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Monday, 10 May 2021 09:31

The ‘I hear, I listen, I believe’ mantra

Written by Professor Gabriel Moens


The @meToo Movement has facilitated the uncritical acceptance of the ‘I hear, I listen, I believe’ mantra according to which victims of sexual abuse must necessarily be believed regardless of the implausibility of their allegations. Although such allegations may be true in some cases, there is a possibility that they are fictitious narratives because of the complainant’s faulty memory, or because they are made in a malicious, revengeful manner.

Powerful or well-connected people, like Cardinal Pell and former Attorney-General, the Hon Christian Porter have been accused of historical sexual abuse cases. The former has since been completely exonerated by the High Court, while the latter has initiated an action for defamation. Cardinal Pell and the Hon Porter are merely examples of what could happen to a person’s reputation when allegations of sexual impropriety are made against people.

One example is the case of Fr John Fleming, a Catholic priest who since 2008 has been the subject of an intense campaign by The Advertiser/Sunday Mail, a newspaper in Adelaide to discredit his character and reputation by accusing him of historical sex crimes. However, these allegations are unsubstantiated and implausible. The priest sued The Advertiser/Sunday Mail for publicising defamatory material about him, even though the police did not pursue the matter. However, Fr Fleming lost his defamation case in the first instance, a decision which was upheld by the Full Supreme Court of South Australia, and the High Court twice decided not to intervene.

Fr Fleming, a prominent academic and former President of a liberal arts college in Sydney, Campion College, now wrote a book, Supreme Injustice detailing his treatment by Australia’s judicial system. The book is an eye-opening harrowing read. The narrative clearly illustrates how a person’s reputation could be thoroughly and irretrievably thrashed by uncorroborated allegations made by a person who is able to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Indeed, the complainant’s identity cannot be revealed, even though the identity of the alleged miscreant is splashed all over the papers and in the media. Such treatment is more reminiscent of a tyrannical, dictatorial regime bent on maintaining its power by encouraging people to betray those who oppose the regime. You would not expect this approach in a liberal democracy which, arguably, is governed by the rule of law.

The obvious injustice distinctive of this approach is compounded if a plaintiff, in a defamation action against a newspaper that published the unsubstantiated allegations, is expected to prove that he did not commit the alleged acts. Moreover, the judiciary seems to assume uncritically that, if you are a Catholic priest, you are certainly guilty because of your association with the Catholic Church.

Of course, there have been cases where clerics have abused their position of trust by grooming young girls and boys to serve their perverse paedophilic interests, but paedophilia is clearly not limited to clerics. To assume that clerics must necessarily be guilty because of their association with a Church is a good example of present-day persecution of religion in Australia, and throughout the Western world.

The judges (both the trial judge and the appeal judges) in the Fleming case failed to render a judgement based on a logical, impartial, and thorough analysis of the evidence presented to them. They proceeded on the basis that the complainant must always be believed, even if her allegations were riddled with uncertainties, discrepancies, inconsistencies, and contradictory statements. The “I hear, I listen, I believe” mantra, so boldly promoted by progressive politicians, policymakers, and judges, permeated the proceedings, and inexcusably and irreparably damaged the reputation of Fr Fleming. The book, yet unpublished, compellingly highlights the many logical inconsistencies in the statements made, and arguments developed, by the judges. However, logic does not take us anywhere if jurisprudence is drenched in emotional ruminations which are devoid of reason.

Proponents of the “I hear, I listen, I believe” mantra focus on the consequences of its implementation. This is because these proponents may conclude that the unquestionable acceptance of the mantra yields measurable benefits for society. These benefits would include, but would not be limited to, the expectation that society would be a safer place for impressionable young people, even if occasionally a few innocent people get sacrificed in the process.

However, the uncritical embrace of the “I hear, I listen, I believe” mantra may eventually have fatal consequences for the application of the rule of law in Australia. Indeed, if the application of the mantra were to result in the crucifixion of many innocent people, a marked deterioration in the application of the rule of law would be observed over time.

The ‘I hear, I listen, I believe’ mantra also reverses the onus of proof, which is imposed on the defendant, who might become the plaintiff in a defamation case. As the complainant is always to be believed, the onus of proving that the alleged act did not occur is shifted to the plaintiff in these cases. This is a violation of the Briginsham rule,[1] which appears to be inconsistently applied in Australia.

The ineluctable conclusion is that the “I hear, I listen, I believe” mantra has no place in a liberal democracy which is based on the rule of law.

Gabriël A. Moens is an Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, and a former Dean of Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at Murdoch University. He is the author of a novel on the origins of the Covid-19 virus, A Twisted Choice (Boolarong Press, 2020).


[1] Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336.