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Cardinal George Pell found guilty

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A jury found Cardinal George Pell guilty of child sexual abuse in December last year.

Pell was found guilty of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of committing indecent acts with a child, or in their presence. after five weeks of hearings and three and a half days of deliberations.

We are only finding out about this today because a court suppression order prevented publication of the conviction. A second case against Pell was pending and the publicity about his December conviction might have denied Pell – and his victims – justice in the second case. That case was dropped on Tuesday (26 February) morning and the suppression order was lifted.

Cardinal Pell was the number three man in the Catholic Church, in charge of reforming the Vatican’s finances. The Pope suspended him when the charges arose.

Pell was one of the architects of the Church’s "Ellis Defence". In essence, this was the successful claim, based on a technicality, that the Church was not liable to pay victims any damages for sexual offences committed by the Church’s members and employees — its priests, bishops, brothers and so on. 

As Gerard Malouf and Partners explain:

"Put simply, there was no legal entity that plaintiffs could sue after a change of policy enforced by Cardinal George Pell helped to protect the church's wealth."

Pell also developed the "Melbourne Response, which, according to the Catholic Diocese of Melbourne:

... assists people who have been abused sexually, physically or emotionally… Complaints of sexual and other abuse by priests, religious and lay persons under the control of the Archbishop of Melbourne are made to and investigated by the Independent Commissioner. Mr Jeff Gleeson QC is the Independent Commissioner.

The Melbourne Response is about protecting the Church — not helping victims. For example, it initially limited compensation payable to $50,000. That was increased in 2000 to $55,000 and in 2008 to $75,000. Despite the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommending a maximum of $200,000, the Government set up a national redress scheme with a limit of $150,000 in compensation. The Catholic Church announced in December last year it would sign up on an entity by entity basis to that scheme.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne, along with a number of others, joined the scheme in December 2018.  Presumably, they realised money could be saved by doing so, given that one case for compensation saw $500,000 awarded against a private school. In accordance with what appears to be a "protect the wealthy religious institutions’ philosophy by the Government, the Diocese having joined the national redress scheme now limits compensation to a maximum of $150,000.

The guilty verdict against Pell will shock many. It will not shock victims, activists and their families. Indeed, the shock of the conviction across major sections of Australian society could be the beginning of the fall of the Church from its pedestal. The Church here could suffer the same fate as that of the Church in Ireland after its abuses there became public — a decline in power and support.

The recent history of the Catholic Church has been to hide the abuse and the abusers, and to protect the perpetrators and the Church. Even when it appears to help abusers, as the Melbourne Response shows, it is really about protecting the Church. 

The recent Bishop’s conference in Rome on the Church’s abuse of children is another example. Here we had the Pope talking openly about the fact of abuse but not with any plan for addressing this cancer within the Church. When German Archbishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx revealed that the Church had destroyed files to protect priest and others, one of the victims protesting outside demanded the names of those who had done this and the action taken against them. The Church’s response? Silence.  

Pell’s conviction sends a message to the victims: we believe you. That is a powerful message. And despite all the caveats to that – the huge personal cost, the ongoing battle to be believed, the rejection many victims suffer – this is the start of what could be a good outcome, especially if more victims are emboldened to come forward.

Pell will likely go to gaol. His pre-sentence hearing is today and the sentencing itself will be next week. Pell will also appeal. No matter what the outcome, it is clear that the Catholic Church has a systemic problem its personnel abusing children and in protecting the abusers. The solution does not, then, lie within the Church unless the laity imposes its will on the hierarchy — something contrary to the very structures, essence and ethos of the Church.

This Church has already said it will defy our laws and not report sexual abusers in the confessional to authorities. It appears unreformable. Now we find out that the man who led the Australian Church’s participation in the weekend conference at the Vatican on child sexual abuse, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, is himself being investigated in relation to his handling of child sexual abuse allegations — claims he denies. 

The deeper problem lies in the power imbalance. It is this which explains the fact that it is not just powerful people in the Catholic Church who abuse children, but powerful people per se who do so. Until now, they have been able to get away with abuse simply because they were powerful.

Note, too, that some powerful voices in the media have, since the verdict became public, been defending Pell and proclaiming his innocence.

The conviction of Pell shows that major societal institutions are under question and challenge. Faith in politicians has also fallen and further undermined our general faith in democracy.

To all those brave victims fighting to be heard and believed, thank you.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassant. Signed copies of John's newly released second book of poetry, 'Whose Broken is this? and other poems', are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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