FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Pell conviction blows apart bishops’ mantra

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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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9 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Pell conviction blows apart bishops’ mantra

  1. Rosemary, I think you would enjoy my T.S. Eliot lecture but I have mucked up the link.

  2. Richard Ure says:

    When Jesus said “Suffer the little children”, he added “to me”, an important qualification which too many, who are fond of quoting the words, have ignored.

  3. Ted Egan says:

    One of the most revealing things is the choice of the word “vanilla” by Counsel for Pell.
    It implies that we are talking about a lesser, minor misdemeanour, indeed a sexual sweetmeat, which somebody as important as a Cardinal might consider an entitlement.

  4. Fair comment Michael but this is not about Pell and it is not about sex. It is about the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church that was already out-of-date in the Middle Ages. If the women don’t break it up the lawyers will. The Church is prepared to be sued out of existence.

  5. Michael Rogers says:

    “End celibacy”
    A worthwhile aim but not really a solution to sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy.

    Do a search for ‘sexual abuse and power’ and consider that such proclivities go beyond fulfilment of sexual ‘needs’. Note too that most sexual abuse of children takes places in families.

  6. Garry Everett says:

    Thanks Francis. These sentiments had to be expressed in the current crisis, and who better to make them, than you.
    Your closing plea is crucial to the way forward.
    In my mind, arrogance has been at the heart of many of the problems of Church leaders: bishops, priests religious and laity. I note with interest that the Judge Peter Kidd said in his comments it was the impunity ( the sense of not being able to be held to account), that was underpinning Pell’s actions.
    In all my years working in the Church, I have seen this characteristic operative in our leaders. Perhaps clerics exhibit more than others because they believe they are “ontologically different” than the rest of us. .Further, the culture of clericalism reinforces this attitude of arrogance.
    Of course the model of servant leadership has no place for arrogance. Our leaders have shown a strong tendency to adopt other models of leadership which ultimately are about self, not others.
    The way forward is not simple nor clear yet. We have much work to do to resist simple ill-considered solutions. It is a pity that the recent Vatican summit was not focussed on solutions, not only to paedophilia, but as importantly, to effective leadership for the future of the Church.

  7. Trish Martin says:

    George Pell has been convicted of crimes which he has always denied, however many high ranking clergy see no problem in lying to protect a higher authority (Church image). What they have failed to understand is that childhood is a sanctified state in the God/human relationship, so abuse of a child is also abuse of God. At the Royal Commission psychoanalyst Dr. Gerard Robinson said of offending clergy that when one is cognitively rigid and sexually unintegrated then one looks for identity and status for affirmation of self. When coupled with celibacy it’s a recipe for disaster.
    The Catholic Church structure needs a complete transformation and compulsory celibacy abolished so that priests can be in touch with their own humanity. The fondling of children is wrong, but clergy fail to understand this because they are mentally and physically removed from family lifestyles.

  8. With or without George Pell everybody knows what the Roman Catholic Church has to do. End celibacy and introduce women priests (or priestesses). Women are reviving the Anglican Ministry.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      T JR:I think it needs to do more: it needs to open itself to a Christian Ecumenism/Oekumenos? – a shared ethic with other -Orthodox, but also post-Reformation – churches – so as to commit to the teachings of the New Testament in a troubled world.
      Now that the People of the churches have been alerted to the details of what Kieran Tapsell has revealed to us – we can see what must have been Rome’s impediments to conciliation with other Christians, for centuries? All that duplicity and hypocrisy goes out with the sanitized stables, and the world of Christ’s teachings – begins again.
      Slough off the old and face facts about the need for – not reform(of the old) but rejuvenation and resurrection of the true.

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