Associate Professor Jacqueline Wilson and I have published this article in the latest issue of International Journal of Heritage Studies
Jingle bells, Cardinal Pell.
An orchestrated campaign has been mounted in belated defence of Cardinal George Pell who told the Child Abuse Royal Commission at the last minute that he was too ill to fly to Australia to give vital evidence (here).
There was wide-spread skepticism since it was widely known that he had flown to Australia earlier in the year.
The signs of a pro-Pell campaign were there when Pell’s ideological mate, Gerard Henderson, ran a puerile – and manifestly ill-informed – essay in Murdoch’s The Australian pleading that ‘George Pell Should be Given a Fair Go at the Royal Commission’ (5/12/15).
A couple of days later it became clear that Pell had instructed his legal team to go in hard on witnesses in breach of the Catholic Church’s policy in Australia not to cross-examine victims or survivors. Pell instructed his barrister to put the acid on the credibility of key witnesses providing testimony harmful to Pell, especially David Ridsdale. The witnesses bravely withstood that attack. (Transcripts of cross-examination can be found here and media report here)
Not by coincidence, The Australian then ran a snide attack on David Ridsdale which was clearly designed to damage his credibility. (John Ferguson, ‘Pell accuser indecently assaulted boy in bushland outside Ballarat’, The Australian, 21/12/2015.) Ferguson must have been delivering Christmas cheer to the dioceses when he learned that:
Senior church figures are privately furious that David Ridsdale’s past, which is widely gossiped about in Ballarat, has been ignored in reports of the commission’s hearings.
The Murdoch press will surprise us all if they have the integrity to publish a supplementary article describing the fury of ‘senior church figures’ about the failure of Father John Thomas Walsh, to reveal when he was giving evidence to the Royal Commission, that years ago he sexually abused a young seminarian, John Roach. That news was broken by the ABC weeks after Father Walsh gave evidence in support of George Pell, a former housemate. (More)
Father Walsh was one among many ‘senior church figures’—an archbishop, several bishops, vicars general, priests and various members of curia and personnel advisory committees—who performed very poorly before the Royal Commission this month in its examination of the handling of child sexual abuse in Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Diocese of Ballarat.
Anyone sitting in the public gallery of the Commission during those hearings would have been appalled at the testimony of this parade of Catholic leaders and the way it was dragged out of them .
Bit-by-painful bit they confessed that
- there were cover-ups and priests were quietly moved from parish to parish because they were raping children and the church was protecting them;
- crimes were not referred to the police;
- the Vatican had issued orders to keep all sex abuse matters hush hush
- the abused children, who should have been the focus of their response, were not believed and then neglected;
- they were remorseful and ashamed to learn of all the evil crimes against vulnerable children.
As Dr Judy Courtin pointed out, however, at the end of all that damaging evidence, none of these senior Catholic officials would accept personal responsibility. The script was obviously rehearsed. ‘George Pell: the Catholic Church’s performance at the royal commission is farcical’ (The Age 15/12/15 here)
To a man, to apply that term loosely, they were keen to place the blame on the dead – Archbishop Frank Little or his predecessors or Vicar General Gerald Cudmore – or those who are too ill (or said to be too ill) to give evidence, such as former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. But not Cardinal George Pell. He was shielded, sometimes quite unconvincingly – and possibly to his detriment ultimately.
The script continued. In Courtin’s words:
Apparently, these once revered and powerful pillars of the Church were so dictated by secrecy and confidentiality, that, for decades, they spoke not a word about their fellow clergy colleagues – the serious sex offenders.
These powerful clergy who advised Little and Mulkearns claimed they knew nothing of the sex crimes. Or if they did know what Little and Mulkearns clearly knew, they had no power to do anything about it. Meekly, they confessed, they were intimidated, fearful or felt they had a higher duty to the Church. Thus are men of power in the church reduced to moral impotence.
In this context, another Pell mate, ex-Senator and ex-Ambassador to Italy Amanda Vanstone leapt up to the barricades. In her bold as brass piece, ‘In Defence of George Pell’, (Fairfax press 21/12/2015) she asserted that “The cardinal has become a lightning rod for hatred.” She told stunned readers that the campaign against her friend was just a matter of animal pack-hunting instinct. His many detractors were “braying for blood”. Read more if you have the stomach for it.)
The public response to Vanstone’s misdirected assertions showed that such deflections won’t work. This letter to The Age from Leonie Sheedy of CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) was one among many who put her right:
… Care leavers are not looking for the blood of Cardinal Pell, as Amanda Vanstone has stated… Care leavers are simply seeking the truth. They deserve, after all these years, clarity of the lack of action taken by all institutions; they deserve to see certain individuals made accountable for their lack of action or revolting actions. Most importantly, care leavers want and deserve justice.
Vanstone states that Pell is a man who fights for what he believes, well so do all the individuals who have suffered from the lack of action taken by the Church to deal with these perpetrators. We hope Cardinal Pell recovers from his illness and can tell his side of the story at the royal commission in February; he has been silent for far too long and the Australian people deserve the truth.
Judy Courtin had already made the point that Vanstone completely misses: that it is the truth and its acknowledgement that the Royal Commission is pursuing, not a Cardinal’s blood. That being the case, a two-way exchange of the truth is required.
Not only do victims want to tell their own story and have that acknowledged by the hierarchy, it is paramount that the hierarchy tell the truth about the full extent of its cover-up of the sex crimes and protection of the clergy sex offenders. The commission is very successfully addressing the first element. The second element, though – and not for lack of trying and perseverance – is not occurring. This is resulting in ongoing harm and injury to victims and their families.
Another commentator, Rob Cover, reinforced the point that the Royal Commission is not a witch-hunt or Pell-bashing; it’s a public inquiry into the failure of church leadership.
As such it will necessarily involve discussion about the leaders of the Catholic Church including George Pell and other bishops and archbishops.
(Rob Cover, ‘The scandal of defending George Pell: Amanda Vanstone’s moral support’, On Line Opinion, 23/12/2015, here)
The Royal Commission has generated an immense public response—and Pell is bearing a lot of the weight of that response. This is not because Pell is a hated figure—though he does himself no great credit much of the time—but because vocal advocacy groups and the public at large are alarmed at the sheer scale of clergy sexual abuse, its callous mismanagement and the overwhelming weight of evidence about the very serious life-long effects, even life-destroying, effects of child abuse.
Notwithstanding Pell’s mates, The Royal Commission may well yet refer some matters to the police or other relevant authorities. As Courtin explains, getting to the truth and acknowledging it is only part of the business of the Commission.
[C]riminal accountability of the hierarchy for concealing sex crimes is an equally crucial element of justice that was identified in my research. Despite this, there has not been one conviction of any member of the Catholic hierarchy in Australia for concealing clergy sex crimes (although one priest and one archbishop have been charged).
If there is any moral panic around the activities of the Royal Commission, maybe it is panic among the church hierarchy and among Pell’s mates that more charged will be made.
Just before Christmas this year, the Chair of the Royal Commission reports that
Since the Royal Commission began, I have referred over 760 matters to authorities, mostly to the police. This has resulted in a number of arrests and charges. Many police investigations have been instituted. (More here).