PETER DONNAN. Pell-mell and reform paths in Catholic media

May 4, 2020

What type of underlying values were revealed by the Australian media, particularly Catholic media, in their reporting of Cardinal Pell’s successful appeal to the High Court? Clearly the case was polarising in Australian cultural life, and has been described in terms of a ‘witch-hunt’, ’scapegoating’, ‘prejudicial’ legally ‘appalling’ and reflecting very poorly on the ABC, Victorian police and aspects of the justice system.

Craig McMurtrie, Editorial Director, defended the ABC’s coverage as legitimate public-interest journalism, quoting Cardinal Pell’s remarks that “You never disbelieve a complaint….the allegations are taken very seriously and examined.” Some anti-ABC Pell supporters concede the value of Louse Milligan’ journalism around sexual abuse issues at St Kevin’s College earlier this year but argue that her investigation of Cardinal Pell was a bridge too far, a ‘witch-hunt’. Louise defended the integrity of her journalism, tweeting that now the ‘appeal’s over, they [victims] desperately want to know what Royal Comm found #Pell knew of awful paedo priest, Ridsdale, who wrecked their childhoods. Had Church acted earlier, their lives radically different.’ Milligan spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2017 about her book, Cardinal and conveyed positive memories of a Catholic background with no malice towards the Church. ABC’s Sarah Ferguson’s harrowing interviews in Revelation revealed hard-edged, intrepid journalism.

News Corp commentators such as Andrew Bolt, Gerard Henderson, Janet Albrechtsen, Chris Kenny et al., castigated ABC media coverage of Cardinal Pell referring to injustice, trial-by-media, bias and the need for law reform. Retired ACU Vice-Chancellor, Greg Craven, a friend of George Pell, was particularly scathing, accusing the ABC of ‘polluting’ justice elements around the Cardinal’s Victorian trial.

Andrew Bolt’s Sky interview with Cardinal Pell [14April20] was a prominent media event. Cardinal Pell’ s lack of ‘anger or hostility’ towards the accuser emerged, confirming his initial statement which had been dignified and without rancour. Bolt’s characterisation of Pope Francis as being on the left, a climate change believer and a weak leader might have engendered a stronger repudiation by Pell during the interview, and subsequently in broader Catholic circles, although the Cardinal spoke positively of the Pope’s personal support.

The Jesuit online publication, Eureka Street, provided surprisingly minimal coverage of the High Court judgment. A contributor over the years, Frank Brennan’s article, ‘The Cardinal Pell case highlights the serious need for legal reform’, appeared in The Tablet [7April] and was reproduced with permission in The Catholic Weekly. He wrote an article in The Australian and was also interviewed on Sky News Afternoon. He spoke of three broad responses to the Cardinal: Pell-haters, those who idolise him and the majority of Australians who expect justice from legal cases but in this case constantly witnessed various types of ‘shoddiness.’ Independent articles on this site, Pearls and Irritations, from Jack Waterford, Francis Sullivan, Michael Mullins, and Chris Geraghty attracted ninety-four comments from readers.

Support for the High Court decision was provided by The Catholic Weekly, especially by Archbishop Fisher, Frank Brennan, Matthew Donnellan, and other staff writers who detected “an urgent need to establish inquiries into the Victorian police, the ABC and any other relevant organisation to assess whether they failed to act professionally in investigating and reporting on the allegations against Cardinal Pell.”

Given this brief media snapshot, how does one make sense of it?

The April dates imbue Pell’s HC judgment with Easter symbolism: ‘ours were the sufferings he bore’, scapegoating an obvious theme. At this time Jesus went before Pilate and the Sanhedrin, simply and humbly, to plead his cause, and met with injustice; Cardinal Pell did not personally plead his case but with assistance from private donors, hired a top-class QC and received justice.

This case falls into a broader narrative within the Australian media landscape. The Institute of Public Affairs advocates the privatisation of the ABC and News Corp, especially Gerard Henderson, Andrew Bolt and Chris Kenny, resent its existence. The ABC possesses flaws but it often pleads the cause of refugees, victims of domestic violence, climate change, and more recently the plight of Australian women and children with ISIS links, stranded in north-east Syrian detention camps, with the coronavirus a new source of fear. In a biblical sense, the ABC pleads the cause of the marginalised, the poor, the outsider, the vulnerable, the poor widow. It is the antithesis of News Corp which Malcolm Turnbull has described as a ‘debased’ media culture.

The Royal Commission heard evidence from almost 8,000 witnesses, with many of these victims undeniably encountering injustice through the Catholic Church. Then Bishop Anthony Fisher’s remarks – “dwelling crankily … on old wounds” – in reference to the Foster family, and the rape of their daughters by Melbourne priest, Father O’Donnell, still cries to high heaven. Media reports about collusion of police and Catholic clerics to avoid investigation of sexual abuse are readily available, but where is the outcry and proportionality with the Pell case?

Francis Sullivan’s observation that “the bishops should end their obsession with Pell and take up their moral responsibility to victims” provides a critical perspective for the future Church. The Catholic Weekly, too, could show much more leadership and provide coverage of more reform agendas around the Plenary Council. In 2020 they have provided supportive footage about the Shroud of Turin and the relics of St Therese, promoting an infantile faith in a time when real courage is needed.

In the current edition of The Tablet [30April] Charles Lamb comments on Pope Francis’ warnings against “a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine, and prestige’. It can take the form of elaborate liturgy focused more on priest than people, the seduction of political ideology dressed up as theology or overcoming opposition from a high-ranking Cardinal resisting the idea of women being included in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual.

The political agenda of wealthy, conservative Catholics abroad – whether it be Steve Bannon, The Knights of Columbus, the multibillion-dollar US Catholic organisation – are powerful forces but in Australia, Fox and News Corp have recently provided haven for Cardinal Pell and his supporters. While personally supporting the Cardinal’s acquittal, Andrew Bolt had the temerity to describe Pope Francis as a weak leader. This insidious nexus between political ideology and theology by News Corp is anathema to a Church grounded in faithfulness to the Gospel, sincerity and spirituality. The takeaway is to end the obsession with Cardinal Pell and embrace reform after a dark period.

Peter Donnan is a retiree: he taught in Public and Catholic high schools and worked in two Australian universities.

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