After Pell fell: Millions looking for reform and change

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George Pell will be sentenced on 13 March (screenshot via YouTube).

Cardinal George Pell waits in gaol ahead of an appeal against his conviction for a paedophilic attack on two children. 

Dr Lee Duffield provides a wrap on the case and notes that in the fall-out there are fresh calls for reforms to try and end such abuses.

THE ARGUMENT sparked by the incarceration of Cardinal George Pell last week produced some national soul-searching about power and impunity, raising the hope that some good might be salvaged from the man’s disgrace.

Three prominent Catholics on the ABC forum, Q and A, on Monday – Kristina Keneally, Jim Molan and Francis Sullivan – together began musing about forms of organisation to curtail the exclusive authority of an all-male priesthood.

Keneally and Molan are Senators from New South Wales – Labor and Liberal respectively –and Sullivan is chief executive of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, a Church agency formed in tandem with the 2013 Royal Commission on child abuse.

Soul searching

They reflected the soul searching going on, first among Catholics, as among other confessions with their own share of bad deeds, but also country-wide because of the responsibility of all towards children.

The public response to Pell’s conviction for the 1996 sexual assault of two choirboys, while Archbishop of Melbourne, within his cathedral, also included certain hostile reactions directed against the court process itself.

That had a clear bearing on matters of power: the question of who gets to be in charge and in what circumstances.

The radical right's dissent 

The reactionary grouping on the right wing of the Liberal Party,mentioned in these columns now and then, rallied in support of Pell as one of their own, a Churchman holding rigidly conservative views and ready to push them in secular politics. Much of his advocacy would support restrictive laws imposed on sexual behaviour and reproduction: against gay sex, single-sex marriage, contraception and debates on abortion.

The dissident grouping includes the two former Prime Ministers, Tony Abbott and John Howard, mates of Pell. The first of those rang him and said publicly just “wait for the appeal”, the other told the Court in a character reference its verdict had not changed his esteem for the man.

Another part of the radical right formation is a chorus of partisan opinion writers appearing under the banner of “commentary” in News Corp publications, and these have expressly challenged and insulted the Victorian County Court that heard Pell’s case.

The line has been that they felt incredulous that the tactic of the defence – to raise enough considerations as to prevent a decision beyond reasonable doubt – did not work.

The defence case had focused on evidence that a lot of people would have been nearby when Pell attacked the two boys in the Cathedral Sacristy; that in any event he would have been somewhere else, following his habit of meeting the congregation outside; timing would have been very tight, it would have been too awkward getting his genitalia out from under his ecclesiastical robes; the boys hardly could have got away from their group unnoticed; it was so long ago that even the actual date could not be given and so on.

So the News Corp writers 'could not accept' the finding of the court.

Respect for the course of justice

A few points are needed in reply, in fairness and respect for the conduct of justice:

The single first-hand witness, one of the boys, now 36, had convinced all members of the jury he was telling the truth. The family of the other victim reported that he had deteriorated emotionally from the time of the assault and died from a drug overdose at age 30. The Defendant did not give evidence on his own behalf, where he might have been questioned again under oath about whether he did it.

That point may affect an appeal which the Cardinal has already filed. Legal opinion is divided on its chances. 

Barriers to reporting

That is the shape of the story to date, though points of detail here may be stretched because parts of the trial were closed and the verdict was withheld from publication in Australia for over two months. It was done evidently to prevent publicity disrupting a fair trial, given how controversial it was. The journalists’ organisation, the MEAA, expressed displeasure, counting the case in amongst its objections to many constraints on reporting. Some 100 journalists have received contempt of court notices for breach of the reporting ban, some of those notices withdrawn this week.

The Chief County Court Judge, Peter Kidd, who presided, identified an arrogant and aggressive attitude in the Defendant not expressing remorse or regret and having a sense of impunity: it had been “brazen offending”, the protests and resistance of the victims repulsed. It was “callous” with “an element of brutality … an element of force”.

Priestly power gone toxic?

That information brings back the matter of priestly power identified by the speakers in the ABC debate on Monday 4 March.

The foundation of it is the role of a priest as the representative of God, as at Holy Communion, a power able to over-awe innocents and one that is given trust. And in the Catholic faith these powers are reserved for men to exercise.

Such authority unchecked and unwatched might become toxic, as in a case like the heavily publicised story of George Pell: country conservative upbringing; in a sexually-repressive environment; intelligent and promising; marked for a vocation; aggressive and over-ambitious; discovering a chance in the ecclesiastical hierarchy; going on to enthusiastically take part in a world of men asserting authority and getting themselves into political conflicts.

Protection of innocents

This is where the case of Pell and many like him becomes a problem for all. When something goes wrong, and is bad, innocents suffer. The protection of innocents like the two choirboys is Australia’s responsibility.

The speakers expressed hopes for wrong-proofing change: accountability, improved status for women, a place for lay members of the Church in decision-making. Maybe they are saying some kind of new Reformation, and in that case just as 500 years ago, hierarchical authority and the mysterious powers vested in priests would have to be addressed in the debate.

It is not unthinkable. There are churches being governed at every level by councils, synods or assemblies of Bishops, clergy and laity — women and men, where priests can marry, and which have evolved, female Bishops today ordaining women as priests.

None of this discussion discounts the great benefits and blessings which flow from the spiritual guidance, humanity and good works of the Christian churches — it calls for better and more.

George Pell was convicted by a jury on 11 December. The verdict was released in court on 26 February and bail was revoked at a pre-sentence hearing the next day. He was scheduled for sentencing on 13 March.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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