The conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell has again shone the spotlight on the Catholic Church. Luisa Bassini explains.
Last week a suppression order was finally lifted on the verdict of guilt on Australian Cardinal George Pell. A jury of 12 found Pell guilty of the sexual abuse of two children in 1996 and once again in 1997. These are not the only allegations of abuse made against Pell, but they are the first to be prosecuted. Up until the conviction, Pell remained part of the Vatican inner circle and was responsible for the organisation’s finances. By all accounts, he was one of Pope Francis’ closest aides.
For many of us, the conviction comes as a shock only insofar as a guilty verdict was reached by a court. It’s extremely difficult to prove criminal guilt (beyond reasonable doubt) in cases of historic abuse where the evidence is limited to the recollection of a victim, especially in cases like Pell’s where a second victim, who could have provided corroborating evidence, has since died of a drug overdose. An appeal is yet to be heard, but even if it’s successful, this would hardly change minds.
The abuse perpetrated by Pell—now allowed to be discussed in the media—is tragic, but wholly unsurprising. In recent years, Australians have heard harrowing detail of child sexual abuse through the public inquiry known as the ‘Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’. The role of the Catholic Church dominated the inquiry; submissions revealed abhorrent levels of abuse that occurred on a scale only possible with the complicity of that institution. The final report found ‘catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades’, with around 7% of priests abusing children and a systemic concealment of that abuse. As auxiliary bishop and then archbishop, Pell oversaw the Church’s dealings for many of those years. Indeed he was personally responsible for relocating, and thereby facilitating, the ongoing actions of priest and prolific child sex offender Gerald Ridsdale who was convicted of the rape of children as young as six, with victims estimated to be in the hundreds. Pell gave continued support to Ridsdale after he was charged by police, attending court with him in 1993.
We now know the extent of the man’s hypocrisy. During the time that Pell and other Church leaders perpetrated, abetted and covered up the very real abuse and suffering before them, they used the idea of protecting children from abuse to pursue their agenda. In 2002, Pell described abortion as “a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people” because it destroys a ‘child’s’ life, and he opposed LGBTI rights on the basis that this would “deny a psychological problem which makes homosexuality against the social fabric”. It was this conservative control that he sought to exert—the preservation of the “social fabric” as dictated by his institution—which made Pell a darling of Australia’s establishment.
In recent years, conservatives have echoed the church in using the protection of children as a keystone argument to oppose same-sex marriage rights, abortion rights and the ‘Safe Schools Program’ (aimed at challenging homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools). These progressive reforms, for bodily autonomy and the freedom for people to live and love as they choose, were framed by the right as forms of child abuse. Yet their fever-pitched moral outrage—and the usual cries for tougher ‘law and order’—were stunningly absent at the news of Pell’s conviction; Murdoch’s News Corp columnists, along with right-wing law professors, instead rejected the finding of guilt; Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan defended the Cardinal in an article distributed to all parents of children at Catholic schools; ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott questioned the veracity of the finding of guilt and described it as a “tragedy”; and in a character reference tendered to the Court, ex-Prime Minister John Howard describes Pell as “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character” and says that the child sexual abuse conviction doesn’t “alter my opinion of the Cardinal”.
As Pell rallied around the utterly despicable Gerald Ridsdale in 1993, his supporters in the political elite now rally around him. Because just like Pell, these are people who benefit from and defend a system that treats ordinary people with contempt. Their moral righteousness and false concern for the suffering of children is easily unmasked for what it is; bigotry used to bolster their social order.
Although it has only now been allowed to be reported, the glimpses that we have seen of the trial have also proven this contempt of victims, so frequently deployed in criminal trials. In an appeal for leniency in the sentencing hearing, Pell’s ‘highly esteemed’ Counsel disgracefully described the rapes as “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”. That any such notion could be introduced to the court reflects a total failure to acknowledge child abuse for what it is, and a tacit acceptance that the vulnerable can be used by the powerful in this society. The defence were obviously prepared to sink to great depths for a client paying it an estimated $50,000 per day.
The willingness of the Church to defend one of their own, no matter what the crime or cost, sits in staggering contrast to the efforts made to compensate abuse survivors.
At the time of his own offending, Pell was leading the ‘Melbourne Response’ to allegations of child abuse against the church, which effectively silenced survivor victims and sought to limit the Church’s liability to them. Later named ‘Towards Healing’, the payouts made between 1997 and 2014 averaged only $48,300. This was much less than those victims may have won in the courts, which is why the Church, under Pell’s direction, sought to set an example of a claim brought by former altar boy John Ellis in the 2000s. It spent $1 million fighting to successfully defend that claim and pursue costs. In doing so, it established a precedent that the Church could not be sued as a legal entity and thereby held accountable for the actions of its priests and employees. Hundreds of small settlements were offered instead. They came too late for many victims lost to suicide, and from a church whose net worth in Australia alone is estimated to be $30 billion dollars, they amount to little more than an insult.
The question of compensation and the difficulties around making claims was the subject of one of the recommendations to emerge from the Royal Commission; that there be a single national redress scheme to assist survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Inadequate though it is (how do you put an average offer of $76,000 on a stolen childhood and a lifetime of trauma), even this was too much for Pell and his cronies. In December 2018, the Catholic Church announced that it would not enter the scheme as a single entity, thereby again limiting its potential liabilities.
This is not the only recommendation of the inquiry that the Church has rejected. It has also refused to accept that it mandatorily report to child protection authorities information regarding child abuse disclosed in confession. It’s a law that all public authorities in Australia are subject to, and yet the Church remains exempt from it.
Despite the overtures of Pope Francis at his recent child abuse summit in Rome, these actions betray the Church’s pitiful response on this issue and the reality that it hasn’t been held to account for its crimes in Australia, or indeed in any country. t continues to prioritise its self-preservation over any commitment to justice for its victims or to ridding itself of the rot at its core.
Though it doesn’t control the hospitals or majority of schools in Australia, as it does in Ireland, the power that it continues to exert in concert with our political elite is still one that must be wrested from it.