It was sad and painful, and no satisfaction, sitting at home in front of a computer, watching a senior prelate stagger around, wounded and bleeding. I sat glued to the screen, mesmerized, fiercely proud of our legal system, and watched a prince of the Church in humble street-clothes being tormented.
George Pell, Cardinal Archbishop, sat there day after day, an image of King Lear, a broken man, weary, slow and incompetent, a man who had spent his life climbing the greasy clerical pole, now at the tail-end of his life, being forced to answer questions and to confront his conscience, summoning hollow logic to assist in his defence, thrashing about blaming others, constructing academic distinctions, trying to exculpate himself and deflect the load which will inevitably be heaped upon him. His private secretary, Dr Casey, Mr John Davoren, the elderly man and ex-priest who used to be in charge of the healing service of the archdiocese, and Monsignor Brian Rayner, his former chancellor – all muddlers, all incompetent and unable to provide an accurate version of events, while he was macro-managing the show with his hands off the wheel. The board of any public company would have long since called for the resignation of its CEO.
His time in Sydney was at an end and the cardinal was heading off to the Vatican to take control of a bank in trouble and of the finances of a giant, international organization. Let’s hope he asks more questions over there than he did at St Mary’s. He was in charge. He was the boss. The orchestra was under his direction. At the beginning of the hearing, even years before, Pell should had put his hands in the air and confessed. “I made bad choices. Very bad. Me. I received bad advice and accepted it. I allowed wounded people to be tormented. They were my mistakes – and they have had truly awful consequences.”
As the days wore on and the archbishop grew tired, I began to understand a little of how the man’s brain worked. Slowly. Some confusions. Circles and dead-ends. Non sequiturs. Fending off blows, protecting himself. Appeals to trivial logic in the face of catastrophe. I could see how he came to be a man-made climate change denier, why over the years he had not given a lead on the many ethical and moral issues which were confronting our nation, why he had led the English-speaking world back to the old, fossilized and awkward formulae of the Mass, why he had not even mentioned the name of Father Ted Kennedy when he opened the Jesuit school for aborigines in Redfern, why he was unable to comprehend that his placement of Neo-Cats in Redfern had been a mistake and needed to be remedied, why he had not inspired his Sydney brethren to faith and action, why he had failed to engage the general community and had preferred to identify with the conservative, reactionary forces of times now past. He was dull. Colourless. Distant. Pugnacious. Yesterday’s man. Some might even say dumb. Now, for a few days, we were able to look behind the figure on the plinth, observing a king without his finery, seeing the man behind the frills and furbelows. It was frightening to see how the system worked – and riveting.
Not so long ago, the cardinal had been on television complaining that his Church was being singled out, treated unfairly by the mass media, picked on and persecuted, and stating that in comparison with other institutions, his organization was not doing so badly in the pedophile stakes. He quoted figures and percentages. Until recently, he just hadn’t got it. Maybe he still hasn’t. But in the witness-box, he was prepared to criticize his blind brothers in the Vatican. They were even slower and duller than their clerical counterparts in Australia. The team in Rome, against all advice, still thought that the pedophile scandal was largely a conspiracy perpetrated by enemies and haters of the Church. In the end, one can only conclude that the guys in Rome must be really dumb if they are thicker than the ones we have been in charge here.
From his evidence, it was clear that Pell was desperate to regulate the outflow from the Church’s financial dam of assets. He wanted to remain in charge of the show. After all, the Roman Catholic Church was different – powerful, independent, international. A history going back centuries. Its own language, structures, legal system, customs and practices. Tax exemptions and immense political influence. She has always been treated as special.
The cardinal thought that the proper tariff for something like the effects of pedophilia was somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 dollars. A hundred thousand was far too much. The $750,000 later being claimed by Ellis in his court case was simply ridiculous. Let’s keep this in perspective, and in our own back-yard. We can contain the damage. One of his major jobs was to conserve the assets of the Church.
But the complaints, the claims and the outrage was always going to break out into the real world. It was naïve and silly to imagine that this scandal, causing profound and lasting damage, was not going to find its way into the public arena. Wait until the secular courts of the real world begin to make just awards in the millions. Whoever advised Pell of the appropriate tariff for these claims was a buff-head.
I was amused to watch the interplay between the secular and the sacred, to see a member of the judiciary and his foot-soldiers enforcing the values of compassion and justice on one of our religious leaders. The archbishop was insisting on the Church’s rights before the law, on proper legal process, on legally acceptable avoidance mechanisms, on forensic niceties, while the secular, judicial arm of government kept taking him back to the message of Jesus and the Temple money-changers. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world…..” A hard lesson to learn at the top-end of one’s life, confronted with a message you had preached for years from the pulpits of two major cities. The institution and the prelate in charge were on the rack, quizzed by the state’s Torquemada as he explored the implications of the message of Jesus and of a life well lived. The red slipper was supposed to be on the other foot.
But what should the archbishop have done? How could he have redeemed himself just days before he was abandoning his flock to take up a cushy appointment in the Holy City?
It would have been difficult and humiliating, especially for a cardinal, but the moment he entered the witness-box and swore the oath to tell the truth, he should have looked the viewers, the commissioner and all Sydney-siders in the eye and told them that he was truly ashamed of what he had done, of the choices he had made, the instructions he had given and leadership he had provided.
“I am truly ashamed. I have proved to be a slow learner, as my brother bishops also have been. I have neglected my duties, grievously. I turned my back on the needy. To the wounded, I failed to show understanding and compassion. I was deaf to the message of the Gospel that I preach. The damage had been caused by my Church. It was my responsible to do all I could to support the victims and remedy the scandal. I failed. Even now I am just at the start of a troubling journey. Insight is beginning to dawn. So late. I am beginning to get it, but for me it has been a slow and painful process, and my mistakes have compounded the damage. Before leaving my people to continue my life in Rome, I want to spend the remaining few days exploring the possibility of reconciling with the Fosters and with Mr Ellis who have suffered unspeakable heartache. I am hoping they will show more compassion, more generosity to me than I was prepared to show them. I want to go to them humbly, cast myself on their mercy and seek their forgiveness.”
Maybe he can do it. Sincerely, I hope so, for their sake, and for his. But the signs were not favorable. When he left the box at the end of his evidence on Thursday, the archbishop walked past Ellis without even a friendly glance of recognition.
Pell exposed himself before the commission as the prize muddler par excellence. A tragic figure. I positioned myself at the back row of les arenes, and watched the commissioner and his cool, analytical counsel-assisting teasing the witness, delivering wounding blows at will, drawing blood, playing with their prey, delaying to the end their final thrust into the very heart of an old bull already mortally wounded, standing beaten and defense-less in the centre of the ring.
Farewell George Pell. We wish you well in Rome, in the twilight of your career. I am sure that Sydney was not exactly what you had expected, and that there is still more to come before you’re finished.
Chris Geraghty is a retired NSW District Court Judge and formerly a Catholic priest.