I watched Cardinal George Pell give his evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on Monday and thought that he was fortunate to be questioned across the polished table by a team of amateur interrogators. The members of the committee were, for my taste, too respectful, and far too thankful for the inadequate information he was providing. He will not be treated so softly, so kindly by counsel assisting the Royal Commission. We should prepare ourselves for a longer and more equal contest when the trained, heavy-weight inquisitors put the Archbishop of Sydney on the rack.
I thought His Eminence’s form had improved somewhat, though admittedly he was coming off a troubling slump. He was visibly less aggressive. His trainers had persuaded him to surrender his bullying, bulldozing tactics and to eat a few crumbs of humble pie. He was more defensive in the ring, less assertive in the clinches, an old warrior who had grown weary of the fight, who was prepared to suffer a few body blows without complaint.
After watching the contest for four hours and more, I began to feel a little sorry for the main contestant. He was old and stooped. He’d been fighting in this ring for eighteen years and more, diverting blows, defending his corner, but now ready to concede, reluctantly. He had slowed down. The mind was not as sharp. The words did not flow fluently. Sad to sit and watch from the front stalls an old warrior in the ring, under lights, up against a tag-team of amateurs slowly gaining the upper-hand, as the champion gradually lost his strength and was forced to face the inevitable. A beast of the forest being eaten alive by an army of ants.
I was interested to hear the Cardinal speak of his meeting with Premier Jeff Kennett (“You clean up the mess, or I’ll do it for you.”) and I was amused when he compared his own personality to that of the Premier’s. “We’re similar in personality”. I assumed he sees himself as a can-do, barge through, take no prisoners type of guy – direct, blunt, no-holds-barred, bereft of delicatesse, hard-nosed, thick-skinned, but able to save the Church from moral bankruptcy and to produce results. Certainly that’s how he comes across in the public domain – and unable to project compassion and empathy. He said he was sorry, “absolutely sorry”, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. Of course he’s sorry. The Church stands naked in the marketplace. The victims are suffering, and shouting their pain from the ramparts. Clergy are in prison. The faithful are scandalized. Newspapers are selling. The Vatican protective fire-wall has been breached. Money is flowing out of the coffers. The clergy are ashamed. The dead are being blamed. Jesus is crying and the powers of evil are rejoicing. Of course, he’s sorry. But the poor man was incapable of showing his sorrow, of displaying his inner feelings on his grey face, in his body-language. His words and presentation were wooden rather than warm; formal, official rather than heart-felt. George was condemned to wear the drab guise of his official office and to project the image of a distant bureaucrat. I felt the pain of a man condemned to observe that whatever about his style, compassion is best expressed by action. And I was left wondering – what action?
I was sorry the Cardinal did not accept the challenges offered to him (albeit ineptly) – to explore the reasons for the problem of pedophilia in the Church; to explain the destructive force of clericalism; to spell out the central role of the Vatican, the Pope and Canon Law in the regime of covering up pedophilia and protecting the offending priests; to admit the central role of Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in the process as the President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and his failure to resign his post if his advice was not being heeded by his superior; to confront the fact that while the offenders were being looked after, the victims and their families were, for a long time, ignored; to report the fatal Vatican conflict between the Congregation for the Clergy headed by the Columbian, Cardinal Dario Hoyos Castrillon and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Ratzinger as they struggled in their ivory towers for control over child sex abuse among the clergy. Why does Rome take so long to do anything, and is so ham-fisted in the process?
There was much to be discussed in Melbourne last Monday. Pity the opportunity was missed. But the proceedings were only a prelude to the main event being choreographed by the Royal Commission. Fasten your seatbelts for the turbulence up ahead. For me, Cardinal Pell presented as a sad figure in Melbourne on Monday. I felt sorry for the man. But I felt far more sympathy for the Fosters and for the other, many victims of abuse.