Hand Washing or Social Distancing in the Time of Pell

The parish priest, Jorge Bergoglio could afford the luxury of welcoming with open arms an old colleague whom he believed to have been falsely accused of sexual abuse. Even as Pope Francis he could have indulged himself with warm greetings in private. But the public display in photographs and videos of unqualified acceptance – most headlines have called it vindication – has profoundly dismayed thousands of survivors and their families around the world.

We all know that each of us is in need of forgiveness. Just a few short years after Fr. Bergoglio was a student in Ireland, Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen forgave the IRA members who planted the bomb that killed his daughter, Marie. He condemned the violence even as he forgave the men just as Jesus of Nazareth forgave the thief without condoning theft. We cannot wash our hands of people we find dangerous or venal. We have been shown how to deal with compassion for the sinner even as we condemn the sin.

There are only two people who know with total certainty whether or not George Pell sexually abused his accuser – one of them is not Pope Francis. That being the case, in choosing how to deploy himself in relation George Pell the Pope should have made his public response a pastoral one. The heart of the problem is that Francis, in order to make a proper pastoral response to Australian Catholics, needed to place a much wider frame around Pell’s multi-layered and ongoing relationship with the sexual abuse scandal in this country. Francis must know by now that the cardinal is an extremely divisive figure in Australia. Many in this country believe witness J, many more believe that Pell has covered up sexual abuse by clerics for decades. Unfortunately, this is the wider context in which Pope Francis has chosen to rehabilitate Pell. In Australia, although the criminal justice aspect of this case is concluded the problems of the less than robust response of the Church is a running sore.

It would appear that, once again, Pope Francis has failed to understand the height, the length, the breadth and the depth of the problem of sexual abuse within the Church. First and foremost, are the thousands upon thousands of survivors, their parents, spouses, children, even mourners. Secondly, are the disillusioned, those who have walked away from the church with the words of George Pell ringing in their ears: we made “enormous mistakes” in relation to clerical sexual abuse. Dr. Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, testified to the breadth of pain of survivors. Referring to the large increase in phone calls after the High Court decision she said, “And not just the number. There was a depth of hopelessness and despair that they had not experienced before”. Photographs of the leaders of the Australian Church, Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell, smiling, shoulder to shoulder, in the Vatican, the one fully affirming the other, Santo Subito!, can only exacerbate these feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Francis, pastoral leader of all the world’s Catholics, would have been much wiser to have publicly socially distanced himself from Pell. He could have chosen the path of the Archbishop of Adelaide, Patrick O’Regan, who advised that Pell should “gracefully retire” from holding any formal roles in the Church. Unfortunately, Francis took the other road, full throttle, stating that Pell was ‘hounded’, using the Italian accanimento, and was unjustly accused. “Someone had it in for him” (the translator’s phrase) he prayed during morning Mass at Santa Marta, the day the judgement was released.

Even more unfortunately, Francis rushed to this judgement before he had the opportunity to read the un-redacted, one hundred odd pages of the Royal Commission’s report into institutional sexual abuse dealing with the involvement of Pell in this national tragedy. The report is scathing in its comments on Pell’s role in the “catastrophic failure of leadership” in the Ballarat Diocese. There has now been such a deluge of claims against the church that the Supreme Court of Victoria has established a specialised Institutional Liability List to administer the lawsuits.

I would suggest that if we paraphrase the written words of the High Court judgement we can say that the Royal Commission’s Report ‘ought to have caused Francis, acting rationally, to entertain the likelihood’, or at least the possibility, that his Cardinal has not come to the court of public opinion with clean hands. There is just too much evidence pointing to the fact that the victims were never Pell’s first concern either.

The Pope has failed to take into account these probabilities. He has also failed to weigh that other fact – that he is the spiritual leader of all Catholics. He has known, full well, as priest, bishop, cardinal and now Pope, that the Catholic Church has been notorious for decades for doing everything in its power to silence victims. Then, if they can’t do that, to play the justice system against them. We know that the Church has “had it in” for victims, that they have been “hounded” from chanceries for making accusations, have had statutes of limitations used to delegitimise them, have been forced to sign secrecy agreements, the whole book of evasive stratagems thrown at them.

Maybe Francis never heard Pell defend the church with the allegory involving a haulage company which couldn’t be held responsible for the predatory behaviour of one of its truck drivers. But Francis does know about responsibility, both legal as well as moral. So well organised, so widespread and so despised was the Church’s absolute determination to shield itself by whatever means that it ironically produced the result it feared about all others: a change in the law of responsibility. A new formulation of the law of institutional liability has arisen and it is a form of liability that persists – even for actions long past, even when the perpetrator is dead, the victim still has a defendant to sue. Looking ahead, the damage, and the damages, are going to be serious.

What position can Pope Francis take in relation to Pell’s involvement in upcoming civil litigation should his legal defence be found wanting? Will his rush to judgement mean that again he will have to offer a Chilean-style retraction? Would not this have been an opportunity to call again for Zero tolerance, certainly for felonies if not for misdemeanours? The Pope could have stated that if a single substantiated act of sexual abuse of a minor is enough to justify permanent removal from the priesthood, would the policy not also apply to a single act of cover-up by the episcopacy? We have had so many talking-shops: symposia in 2012 and 2019, the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, a Synod of Youth, a Letter to the People of God following the damning report from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation. Isn’t it time for the Pope to insist that the world’s bishops take some concrete, cohesive, accountable action? We have known all this for decades, there is no justification for further delay or the lame repetition of ‘we didn’t do the right thing’. Enough.

For these reasons it was incumbent upon Francis to socially distance himself from Pell in order to avoid giving scandal. There is more than a courtroom text to consider in a case like this to assess the repercussions of Francis’ loudly proclaimed loyalty via a staged-managed, not so private audience with video and photo ops. When the bishop of Rome, the bishop of all bishops, continues the long history within the Catholic Church, of disbelieving the survivors of sexual abuse we have an expanded scandal on our hands.

Nearly three years ago, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, in an act of Franciscan care trumping Jesuitical legalism, attempted to heal a parallel scandal in Chile. When Francis spoke of ‘calumny’ and ‘scandal’, he rebuked his pontiff, stating that “It is understandable that Pope Francis’s statements …. Were a source of great pain to survivors … Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Pope Francis would have been right to privately refuse to wash his hands of his friend. But he failed to be friend to all of us, and he caused further torment to many, while further damaging the reputation of the institutional church, by not socially distancing himself in public from George Pell.

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Gail Grossman Freyne is a family therapist, mediator and author. Her most recent book is The Curious Case of Inequality: A Journey for Justice with Dorothy L. Sayers.

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