Terry Laidler. All Roads Lead TO Rome?

Feb 24, 2016

So, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will take Cardinal Pell’s final evidence next week by video link from Rome. Tim Minchin’s song and the associated crowd funding effort will allow some victims of abuse to attend, but both are symptoms of fairly widespread community disappointment.

Commissioner McClellan was also clearly disappointed at this outcome. Given the complexity and probable seriousness of material still to be canvassed with Pell and the varied reliability of technology, the cardinal’s prior commitment to attend had had the obvious advantages that observation of the totality of the free exchanges under cross-examination brings. McClellan’s remark that perhaps the cardinal could come by boat was a little ungracious, but understandable on a calculus of the relatively small risk involved in contrast to the trauma and damage suffered by the victims of abuse with which the Commission is dealing daily.

But, on one level, all this hardly matters anymore. I sat through most days of the Commission’s Melbourne hearings and the actual manoeuvres of Cardinal Pell’s legal team told the Commission more about the dynamics that underpin the Catholic Church’s shameful response to clerical sexual abuse of children than any evidence the cardinal is likely to give. The confidential email to Commissioner McClellan asking for a private meeting to consider Cardinal Pell’s health (which the Commissioner rightly referred to counsel assisting him and raised in open hearings) was simply more evidence of the mistaken belief still abroad that office within the church merits special access and privileged consideration. It should not, and at last, it did not – it is clear that the Commission understands the suffering this has caused to people who were abused in the past.

More cogently, however, I was dumbfounded at the mistake the cardinal’s legal team made when they decided to introduce the evidence of Father John Walshe before the Commission. By his own account to the Commission, Walshe is Pell’s friend and protégé, a priest who with others he named at the Commission was part of a younger inner circle of Pell’s when he was an auxiliary bishop and later archbishop of Melbourne. I know that they were unkindly referred to by other priests of the archdiocese as the “Spice Girls”, and Walshe had had his own problems with allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct. When Walshe’s evidence has been forensically dissected by Counsel assisting the Commission and by McClellan himself, there was only one implication that Pell’s legal team had led the Commission to draw: Catholic clergy intervene to protect their own and to discredit victims.

Still, it is right for Cardinal Pell to give an account of what seem to me to be 7 distinct phases to his possible knowledge of and involvement with priests abusing children:

  1. As a seminarian and junior clergyman – I have an open mind on this, although past (and now very current) allegations certainly accord with my recollection of and concerns about another clerical coterie to which he belonged. Someone should ask him about any association he had through or with them with the known abuser, Ronald Pickering at that time;
  1. As a junior priest who boarded with serial pedophile, Gerard Ridsdale – I am confident that he would have had little knowledge of the activities of someone who was merely a fellow resident, and he would have been busy with his own role at a Catholic Teachers’ College. Evidence I heard at the Royal Commission suggests that he did, on occasion, try to keep himself distant from and uninformed about a growing body of evidence that at least raised suspicions about Ridsdale’s activities. This needs to be tested at the Commission. However, his later decision to accompany Ridsdale to Court was at a minimum a foolhardy error of judgement for which he should be invited to express profound regret.
  2. As a consultor in Ballarat and
  3. As auxiliary bishop in Melbourne – George Pell was one of many priests who were supposed to advise archbishops and diocesan bishops who, in turn, had ultimate responsibility for the placement and discipline of priests. The Royal Commission has now heard overwhelming evidence that these advisors, variously:
  • allowed themselves to be kept in the dark about the abuse of children,
  • downplayed the significance of the abuse to protect the institution from scandal,
  • ignored the criminality of the abuse,
  • failed to offer strong advice on the need to act decisively to protect children against perpetrators of abuse, and/or
  • failed to take a principled stand and resign if and when their advice was ignored.

Wittingly or unwittingly, they participated in what one of them had the conscience to acknowledge was a “cover up” of massive scale and in this way, allowed abuse to continue. I cannot see how George Pell, too, would not share some responsibility for this. Archbishop Denis Hart and Bishops Peter Connors and Hilton Deakin acknowledged their roles honestly and contritely, while so many other clergy were deceitful, forgetful or obfuscating. It will be interesting to see where Cardinal Pell’s responses fall on this spectrum.

  1. As Archbishop of Melbourne – there is little doubt that George Pell moved very quickly after his appointment to stem what was becoming an uncontrolled flood of allegations of abuse. Senior Counsel assisting the Commission, Gail Furness, has clearly documented the scope of the atrocity – 335 people made either a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse against a priest in relation to the archdiocese of Melbourne over 35 years. 7 accused priests were the subject of more than 10 claims or substantiated complaints of child sexual abuse – accounting for 54% of all claims.

Pell moved more quickly than most other Australian bishops against some of these perpetrators. The main criticisms I would have of him and his “Melbourne Response” with its independent commissioner and compensation panel, and about which I would like to hear his observations, are that:

  • he and it were less focused on the needs of victims than on protecting the Church from financial loss and opprobrium,
  • there was an element of selectivity in when and to which clergy its endeavours were directed, and
  • the “Melbourne Response” would probably have been better as a collegiate enterprise resulting in a national scheme that was fair across church administrative boundaries. Pell should give an account of why this did not happen.
  1. As Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney – I cannot consider that the cardinal’s involvement (or, for his claims, lack of involvement) in the archdiocese of Sydney’s treatment of the Ellis case was other than shameful. How he could support or accede to the proposition that the Church as such, legally and ethically, should not bear responsibility for grievous harm done by its ordained ministers is a question that deserves the cardinal’s frank answer.
  1. As ‘Australia’s most senior Catholic’ – or ‘the Australian Catholic Church’s most powerful figure’ or ‘the leading Catholic in the nation and spiritual adviser to Tony Abbott’. These are all misleading media characterisations, of course. For some reason, Pell’s peers, the bishops of Australia, never elected him to the role that could be properly described in this way, the chair the Australian Bishops’ Conference. But nor are they characterisations Cardinal George Pell has ever sought to eschew or correct with any vigour. One could surmise that it suited him and his ecclesiastical and political ends to be seen in this light. This is why attempts to portray him now as some sort of tall poppy ring so hollow. The cardinal allowed his voice to be taken as that of the whole Australian Catholic Church on issues as broad as AIDS education, climate change and marriage equality. It is from that voice that many now want to hear a truthful explanation of how this could all have been allowed to happen and a remorseful apology.

It is mainly for this latter reason that, even at this late stage and on balance, I think George Pell should reconsider, take the risk and make the powerfully symbolic effort to “come home”. I noted the letter to the editor of the Western Australian medical transport specialist who offered to accompany him on a comfortable, staged, low risk trip back. After all, the culture and history of the Catholic Church are rich in metaphor and symbol, and the foundation gospels tell the story of someone whose “greater love” led him to risk all.

Terry Laidler is a former priest and broadcaster whose work is now in the field of forensic psychology.

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