Mainstream media has been high-pitched about how great Catholic figure George Pell was. However, the public chorus against him is much louder, writes Tom Tanuki.
* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses paedophilia and sexual abuse.
WHILE GEORGE PELL is firing up downstairs, so to speak, up here in Purgatory, we’re being tortured by Australian media outlets telling us he was a 'polarising figure’. The Sydney Morning Herald first described him that way and the rest of mainstream media has since followed suit.
I understand prestige media’s pressure to present as impartial — the phrase serves a diplomatic purpose that at least alludes to Pell’s monstrous life and deeds. And it runs better in print than, say, "near-universally reviled figure" or "paedophile champion".
If there really are two "poles" of reflection on Pell’s life, let it be known that I am on whatever pole the paedophile champions aren’t on.
Late American anthropologist David Graeber minted the term ‘We are the 99%’ for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Today it feels like culture wars and disinformation have ruined so many neat working-class consensuses that we don’t see ourselves as a majority on anything anymore.
I am heartened to see that on this subject, we are still the 99%.
This overwhelming consensus is long-standing. Nielsen pollsters reported a whopping 95% support for a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse in 2012, back when Julia Gillard first established it. Paedophile priests, thank god, remain a common enemy today.
The news.com.au comments section is a breath of fresh air to scroll and not, for the first time in human history, a radioactive sewer.
Social media is awash with cathartic jokes about Pell’s toasty final destination. The conspiracists are mostly celebrating too — particularly the "paedophile fantasists", to reinvoke a label I came up with last year for those who obsessively invent accusations of paedophilia against celebrities and figures in authority. In looking at the Catholic Church, even conspiracists don’t need to make up more paedophiles. There’s enough to spare.
I acknowledge as a layperson that this moment must be conflicting and painful for the many victims of Catholic Church abuse in Australia. It must be hard to tune in to the cheering of so many others, given everything this evil man meant to them. But I hope they take solace from the fact that 99% of us are on their side, rather than the meagre – if powerful and very loud – other faction.
On that other "pole", a small army of the elite is running desperate cover for Pell’s legacy. They’re being very high-pitched about how great Pell was.
A lot of them work for Rupert Murdoch. Sky News takes the cake: in the 24 hours alone following the announcement of Pell’s death, it published no less than 30 mawkish, fawning articles grovelling over his holy legacy. The Australian runs a close second, hyping Pell up 26 times in one day.
The headlines alone are dripping wet for Pell, describing him in the following ways: ’Christian gentleman'; a ‘great servant’; a ‘colossus’; a ‘good Christian soul'; ‘God’s strong man'; ‘fearless disciple'; and 'Full of beans' (no thanks).
I won’t pretend I’m an expert on Pell’s legacy. I’ve read David Marr’s ‘The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell’ and Louise Milligan’s ‘Cardinal: The Rise And Fall Of George Pell’, as you should, so I believe I know enough. As a layperson, I understand him to have been found guilty of sexually assaulting two boys before getting off in the High Court on a legal technicality after serving over a year in prison.
I know he spent much of his career either ignoring or deliberately obfuscating complaints of child sexual abuse. I know he ignored paedophilia while working in the same building as several of Australia’s most notorious paedophile priests, even as they actively passed little boys amongst themselves.
I’m aware he was more preoccupied with "evil" abortion, evil contraception, evil homosexuality and evil Marxism. And that he instigated a church response to these many claims of abuse which was not only inadequate but which prioritised underpaying and silencing victims. He supported paedophile priests more than victims. Many victims of church sexual abuse died under his watch. I know, even as a layperson, Pell did a lot of evil.
So it's astounding to watch an army of media outlets – many of which are ordinarily defined by their disingenuous populism and political slipperiness – decide that defending a dead paedophile champion is the hill worth dying on.
He has been known to describe paedophilia as "hitting on" children. And he never stopped insisting that Pell’s accusers were either wrong or liars, even while Pell was in a cell.
He’s been on a crying spree since the news — sooking and weeping about his last phone call to his "holy" mate while frantically shifting the blame for George’s storied and evil legacy over to the ABC. Only in that respect are these germs putting their old tricks to use: let’s convince everyone Pell’s okay by saying the ABC is worse.
Powerful men line up behind the press to heap praise on Pell. Former MP Tony Abbott – undoubtedly Pell’s staunchest political excuser – called him a ‘saint for our times’. Peter Dutton’s press statement blamed Dan Andrews for the Victorian County Court verdict finding Pell guilty of paedophilia.
Bob Katter also blamed Labor for Pell’s "persecution" in a disgusting and aimless masochistic rant where he moaned on about how tough these Christ-like martyr figures (namely Pell and Israel Folau) have it.
They all know they need to generate a lot of noise to stick up for Pell because the chorus against him is a lot louder. Thirty articles a day won’t even begin to do the job.
I have a regret regarding my earlier discussions on paedophile fantasy, which I also held in this column space. While I made the obvious point that unresolved anxieties over real-world institutional paedophilia fuel these conspiracies, I don’t think I was specific enough.
Why exactly does Australia pull so much weight among the global conspiracist network on the subject of paedophile fantasy? Why have we delivered to the world figures like Fiona Barnett, whose stories even helped shape QAnon? The answer largely relates to Pell and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
Australia led the way in bringing church abuse to mainstream conversation when Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission. Pell’s "Melbourne response", as terrible as its effect on victims was, at least appeared to ratify that it was time for everybody to consider the claims — and that put Australia on the map in a worldwide conversation about Catholic child abuse.
But Australia is also notorious for having dropped the ball on victims – High Court technicalities, measly $50,000 church payouts and a legacy of silenced victims meant Pell got away with so much, as did the church. It was devastating for victims and their loved ones.
Some of us might have turned to fantasy and conspiracy to resolve these tensions, but, for most of us, we’ve only been able to wait — whether for civil action against Pell to conclude or some other tangible outcome.
Now he’s dead and in hell. It’s imperfect, but it feels like an outcome — 99 % of us are overjoyed.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual assault, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
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