George Pell’s funeral in Sydney has shown clearly the divisions within the Australian community at large, the Catholic Church itself, and the conservative side of politics. It all boils down to whether or not Pell was a decent human being.
Aside from the well known path from obscurity to eminence, there is the ongoing debate as to whether he was an innocent victim of ‘the mob’, pursued unfairly to his death, or was he, as Tony Abbott recently stated, “a saint for our times”?
The fact that the ribbons of remembrance were being cut and removed, as quickly as they were put up on the fence surrounding St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, was not a clear-cut battle between radicals and conservatives. The ribbons were placed there to remember the victims of child sexual abuse.
There are diametrically opposed views on Pell’s character, and his legacy, and they cannot both be right. We know a lot about Pell, and it is only fair to look at both sides. The central question is whether he was at the least a facilitator of pedophiles, or was he a spiritual leader for the Catholic Church?
In the matter of whether Pell was a child abuser, he has been ‘tried’ twice.
The first was in The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The second was more personal, in that he was the accused, rather than the church.
The findings of the Royal Commission
The Royal Commission found that: “by 1973, Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy” but that he had “considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.
In some cases, he actively moved the perpetrators on. Of course this only facilitated their actions in a whole new area, with no warnings given. He put the interests of the Church (his employer) above those of his charges.
When he later claimed to have been misled on the matter of moving dangerous priests from parish to parish, the Royal Commission found: “We are satisfied that Cardinal Pell’s evidence as to the reasons that the CEO deceived him was implausible. We do not accept that Bishop Pell was deceived, intentionally or otherwise.”
This conscious ‘looking away’ continued for at least two decades. Rogue priests Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson, and two Christian Brothers, Edward Dowlan and Leo Fitzgerald, were the subject of complaints and statements that they were abusing children in his region. Subsequent court cases established their guilt.
The Royal Commission’s conclusion was that he was aware of child abuse, particularly within the Victorian diocese of Ballarat, and that he failed to take the required actions to protect children from predatory priests, and other religious staff.
As I have written elsewhere, Pell’s negligence was not about minor infractions. Whatever Pell thought, being raped is not like grazing your knee. You do not ‘get over it’. You suffer, and your family suffers. Your life often spirals out of control, and it often ends in suicide or premature death.
So, if we follow the Royal Commission’s reasoning, Pell was at least guilty of gross negligence, in that he was aware of criminal behaviour, he was in a position whereby he could have stopped the behaviour, and instead he re-located it.
Later on he concocted systems to either deny responsibility, or to lessen liability for the Church. He acted in the best interests of the Church, at the inevitable cost to the victims.
The victims lost their right to be heard, they were ignored or marginalised by the very organisation that their parents had entrusted with their care. Their physical and mental health was often ruined, and one can only speculate about their spiritual journey after their abuse.
It has been argued that Pell’s ‘solutions’ to the Church’s legal woes re-traumatised the victims. The removal of ribbons around the cathedral in Sydney merely reminded many of the disregard the Church has shown, for so long, for victims.
He was acquitted of sexual offences after two trials and two appeals
His other trial was in the courts. He was found guilty, then again at appeal, but the decision was reversed by the High Court.
This sequence of events appears to be the only part of George Pell’s journey that Pell’s supporters remember.
The outcome then is that his supporters ignore the findings of a Royal Commission, but are prepared to accept the findings of the High Court. To suggest that this is ‘cherry-picking’ verdicts is as true as it is bizarre.
He abandoned the children in his ‘care’, although he likened his actions to a trucking magnate whose employee rapes a hitch-hiker. This is a very poor analogy, and it completely ignores the pastoral side of his calling, which roughly translates to a duty of care.
Melissa Davey, writing in the Guardian, quotes Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter as stating that the reason Pell was convicted was “three years of royal commission shit”. He at least acknowledges that there had been a Royal Commission.
The verdict on Pell
George Pell has divided the country, and he will continue to do so. He was found to have facilitated the actions of known pedophiles, by consciously ignoring criminal behaviour, and by moving them on to fresh pastures.
He was charged with sexual offences against children, and eventually acquitted. This does not mean he was innocent. It means that the case was not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
On a moral basis, he spoke of having “not much interest” in hearing accusations against what were his ‘staff’. He seems to have had no understanding of what it takes to manage people, and to protect children. He appears to have had no insight into victims’ suffering, nor that of their family and friends.
For the conservative politicians who are swarming to support Pell, take a look at your own, contradictory position. Abbott, Howard, even Dutton are singing Pell’s praises, while apparently totally ignoring the findings of a Royal Commission.
As politicians they are aware of the legal and moral power of a Royal Commission, and yet two prime ministers and someone wishing to become one, dismiss the institution. I would call that contempt for Parliament, or contempt for logic.
A saint for our times? I would describe Pell as a rather shabby individual who failed on every measure. The fact that the conservative side of politics is now rallying around such a man, proves there is something rotten in our fair land. Children are our most precious resource, and look how they were treated.