaigners banked on the fact that a media investigation of pornography would be shocking enough to grab the moral headlines for a few years. And hopefully enough to grab the attention away from the appalling spectre of a thousands of priests before the courts for raping young kids
What they didn’t count on was that the sex industry would fight back using their own tactics.
In 1999, the Eros Foundation looked at the evidence that was staring everyone in the face and decided to publish a list of all paedophile priests that had been before the courts between 1990 and 2000. It was a huge task. It meant employing a researcher and spending nearly $50,000 to publish and distribute 30,000 copies of a colour book to every church, media outlet and politician in the country.
As the book was being prepared, Eros approached the ABC’s investigative program, Four Corners, with a view to exposing the contents on national television as it was being distributed. The first contact with Four Corners drew a sceptical response. The book claimed that up until 2000, there had been 640 charges of child sexual assault laid at the feet of paedophile priests. But when the researchers looked at the evidence from court reports, newspaper reports and other sources, they began serious work on the program. When the program aired, it showcased a debate between Archbishop George Pell and Eros’ lobbyist, Robbie Swan. Unbelievably and in the face of the evidence that the book supplied, Pell claimed that Eros was printing the book in an effort to sell more pornography. It was about as far-fetched and ludicrous a response as Pell could have concocted and showed everyone that he was either in on the act or so detached from his own organisation that he should resign. Immediately after the program, Eros took hundreds of calls, late into the night, from people who claimed to have been childhood victims of church clergy.
In the days following, Eros received no less than six separate death threats – two of which were considered by the AFP to be serious enough to be investigated. One was ultimately found to have come from a Catholic priest in country NSW. Letters from prominent politicians flooded in. Many, like the one from NSW MP Bruce Baird, called Eros scandalmongers and liars and he threatened to have us evicted from the premises if we ever stepped foot inside the NSW Parliament again.
However the cat was out of the bag and anyone who knew anything about the cat or the bag was gobbed-smacked at the figures in the book and the projections that it made. Based on what was happening to that point, Hypocrites projected that in all probability, 20% of church clergy in Australia would eventually be identified as a perpetrator of some form of child sexual abuse.
In 2009, the Eros Association launched a political party called the Australian Sex Party. Its leader, Fiona Patten, immediately called for a Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse in religious orders. She was laughed at and ridiculed for making an outrageous and ambit claim. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, was established in 2013 by the federal government. Many members of the parliament who supported it, had scoffed at the idea put forward by Patten only a few years before.
The claim that 20% of Australian church clergy may have at one time been involved in child sexual abuse, is being sorely tested in the Royal Commission and may well become the benchmark figure after the Commission closes down.
Hypocrites was a turning point in the debate over child sex abuse in Australia. It identified a large group of perpetrators, made predictions based on facts about where the epidemic was likely to go and outlined a devious campaign by the Australian churches to try and lay the blame for their evil behaviour at the feet of an innocent third party. To this day Eros has not been able to identify one person from the Australian adult goods and services industry, who has been found guilty of a sexual offence against children. Not one.
When it comes to adult sexual behaviour, ‘repression’ is the regulatory model most often adopted by most religions and morals campaigners. For members of the adult goods and services industry, their regulatory model is conditioned by ‘expression’. The figures coming out of the Royal Commission should be enough to persuade legislators of which model is best for the physical and moral health of the nation.
Robbie Swan started out as lobbyist for the Adult Video Industry Association in 1988 before teaming up with his partner, Fiona Patten to form the Eros Foundation in 1992. Together they ran the association for the next 22 years until Fiona was elected to the Victorian Parliament in late 2014. Robbie is a consultant to Eros and is currently writing a book that looks at the history of Eros.