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The conviction and fall of Cardinal George Pell

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George Pell being led to his car from the courtroom amid a cacophony of abuse (Screenshot via YouTube)

Despite protesting his innocence, Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexually abusing two choirboys, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS are not hard to gauge. A high official of the Catholic Church, officially found guilty for historical sex crimes, will be a reminder about a global movement of accountability and redress. Cardinal George Pell was a reminder about Church intransigence, authoritarian beastliness and secrecy. He rose through church ranks, defended its virtue, and targeted detractors. To accusers alleging impropriety, he was withering.

The secrecy also extended its arm into the legal field. Victoria, an Australian state renowned for its suppression orders, ensured that general discussion in the press of Cardinal Pell’s December conviction of five offences against two choir boys was kept under wraps.

While there is merit for conserving the integrity of the legal process pending final resolution, there was something absurd about the spectacle of a muzzled Australian press gazing ruefully at international outlets happy to report the details of Pell’s conviction. Australians were told of “missing” an enormous story.

As Andrew Dodd observed in Meanjin at the time:

‘It’s a story – or non-story – with considerable implications here and abroad.’

This week’s reporting was a release, much of it having a sordid, tabloid flavour of vengeance. But there were also measured acts of firm, forensic examination. 

David Marr, habitually dedicated to noting the Cardinal’s erring ways, noted Pell’s legacy in tart fashion:

‘An Archbishop in Melbourne and a Cardinal in Sydney, Pell poured his energies into combating contraception, homosexuality, genetic engineering, divorce, equal marriage and abortion.’ 

A true warrior for the Vatican.

Chrissie Foster, the mother of Emma and Katie Foster, both abused by Father Kevin O’Donnell as primary school children, found in Pell an opponent unworthy and indignant: 

“He was just angry and jumping down our throats, telling us to prove it in court or substantiate what we were saying and, of course, we had no proof because it’s just our daughter’s word against the paedophile.” 

In her words, “shutting us up” was a necessary function of guilt; “he himself was a paedophile”.

He had been the most loyal of church stalwarts, even accusing his brethren of being “frightened to put forward the hard teachings of Christ.”  Each attempt to bring a measure of accountability over offences against minors was met with a battering ram of conviction. And when the Church was found out, he recommended compensation rather than the secular legal process. 

He was also a creature of his time, so much so as to be a caricature of it. His behaviour before members of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is worth recounting: “I must say in those days,” he claimed in response to the activities of paedophile Monsignor John Day, “if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”  Kissing primary school boys was “harmless enough”; the abuse of children at the hands of Gerald Ridsdale was “a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”. And not just him.

The shock amongst the institutionally minded in the Church is palpable. The carer has been outed as an abuser; its attitudes to sex have been confirmed to be archaic, cruel and degrading. The “scared clergy,” insisted Foster, needed to be “hunted down and punished through the courts.” 

In Royal Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan’s words, uttered in 2017:

“The community will not accept the legitimacy of any institution which does not give priority to the safety and wellbeing of the children for which it has responsibility.”

At St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat, where Pell attended between 1949 and 1959, his honour as a “legend” of the school was removed. The inductee was for shunning. But he, and his legacy, remain a haunting reminder, disturbing to current college headmaster John Crowley

Crowley said:

“We believe that it’s untenable and not appropriate to have our students walk through a building that carries Cardinal Pell’s name when the jury has found that he is guilty of offences relating to child sexual abuse.”

Perhaps even more significantly for Pell, he is no longer the overseer of the Vatican’s finances, otherwise known as the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. Removing him from that position means that he is no longer a member of the Pope’s inner sanctum of advisers. The doors to power are closing.

Abuses were originally deemed the preserve of Church officials, a self-policing, regulating and all-male matter. Priests would, essentially, judge priests. Scandal would be avoided; suspected perpetrators shuffled. The views of the Pope, perched between the divine heavens and paltry Earth, would hold sway. The public law, administered by the secular realm, was somewhat dirty, less than holy, best avoided. The result was inevitable — a total lack of transparency, impunity and an attempt to suppress memory.

The law has now had a share of scrutiny and the reaction is bruising.

For Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, a wish articulated in 2017 on ABC Radio Breakfast still stands:

“I think this case will be a test of all individuals and all institutions involved. And all we can do is hope that the outcome will be marked by truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and transparency.” 

Finely aspirational, indeed, but the work of legal outings, criminal redress and holding to account has only just begun. Brennan naturally fears the scouring for scapegoats, but the rage of the silenced can be ominous. And Pell, let us not forget, still has legal avenues to exhaust.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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