Eric Hodgens. Pastoral Care of Victim and Offender – The Pell Case Dilemma.

Sep 3, 2019

The church is called to offer pastoral care to both offender and victim. A dilemma arises when the offender is an official of the church. Like it, or not, the victim must come first.

A good counsellor of sexual abuse survivors listens empathetically but also critically, discerning whether the story is true.

Jurors in a trial have a different task – to judge whether the story is true “beyond reasonable doubt”. A guilty verdict means that at least twelve people have heard the story, seriously evaluated it and unanimously judged it to be true beyond reasonable doubt. It is not enough for a critic to dismiss the story as implausible without evidence to the contrary.

The twelve people, chosen by our legal system to judge George Pell, listened to the survivor’s story and watched him cross examined by the defence counsel. Note that, court officers aside, the jury were the only ones who heard the story and cross examination. In Victoria complainants in sexual abuse cases give their evidence and are cross examined in closed court.

Opposing this story, the defence argued that it was virtually impossible for the offences to have happened and gave 13 reasons why. The jury considered, but did not accept, these opportunity excuses as cogent. They unanimously judged George Pell guilty.

There has been plenty of critical post-trial commentary both here and overseas. Much is partisan in Pell’s favour. Andrew Bolt wrote “A man was found guilty not on the facts but on prejudice”. A bit rich from someone who has not seen the facts and is a poster boy for prejudice.

So, journalistic comments about the implausibility of the event, such as that of John Allen in Crux, are uninformed and unprofessional. Cardinals don’t usually rape choir boys. But this boy told the jury that he did, and the jury believed him.

When a commentator is also the pastor of the victim there can be a conflict. Melbourne Archbishop Comensoli is beholden to Cardinal Pell. He is also the chief pastor of the complainant. Facing this conflict, he said in a radio interview that he believes both George Pell and the complainant. Since the specific complaint of the victim is that Pell orally raped him, it is impossible to believe Pell without disbelieving the victim.

Listening to abuse victim at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the truthfulness of their stories, and the lifelong damage the abuse has done was clear for all to see. The commission has taught us that one thing sexual victims fear most is not being believed. As we listened to survivor’s testimonies, we believed them. The Commissioners believed them. Prime Minister Morrison emphasised this in the national apology in parliament: “We believe you”.

Commentators who also have pastoral responsibility need to be acutely aware of this.

I feel for the jurors who may well have preferred George to be innocent – but couldn’t in conscience come to that conclusion. Reading the dismissive commentary in the press must have been painful for them.

What of the survivor? He has suffered multiple psychological wounds. First was the sexual attack as a 13-year-old with the consequent years of trauma. Second, by a cardinal. Third, in what should have been the safest environment – the cathedral.

Abused choir boys are always triple victims.

Following this incident, both the complainant and his now dead fellow chorister showed symptoms characteristic of sexual abuse victims. They had loved the cathedral choir. Now they hated it and got out of it – thereby losing their free places at St Kevin’s College.

The second boy’s life spiralled immediately out of control. He started using heroin at the age of 14, leading onto a roller-coaster life ending in an overdose at 30. His distraught family are secondary victims.

The complainant himself, though fragile, overcame the setback, managed to get his life together and gain a university degree. He is now married and a father. His choir mate’s death was a trigger for the him to come forward and tell his story to the police.

This led to months of police interviews ending in a magistrates’ court committal hearing. All these believed the complaint enough to send it to trial. Then there were two trials. He has been believed by a jury of his peers, but the ordeal is not over yet. Since the verdict he has had to endure the stress of an appeal period which is still ongoing. And then there is always the dismissive commentary.

Cardinal Pell is in a pitiful situation, but he is not the victim. There is only one living, primary victim of this case and he must be our prime pastoral concern. There are secondary victims, too. These also deserve out support.

Finally, commentators who also wear a pastoral hat should be alert to the possible pastoral damage their commentary may cause.

Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne retired priest.

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