FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Pell conviction blows apart bishops’ mantra

Feb 28, 2019

Yesterday’s announcement of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell has been shattering for many and a relief for others.

The fact that the most senior cleric in Australia has been found guilty is devastating on many levels. Not the least because he was such a high-profile proponent for the safeguarding children in the church and its provision of compensation to victims.

The Cardinal is no stranger to controversy. He revelled in the culture wars of the church and few ever wondered what he thought on matters of politics, religion and social change.

A lightening rod for discontent, the Cardinal soldiered through conflict after conflict with the resolve of an ideologue. His steadfast conservatism brought him institutional regard although it has been very divisive within the Catholic and wider community.

He is every bit a personification of the institutional church and is seen by the public as its head in Australia. Now he is convicted of crimes he has always denied. No wonder the reception in the Catholic community is so mixed.

The judicial process is yet to run its course. What can’t wait is real reform of the institutional church. And most tellingly, that reform cannot be left in the hands of bishops and religious leaders. For too long their chant has been that they are part of the solution, not the problem. This has been blown apart by the revelations of the royal commission and, if it sticks, the conviction of Cardinal Pell.

The secrecy and obfuscation that has characterised the church’s approach to the clerical sexual abuse of children cannot remain the default position when shocking news like the Cardinal’s conviction arrives.

For too long victims were not believed and the might of the church silenced their cries. Where victims received money they were shackled by confidentiality agreements. In so many ways the church acted like a corporation in the business of risk management rather than a pastoral community responding in heartfelt and honest ways.

And all this was orchestrated by bishops, religious leaders and officials in the name of the church. Now that name, including its perceived head, is in public shame.

The sexual abuse scandal has revealed the obvious. It is about the abuse of power, position and privilege. Vulnerable children and adults have been prey to opportunists and pathological deviants.

The royal commission found that close to 7 per cent of priests sexually offended against children. Yet not one bishop or religious leader voluntarily resigned their post prior to the commission’s revelations and none have since.


Unless the powers that be open the governance of the institution to lay people, including women, then it is doomed to repeat the same culture of defensiveness and ideological positioning.

Since the commission handed down its report the church leadership has appeared to retreat into its shell. Once again it seems preoccupied with its image and interests.

It took little to see them out of the blocks when school funding was at risk but there has been precious little done to launch new rigorous standards on child protection or get going on an array of recommendations from the Truth Justice and Healing Council.

Many have wondered whether the clerics are reclaiming the ground they begrudgingly ceded during the commission years. If so, this doesn’t bode well for my church.

These days there are fewer Catholics practising than before. That drift risks becoming a tidal shift. More than indifference, Catholics are finding their church irrelevant and with this news, corrupt at the highest levels.

Where lay Catholics seek to take responsibility and proffer a reform agenda they are too quickly dismissed or treated as dissidents.

This arrogance must be purged otherwise the decay and disillusionment will continue to fester.

Francis Sullivan was the chief executive officer of the Truth Justice and Healing Council of the Catholic Church from 2012 to 2018. The council co-ordinated the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Article first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 26, 2019.

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