Crime Opinion

George Pell's passing cannot cleanse the Catholic Church

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Catholic Church had an opportunity to showcase to the world that it owns the mistakes of the past. It could have honoured Pell without attacking survivors; but it did not, writes childhood sexual abuse survivor Andrew Collins.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses child sexual abuse

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL'S funeral was an opportunity for the Australian Catholic Church to both honour his life and show the community that it has learned from the past. It failed on both counts.

The Church buries the dead. It is one of the things that a church does. There are family members who loved the departed, friends who want to pay respects and of course final prayers to be said. I have always seen a funeral as a ceremony performed for the living, in honour of the dead. So, I have no qualms about Pell being given a decent funeral. He was a very senior Catholic Church figure and he had a lot of supporters and family.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by clergy. I had a complicated relationship with Pell. I gave public evidence at the Royal Commission, was a spokesperson for a group of survivors and was one of those who travelled to Rome to see him give his evidence. I was in the group that met with him privately afterwards. Yet, I also communicated with him on and off over two decades — despite meeting some of his alleged victims and seeing the findings of the Royal Commission.

I don’t see anyone as either good or bad. I see it as a sliding scale that changes. There is always good in a person and always some bad. I admired Pell for his intellect, wit and tenacity. I didn’t always agree with him, but I admired his passion and willingness to stick to what he believed. I didn’t like the decisions he made when it came to child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission was a search for the truth and I accept its findings. It found that Pell knew about abuses, yet did nothing — all to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church.

Now, you have to remember that this was not against the law at the time. I guess that back then everyone just presumed that people would do the right thing. So, he couldn’t be charged with anything, nor could anyone else who did the same. But although not illegal, it was certainly immoral and not how anyone would expect a church leader to behave.

In one of our chats, Pell told me that with hindsight, he possibly could have made some different decisions. I can’t have been the only person to whom he said that. To me, it showed that he was capable of looking back and seeing that some decisions were not handled in the best manner. I am aware that anyone in a position of power or authority has to make decisions and that sometimes the information available may not be complete. With hindsight and the passage of time, most decisions could have been handled better. What concerns me the most is not that some bad decisions were made, but that Pell didn’t take action to rectify them when he became aware.

Then there are the allegations that he sexually abused children himself. Historical sexual abuse cases are not simple black-and-white things. In nearly all sexual abuse cases, there is rarely a witness or even physical evidence. This is because sexual abuse is a personal crime. There is always a power imbalance which never changes. So, it comes down to one word against another. Without a confession, the jury has to rely on the likelihood that it happened, based on the credibility of the parties and the scenario presented in court.


Not many alleged cases of abuse make it to trial, with few getting convictions. This is not because of the validity of the allegation but because of the way our society treats the victims. There is shame felt on the part of the victims and in cases where the power imbalance is substantial, a fear that they will not be believed or may face retaliation. Australian estimates are that around 87% of sexual assaults are not reported. If a rape is reported, there is less than a 45% chance of arrest. If an arrest is made, there is around a 16% chance of prosecution. If there is a prosecution there is about a 1.5% chance of conviction. If there is a conviction, there is a 50 % chance of a successful appeal.

This means that less than 1% of rapes result in an offender going behind bars.

Victims do not even have their own lawyers to represent their interests. The prosecution represents the state and the victims are only witnesses. Victims are put on the stand and their life is scrutinised, including their sexual history, what they were wearing at the time or whether they have substance abuse issues or mental health problems. We still tend to look at victims as if they are somehow responsible for being abused and we dismiss their credibility if they show signs of trauma as a result of the abuse.

We know that child sexual abuse causes lifelong issues, yet these same issues are used to discredit the victim. We allow alleged perpetrators to have witnesses in support of their character, focusing on the good things they may have done and presenting them as pillars in the community. Sexual offenders are often seen as "good" people, because they use their powerful positions and occupations to have access to children, and they groom those around them. What they do in private is not how they act in public. We need to look at how we manage justice with sexual abuse cases but also ensure that both parties are treated fairly.

It's little wonder most victims do not report abuse.

Pell faced two hearings in the public eye. The first allegation was dealt with by the Catholic Church holding an inquiry with a former judge presiding, known as the Southwell Inquiry. At the conclusion of this inquiry, the judge said that he was unable to reach a decision because he found both Pell and the alleged victim to be credible. Pell said that he had been exonerated. He hadn’t been, but the faithful weren’t interested in the details. The Church should not have been allowed to run this pseudo-trial. The police should have stepped in.

On the other recent charges, Pell was found guilty by a jury. This has been commentated on ad nauseam, so there is no need to go over it again. Sydney Criminal Lawyers summarised it on their web page as follows:

'The exoneration of Pell was down to a technicality. The justices were not deliberating upon the Cardinal’s guilt, but rather they asked whether the Victorian appeals judges were misguided in their understanding of legal principles ... the High Court justices agreed, a reasonable doubt should have arisen and Pell was therefore acquitted.'

Another detail of the High Court finding is relevant; Brennan Law Partners summarised it as follows: 

'In this matter, the credibility of the complainant was not invalidated. He consistently stood up to vigorous cross-examination by Pell’s legal team and presented consistently throughout the trial process. Indeed, the High Court proceeded on the basis that the jury had reasonably found the complainant to be a credible and reliable witness and did not need to make an adverse or different finding about the complainant’s credibility.'

So, in both cases, the victims were not shown to be liars and their credibility was not questioned.

What of the other alleged victims? How many people coming forward would it take for you to take notice and have concerns? One? Three? Five? Seven? Ten? By my count, I am aware of around 13 who have alleged that Pell abused them. Most did not want to do more than report it, because they feared how their families would treat them and that they would lose work or friends. It is not easy to take on respected public people, especially those in powerful positions.

Imagine if a school principal or police commissioner had victims come forward. How many would it take for you to be concerned? How many reports should their employers be worried about, enough to remove them from their positions?

Think about this. If they had a conviction overturned for one complaint on appeal but had other allegations still unresolved, would you welcome them back to work with a guard of honour like the Pope did when Pell returned to Rome? Now, I don’t know if Pell abused those children or not. But not once have any of the children who came forward been shown to be lying. Not once have they been shown to be non-genuine victims.

Conversely, Pell has never admitted to abusing them nor has he been proven to have done so. Nobody knows the truth, other than Pell and the men themselves. Everyone else has opinions and opinions are not facts. But this will forever hang over Pell's legacy, as well as for the men who made the allegations. Pell died having the presumption of innocence and the fact, therefore, remains that no alleged abuses by him were proven.

Now we get to the funeral. I did not expect to hear anything about the bad decisions or allegations. Funerals are a time to remember the good and to honour the person’s life. This can still be done without offending others. It was not.


Archbishop Fisher seemed to have completely forgotten about the victims of his Church’s clergy when he said charges laid against Cardinal Pell by Victorian Police were a "media, police and political campaign”.

During the Royal Commission, Pell said some shocking things that made people question his integrity, like the now-famous quote:

"It [child abuse] was a sad story and of not much interest to me.”

Pell seemed to be continuing a pattern from previous statements made such as:

"Abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests abusing young people.”

Fisher isn’t a stupid man. He knows that charges against Pell were made because of complaints and those complaints were investigated, just as they would be with any other person.

There was no campaign or conspiracy and no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Fisher also said:

"Even after he [Pell] was unanimously exonerated by the High Court of Australia, some continued to demonise him.”

The decision of the High Court should be respected but that doesn’t mean that everyone needed to respect Pell.

There are still a lot of people who were angry at Pell’s responses during the Royal Commission and thought that he needed to do more to make amends for his past decisions. But then again, Fisher has never been one to show empathy for victims or their families.

This was the same man who said of child sexual abuse that some are: 

“...dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds."

To even think that about survivors and their families shows that child abuse in the Catholic Church is not something that Fisher considers to be an important issue.


Then Pell’s brother David spoke. I understand that he was angry about what he perceived as his brother’s poor and unjust treatment, but his eulogy caused further hurt to survivors and their families. David said of his brother that “he was falsely accused”. Yet no accusations have been shown to be false. He said that George Pell was "so unjustly convicted for this predecessors’ failings”. But that was not why the Cardinal was charged and later convicted.

Many others also knew and did not act on child sex abuse allegations, but none of them was charged because it was not a crime at the time.

The worst comment made was when David Pell said: 

“We sympathise with the legitimate victims and we are in complete abhorrence of the criminals.”

I find this offensive. All victims are legitimate. If they were not, they would not be victims. I am unaware of any Catholic Church victim who has made false accusations. Of course, there may be some and it is possible, but I am not aware of any.  If he is referring to those who accused Pell of being a criminal or untruthful, then once again, not one has been shown to be a liar.

"Legitimate" was the word used. If David Pell is referring to those who abused the children, then I agree with him. I would also add those who covered up and protected offenders, essentially facilitating the abuses. They should all be removed from the Catholic Church. This has not happened. Most are still practising clergy or are being taken care of by the Church. And to my knowledge, not one of those who covered up abuse has faced any sanctions or been removed.


Then came Tony Abbott. His eulogy was nearly too much to bear.

He said of Pell that:

“He was the first Archbishop to sack misbehaving clergy.”

This reminded me of Bishop Mulkearns who, when asked about Fr Robert Claffey, said that he recalled him "misbehaving" in a sexual way. These men weren’t misbehaving like naughty children. They were raping children — committing criminal offences of the worst kind. Minimising what happened like this is not acceptable and shows how lightly these people take child sexual abuse.

Then Abbott said of Pell:

“He was made a scapegoat for the Church itself. He should never have been investigated in the absence of a complaint. He should never have been charged in the absence of corroborating evidence and he should never have been convicted in the absence of a plausible case.”

Except that there were complaints and police are required to investigate complaints. As far as corroborating evidence or even witnesses, this is always missing in historical sexual abuse cases. It’s easy to say that Pell was made a scapegoat, but this just isn’t true. There have been many other priests and clergy investigated and convicted as well.

Abbott also said that Pell was a "saint for modern times".

No. There are too many unanswered questions and allegations, plus Pell had the opportunity to actually make concrete efforts to fix the scourge of childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but he did not.

And as for Abbott's idea that:

"...there should be Pell study courses, Pell spirituality courses, Pell lectures, Pell high schools, and Pell university colleges, just as there are for the other saints.”

Well, I’m not sure that anyone would welcome a Pell school or university college. And as for “other saints”, the whole process that declares someone to be a saint should be questioned. Pope John Paul II comes to mind with the lack of action taken on child sexual abuse offenders, calling them to Rome rather than allowing them to face the justice system.

Jesus was clear on what he thought of those who harm children. "Better that they have a millstone tied around their necks and cast out to sea." Allowing them to remain clergy and protecting them while fighting the victims is clearly at odds with what the Catholic Church professes to believe.

No wonder some have called Abbott’s eulogy sickening and full of abject flattery. It was so over the top, surely even Abott himself didn’t believe it all? I’m sure that there must have been people there who loved Pell that were wondering with whom Abbott was trying to win favour.

Guy Rundle once wrote

'Abbott belied his reputation as an assertive and singular political thinker, and in fact was the exact opposite: a sycophant by nature who seeks out opportunities to please those more powerful than he by being more ardent in pursuit of their interests than they ever asked him to be in the first place'.

We saw that in action at Pell's funeral. And wished we hadn’t.

The Catholic Church had an opportunity to showcase to the world that they own the mistakes of the past and are moving forward. They could have honoured Pell without attacking survivors. Instead, tit has shown that it still sees survivors as the enemy.


After the Royal Commission, the Church made promises about how it would move forward in dealing with victims. Unfortunately, they were just words.

The clergy have not kept their promises; rather, they seem to have removed those words from the Church's websites. The clergy promised to never investigate themselves again, yet set up an “independent body” to monitor their compliance with child safety laws. They still get lawyers to deal with survivors and fight them for years in the courts, instead of helping and working with victims to minimise further trauma and pain. They promised to review all the recommendations of the Royal Commission yet have enacted only those that they were compelled by law to act upon, sending the rest to Rome to be reviewed.

Six years later, the Catholic Church has not even responded. Despite the Pope admitting that 3% of Church clergy were child abusers, he has taken no action to remove them and those who cover up for them. The Church still pays for their every need, yet denies survivors the help they need.

With regard to the redress scheme, the Church argued that it couldn’t have uncapped counselling and support for those who needed it, because its insurance company couldn’t have open-ended claims. The insurance company is Catholic Church Insurances (CCI). The Church owns its insurance company, which is tax-free.

Survivors requesting help for victims reported Bishop Bird from Ballarat telling them:

“You need to understand something: the Church has endured for thousands of years and in another 40 years or so, you people will all be dead, and this will be forgotten about, and the Church will endure for thousands of years more.” 

Nearly eight years have passed since then. Looks like they only have to wait another 32 years.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online. For crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit

Andrew Collins is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, a spokesperson for the Ballarat and District Survivor’s Group and an advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, suicide prevention and mental health.

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