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

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.


Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

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

  1. Wayne McMillan says:

    The hierarchy of the Australian Catholic Church (ACC) has a lot of soul searching to do. If the (ACC) wants to continue with Christ’s gospel values instead of Vatican bureaucratic rules and protocols, then it must take seriously what it has allowed knowingly to happen over decades. Proper penance will be necessary. Thank you Eric you are a welcome voice. May God Bless You Always.

  2. Trish Martin says:

    Eric, I thought that George Pell was only an archbishop at the time of the offense. I also think that it was totally inappropriate for archbishop Peter Comensoli to say what he did on ABC Radio, was he there when the victim gave evidence? Was he there for the entire trial? As archbishop of Melbourne Comensoli has a duty of care first to all victims of clerical abuse before taking time to side with his friend the cardinal. Comensoli’s personal thoughts cause more grief for victims, he fails to understand the toll all this prolonged discussion about whether Pell is guilty or innocent takes on the many other victims of abuse. It really drains me of my faith in those who profess to represent Christ in the Catholic Church, and as Comensoli also said on radio: the safety of a child will always come second to the seal of Confession (which is a church invention and not something Christ would support).

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    I think all those commentators WITHIN Australia – not present through the trial – who have been taking the “Pell is innocent” line need to be charged as well. And the Comensoli line that both Pell and the lad are innocent – by what extraordinary manner can he say that? The man is either a liar or a fool and should step down from his position at once.

  4. Simon Feely says:

    Are you referring to a certain “commentator” based in Bangkok in your last paragraph, Eric?

  5. Peter Donnan says:

    Questions arise: What special knowledge/evidence does Archbishop Comensoli possess that leads him to conclude Cardinal Pell’s innocence? Should the High Court allow an appeal by Cardinal Pell? Should Cardinal Pell’s episcopal/priestly status be removed? My own view is: who am I to judge: “leave [him] to heaven, and to those thorns that in [his] bosom lodge to prick and sting him.”

    A more direct question for many Catholics: has the conviction and jailing of Australia’s most senior cleric contaminated my faith in the Church? For those who place great faith in their consecrated leaders, this is a catastrophe; it is sufficient for many to walk away with great sadness from an institution which has prioritised sexual predators over victims on many occasions, as well as violated gospel values.

    A more positive response is to look to root and branch reform, deep down renewal, yet realistically accept that there are many powerful reactionary and conservative forces in the Church that will oppose this. Cardinal Gerhard Muller, for example, formerly prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, advocates a theology that envisages eternal damnation to Hell for those who die in mortal sin; rejects divorcees receiving the Eucharist; defends priestly celibacy in terms of ‘self-giving in the service of Christ; bridles about the term ‘clericalism’; excludes women from the diaconate and priesthood; and believes attempts to change ‘Humane Vitae’ are a ‘crime against the Church’.

    Anyone whose faith is too closely associated with individual Church leaders is on precarious grounds: a focus on Christ and the gospel values he proclaimed are surer rock-like foundations.

  6. Ed Cory says:

    Thank you Eric.

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