FRANCIS SULLIVAN. It is not possible to divorce George Pell’s acquittal from the history of child abuse(The Guardian 9.4.2020)

The bishops should end their obsession with Pell and take up their moral responsibility to victims.

Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal was legally the correct decision. His relief and that of his family and many supporters will be palpable. He – not the Catholic church – was on trial and the high court has seen fit to ensure justice was served.

But it is not possible to divorce the acquittal from the broader context of the Catholic church’s history of child sexual abuse.

With the matter concluded the Catholic bishops should end their obsession with Pell and take up their moral responsibility to the victims of church perpetrators and those who obfuscated and concealed on their behalf.

Context is everything and perspective even more so. The Catholic church has a shameful and confronting history of the sexual abuse of children. The royal commission made that clear.

By 2017 nearly 5,000 people had made allegations of abuse against church personnel. The largest number for any single institution. Sadly, those numbers have likely grown by now.

Often the compensation they received was a pittance. The situation has only improved because of the public scrutiny. Often the commission heard that victims were not believed by the church, rather they were interrogated by lawyers and subjected to psychiatric assessments to justify their claims.

Sexual assault crimes on children usually occur in secret. There are rarely any witnesses. This leads to their claims being doubted as one word is pitted against another. For decades victims of the Catholic church have chosen to settle outside the courts knowing that the alternative was virtually useless.

Until the royal commission those settlements were shrouded by confidentiality clauses designed to conceal the details of the abuse, the abuser and the money exchanged. Little wonder there is a general perception the church is more concerned with its image than the welfare of the victim.

As the stories mounted and the details of abuse and its concealment became public the disillusion, mistrust and anger within the Catholic community escalated. The rhetoric of church leaders about their concern for victims was hollow and patronising.

The pronouncements that the church was committed to child welfare and victim support were too often found wanting. There was extraordinary evidence that some church authorities expended far more money defending abusers than compensating their victims.

It was the hypocrisy of the way bishops and church leaders dealt with abuse cases that eroded its standing, not a prying media or an aggressive legal fraternity. Yet, even now there are elements within the church that see public inquires, the media reportage and the legal actions as an attack on the church.

They close ranks, become defensive and hypersensitive. They shy from accepted levels of accountability and transparency and they take cover behind an antiquated view that somehow the institution is exempt from contemporary standards.

The only real impetus for change has come from public shaming. The knee-jerk reaction from some church officials was to circle the wagons and revert to a defensive, passive approach; to air out the critics in the vain hope of eventually somehow restoring the image of the church.

However, this will only be a reality when the church’s integrity becomes inextricably linked with a just and compassionate treatment of its victims. That means believing them. It means walking with them as they slowly restore their lives. It means placing their welfare before the interests of the institution.

It also means changing practices, like the sacrament of confession, to ensure that children are safe to disclose about their abuse and are confident that what they communicate will be acted on.

Frankly this type of reform is doomed without a change in how the church governs itself. Clericalism has rendered the church a rump of entitlement for some and a culture of submission for the rest.

How power is exercised in the Catholic church needs public scrutiny. The abuse scandal was presided over by clerics for clerics. The advice provided to leaders was primarily by clerics about clerics. It was a closed shop. Now the shop is losing customers, even the most loyal.

The abuse scandal has broken the hearts of Catholics. Our bishops have floundered in steering a course of reform. Rather they appear to have been paralysed while the Pell conviction was addressed.

Meanwhile a uniform independent scheme for complaints handling of abuse cases is still not in place. Consultative committees that determine the appointment of priests still exclude lay involvement. The curriculum in the seminaries has not been modernised to address the culture of clericalism.

Adequate supervision of priests on the job, let alone a greater role for women in governance are still pipe dreams. Even simple changes like parish communities having a say in who their priests will be, or even their bishop, has not been given serious consideration.

Any wonder that the prospect of married clergy and female deacons is resisted by a complacent episcopacy.

Cardinal Pell is now free to go about his life. Can we dare to dream that the future church will be shaped by the lessons of the abuse scandal?

As a consequence, the inordinate number of victims of the church can also experience freedom, which comes from validation and atonement.

  • Francis Sullivan is the executive chair of Mater Group Ltd and the former chief executive of the Catholic church’s truth justice and healing council
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8 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. It is not possible to divorce George Pell’s acquittal from the history of child abuse(The Guardian 9.4.2020)

  1. Marilyn Shepherd says:

    Pell is though certainly guilty of covering up for Risdale and all the other scum.

  2. Judy Kenny says:

    Thank you, Francis Sullivan, for your continuing courage and clear-sightedness in your defence of the victims of sexual abuse. I admire the fact that you, as a committed Catholic, are nevertheless fearless in your criticism of the hierarchy’s paralysis in the face of urgent need for Church reform. It may be that reform will have to come from the grass roots. I would like to think so.

    • Michael Furtado says:

      I fear you are wrong, Judy. Given what we know about the sluggishness of the Australian hierarchy and the submissive stance of those who fill the pews these days, reform will not come from the grassroots. As an Asian Australian I am ashamed to say that the faithful, largely first and second generation Asian Australians who come from countries in which Catholics are often a persecuted minority, are conservative, anti-socialist, aspirationally middle-class (as our immigration policies require them to be!) and apolitical, interested mainly in personal salvation and immune to the social justice discourses of Catholicism, including self-criticism, that are a hallmark of Catholicism in developed societies, including and especially an Australia of yesteryear. Also formerly impoverished people attach higher importance to improving their social conditions and this leaves very little time and energy to observe and be critical of the Church. Australian Catholics too, in general and regardless of their cultural background, are thoroughly middle-class these days and lack the radicalism that some of us demonstrated in an earlier era. The Augean stables, so to speak, have been thoroughly cleaned out and hermetically sealed by the policies of the two prior Popes and their senior episcopal appointees. While there are some who are averse to this ‘political’ reading of events, and who attach great importance to the intervention of the Holy Spirit, my concern is that God will not and cannot act other than through the joint action of the so-called faithful. In the absence of that happening, all that we can expect is the intervention of the state. While that will be slow to emerge, we can already see signs of it developing. There are, in fact, worrying signs of the emergence of an incipient anti-Catholicism, and while this is at best a distraction and, at worst, will encourage sympathy for a Church that is already mired in disgrace, it is not the ideal pro-active solution. Thus, unless there’s change from the top, be prepared for more shocking scandals to be dug up. As Hilary Mantel, the Henrician scholar and ex-Catholic novelist famously said: “Bring up the Bodies!”

  3. Richard Ure says:

    The Church will be glad of its cheerleaders at News Corp https://is.gd/vjdes7

  4. Alison Rixon says:

    Cardinal Pell is free to go about his life- pity his victims never will be, especially after this shameful replacement of the jury’s decision by judges. No it is NOT legally correct, it has undermined the jury system, & left non-Catholics thinking that the rules aren’t being applied to all citizens alike.

  5. Allan Patience Allan Patience says:

    This is the most intelligent response I have seen so far – from absolutely any quarter – in the wake of the Pell judgement. Indeed, Francis Sullivan’s public leadership throughout the entire child abuse crisis has been impeccable. The tragedy is that most of the Australian Catholic hierarchy (and many priests, religious, and laity) are so wilfully blind, so full of hubris, so stupid, that they fail to comprehend the wisdom of the leadership Mr Sullivan has been demonstrating to them.

  6. Michael Rogers says:

    If this were Scotland, we may wonder if the final verdict in this case would be ‘not proven’ instead of ‘not guilty’.

    • Jim KABLE says:

      Absolutely correct, MR: “Not proven!” is the morally and ethically correct finding. Thank-you. I did not realise it was a Scottish law finding in a criminal case. I thought it existed here and was the finding in my own childhood sexual assault case (early 1961 – NSW) – but what would I have known – in shock and aged only 11. The miscreant permitted to walk free. There are still so many cases which have not yet appeared in court concerning Pell’s behaviour with children – as we know from Louise MILLIGAN’s book and from Part 3 of Sarah Ferguson’s ABC TV “Revelation” investigations. Pell may have walked free – but unless blinded by a one-eyed “faith” – we can see the truth for ourselves – and a strange High Court ruling on a technicality does not make that freedom proper or appropriate. Let’s hope that his movements are monitored – for the safety of children in that part of Sydney where he is now resident.

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