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Louise Milligan's book 'Cardinal' was removed from sale by its publishers in Victoria (Image via MUP)

A Prince of the Roman Curia is facing serious charges relating to historic child sex offences — but the Doc can’t talk about that. Instead he has reviewed a recent book after stumbling on a copy left on his doorstep in a brown paper bag.

AFTER READING Louise Milligan’s book, Cardinal: The rise and fall of George Pell, I can only thank God that I was brought up atheist and not Catholic. I bought my copy a week ago and read it over a few days. It was hard going in parts, but worth it. I have been following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but did not retain all the details. Now they are seared into my mind.

I live in Victoria, where it is no longer possible to purchase a copy of Cardinal which only went on sale in mid-May. When news broke that George Pell was to be charged with historical child sex offences, the publisher, Melbourne University Press, voluntarily withdrew the book in Victoria, lest it prejudice any future legal proceedings.

Withdrawing a book from sale is a serious matter. And judging whether or not the existence of the book, or the fact that people might read it and talk about it, might be a form of sub judice contempt – prejudging matters before the court or advocating a particular position on the question of guilty/not guilty – is a difficult task for anyone.

I’m aware of at least one other high-profile book being pulled in similar circumstances, Martin Chulov’s tome on terrorism in Australia, Australian Jihad, published and withdrawn from sale in October 2006, which dealt with matters then before the courts in relation to several alleged terror plots.

Chulov went to some lengths to disguise the real identities of the alleged terrorists (many of whom have since been convicted, some of whom are still in gaol). However, a careful reading (which I undertook) allowed real identities to be attached to the anonymised characters in the book. Chulov also had excellent sources inside Australia’s security services and perhaps the possibility of their identities also being revealed might have contributed to the publisher’s decision to pull it from bookshop shelves.

Chulov’s book was withdrawn right across Australia, but Milligan’s book is still available in stores outside Victoria and also online.

You might ask: “What’s the point?”

I’m sure that MUP got very good legal advice before pulling Cardinal. After all, it was likely to be a good seller in Victoria too. The legal reasoning behind the recall would be that the book possibly canvasses some of the issues that will be dealt with in front of a judge and jury if Cardinal Pell ever gets to enjoy his day in court. The Cardinal has strenuously denied any and all allegations against him and insists he has done nothing wrong.

You can no longer buy Cardinal in Victorian bookshops and it is not available from the MUP website, but it is available online via the usual outlets. However, since Independent Australia is published globally on the InterWebs, I cannot really say too much more about this as you (or an officer of the court) might be reading my words in Victoria and we do not want to be held in sub judice contempt ourselves. Nor do we want to be seen to be impeding the process of justice in this matter.

Having said that, it strikes me as a bit odd that I cannot discuss certain aspects of this book without putting myself and IA in danger of contempt; even though there are plenty of places on the internet already that discuss some of the same material and even name names that might be relevant to the case of the Cardinal. I’m not going to link to any of those sources, and I’m not going to encourage you to Google what I Googled and read in the course of writing this piece.

So let’s take the focus of Pell for a minute — although he is the anti-hero of this book.

Louise Milligan has done an excellent job of researching the story of how the Catholic Church in Australia has responded to allegations of child sex abuse by members of the clergy. It is great to have all of this detail in once place and set out in social and historical context.

Leaving aside the allegations against George Pell – the courts will make their determinations – and considering the sheer volume of abuse: 4,444 people alleging they were abused, 1,880 alleged perpetrators across 93 church organisations. It is a staggering indictment of the moral failure of one of the largest religious institutions in Australia. The scale of abuse uncovered in the Catholic Church dwarfs that associated with other religious and secular organisations that have been investigated by the Royal Commission.

The Catholic Church in Australia has spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending itself and millions more in payments to survivors. But, as Milligan points out, the lawyers have got more money from the Church than the victims of alleged abuse. And getting that compensation hasn’t been easy. The Church – for most of that time under George Pell’s leadership – has resisted claims from survivors; fought them, lied, threatened and cajoled. It has not taken the moral high ground and owned up to the horror its clergy inflicted on children – average age around 11 – who were supposed to be the lambs of God.

Speaking of the moral high ground, when the charges against Pell were announced, a number of people immediately came to his side, claiming that he was a good man, and that the allegations against him were the result of vindictiveness and were all about trying to tear down a great man. I’m not going to canvas those arguments here, you can find the trail online without my help. However, I will note, having refreshed my memory of events with Milligan’s book, the characters who came forward to defend Pell – and incidentally, trash the reputations of his accusers, thereby prejudging matters now sub judice – are people who have defended Pell for the past 20 years. Their ties to Pell, to the Catholic Church and to the elite circles in which Pell conducts his social life are lifelong and deep. Their defence of Pell is unjustifiable; not just because of what’s alleged against him directly, but because of the long history of him covering up abuse, bullying survivors and generally being an ecclesiastical arsehat.

While Cardinal Pell may well, one day, be a defendant in a trial for his liberty; he will have his day in court (unless his expensive legal team can get the case thrown out). He will get to see justice served. However, the same cannot be said for the many victims of priestly abuse.

Pell is a giant in the Catholic Church – number three in the Vatican hierarchy – and his high profile will ensure that his trial (if it proceeds) will be a media circus. But, in the end, Pell is only one man.

The breadth and depth of the abuse within the Catholic Church is greater than one man.

Whatever the outcome in the looming legal drama that will unfold over coming months (perhaps years), the damage to the victims and the survivors will remain as a potent stain on the reputation of the Catholic Church in Australia.

This is the important take-out message from Louise Milligan’s powerful and distressing book.

I will let her have the final word:

'Sometimes the tell is not so much in a single bombshell [such as the allegations against George Pell (MH)], but in the drip, drip, drip of bitchy asides, spectacularly insensitive legal letters, the revelations of just how much money went to lawyers defending this whole damn mess and obstructing anyone who tried to get justice.'

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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