It doesn’t matter whether you are a Catholic or not. George Pell is a success story. From humble beginnings to a Prince of the Church. You don’t have to be steeped in Roman theology to know that a cardinal is a person of great eminence and power.
But it is inescapable that Pell had a blind spot. He never liked children, and he did not seem to understand them. He clearly did not value them, nor did he see their innocence as fragile, or precious.
Pell’s attitudes were formed at school, and I have a special insight as to why he was so blind to children’s needs. I went to the same school, around a decade later than he did.
St Patrick’s College is in Ballarat, and it prides itself on a form of education closer to a gulag than a school. Pell himself personified many of the qualities that they valued.
Courage, resilience, toughness, a willingness to bear pain without showing it – these are their virtues. Add a rigorous education, with generous amounts of physical discipline thrown in, and you have the recipe for what Pell became – an intellectual bully, with a chip on his shoulder, and unlimited ambition.
Many of us have spent a lifetime undoing the harm that that form of education unleashed on us. Not Pell, though. He used it to get to the top of an international organisation.
We were schooled in mythology; the mythology of the downtrodden Irish, but no matter the odds, we would triumph through stubborn persistence and, a belief that we were on the right side of the religious divide. We were still taught Latin, and adherence to ‘the Faith’ was not optional.
Young people these days are blessed, in that they have not had to endure the prejudice that Irish Catholics underwent when I was young. We were even drilled in how to wear our school uniforms when we were in public. We had to present better than the Protestant students, because we were ‘the other’, and we were expected to be louts.
So we were in our own minds an oppressed community, but we would prevail because we were stronger, and better educated, and whenever we were presented with a level playing field, we would prevail. Society as battleground.
Pell was a ruckman in the First XVIII, and a feared and ruthless competitor. St Pat’s were perennial champions, and Pell was their captain and their enforcer.
In those days many Catholic families followed an informal policy of ‘giving’ a child to the church. This meant one, boy or girl, would be selected to become a member of the religious community.
This was an ancient tradition, and it saw boys choosing to become, if they were clever, priests. If not so bright, religious brothers. Girls were suitable candidates for nuns. The parents usually made the call; seldom did the child. This serves to remind us of the primacy of the Church in many Catholic homes.
When the horrors of the sexual abuse scandals broke, many of the victims were not believed by their parents. Many were sent back into the very classrooms they had escaped; sometimes they were abused by those they had complained to.
It does not matter that Pell escaped conviction for actual sexual predation. He was found to have facilitated the acts of others, by looking the other way. He knew about the abuse, but he was not that interested.
Presumably he believed that children who were raped would recover, as they would from a grazed knee in the playground. That can be the only reason he repeatedly moved-on those he knew, or even suspected, to be rapists. Send them to another parish, or diocese, and after a time spent offending in new pastures, move them on again.
How do you grow to be an adult and still not know that rape is wrong? How do you rise through the ranks of an organisation of educated individuals, and not know that not only is it against the law of every civilised nation, but that it is devastating to the victims?
How did this man, a Doctor of Philosophy, not understand that he was meant to regulate his staff, and to ensure the safety of their youthful charges?
Pell failed on every measure of a good life
Pell’s failures were not only moral. He failed in every aspect of his elevated career. He failed as a Christian, as a leader, as a priest, as an administrator, and as an adult.
He knew about children’s suffering, but he placed the reputation, and the finances of a corrupt organisation above those for whom we are all responsible. There can be no excuse, because he KNEW, and he did nothing.
The commission concluded that “by 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy, but he also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.”
Why is he supported by so many prominent Australians?
John Howard and Tony Abbott have both been conscious supporters of Pell. Both have served as prime ministers, and their opinions carry weight. It appears that the further you are to the right of the political spectrum, the more likely you are to support Pell.
Although Pell was acquitted of sexual assault, he was not found innocent. The charges were set aside by the High Court of Australia, as being “unsafe”.
Both Howard and Abbott have degrees in Law. They presumably know that, notwithstanding the High Court’s ruling, the Royal Commission found that Pell, at the least, knew, but did nothing. The fact that he was not crippled with guilt, and self-loathing, speaks volumes about his character.
The fact that these two eminent Australians continue to support him, suggests men who care little for what is right, but who continue the endless culture wars.
That leaves us living in a curiously barren landscape, where we forget the words of their saviour, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”