We Learned about George Pell's Pain. but What about the Children?
By David Marr
March 3, 2016
| George Pell: at times he seemed to be heading towards a confession, one he could never make. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images|
Pity poor George Pell. He was such a sensitive young priest that even reading about child abuse caused him pain. He did it as little as he could.
“I have never enjoyed reading the accounts of these sufferings,” he confessed on Thursday. “I tried to do that only when it was professionally absolutely appropriate because the behaviour is abhorrent and painful to read about.”
Pell’s pain …
That he said this to a roomful of survivors gathered in the Albergo Quirinale in Rome defies belief. And just as incredible is the fact that Pell offered this line to clarify his earlier “very poor” words about paedophilia in Ballarat being a “sad story” that didn’t interest him much.
Was there no one to tell the cardinal what a terrible idea it was to appeal for sympathy in the face of such pain? Where were his advisers? Are they the same crew that let him argue last year that paedophile priests and their victims are like truck drivers and hitchhikers?
Character is the great subject of cross-examination. Pell has emerged from four days harshly exposed. There is so much missing.
He was wary and had to be. He was rehearsed and that’s no surprise. He told the little press conference on the steps of the hotel when the interrogation was all over that the most difficult moment for him in the last few days was doing his homework: “Reading the transcripts of the way the victims suffered.”
Pell’s pain …
Day after day he punctuated his evidence of knowing nothing about Ridsdale and doing nothing about Searson with expressions of sympathy for the victims of these apparently licensed paedophiles.
But there was no poetry in the man. His rhetoric seemed cut from cardboard.
Pell’s supporters say he has a good heart but is clumsy with words. That’s hard to credit after watching him for days in the witness box. He knows how to work the language. And in any case, what would be more convincing, more moving, than awkward words delivered from the heart?
He’s heartfelt when the subject is history. At these moments, Pell beamed as he swept the commissioner into the past: “The church has been going for a couple of thousand years and our patterns of organisation predate modern corporations and, as a matter of fact, are a bit similar to the patterns of organisation of the Roman Empire …”
His evidence reveals a man who has thought deeply for years about his reasons for doing so little when it counted. He was deceived of course. Then there was the pain of reading stories of abuse. But there was more, which he has worked up over time into a little philosophy of inaction.
So the commissioners heard Pell’s principles of permissible ignorance and the subtle degrees of rumour: “Some are inherently unlikely. Some are of an indeterminate nature. Some are plausible.”
Yet Pell acted on none of them. He didn’t ask. He didn’t dig through the files. He never investigated for himself. He left these ugly problems to the responsible authorities. He passed them up the line. So a priest who pulled a knife on a little girl was left in his parish because the archbishop said nothing could be done.
At times Pell seemed to be heading towards a confession, one he could never make. The sin the cardinal had to get off his chest makes sense of his life and career: it’s the sin of obedience.
“I did what I was asked,” he said, “and was happy at that time to do just that.”
Where was alarm? He was always so cool. Was this career priest ever urgently worried about the fate of these children? Where is the evidence of his human sympathies?
Time and again he claimed not to be “plugged in” to the life of the diocese of Ballarat, though he lived and worked at the very heart of the diocese. But where’s the evidence this career priest is plugged into life?
Pell is tough. He emerged from the Quirinale with a friendly and rather weary smile. “I’m a bit tired,” he told the waiting journalists. He has high hopes for the royal commission and for his own testimony: “I hope that my appearance here has contributed a bit to healing, to improving the situation.”
In Sydney the lawyers packed their bags and the survivors hugged one another.
Over the years they’ve become an oddly functional family: here is the boy who warned Pell in the dressing room, the headmaster sacked for trying to get rid of Searson, the child Ridsdale raped while his church looked the other way.
They hope Pell is finished. They’ll be back for the commission’s verdict sometime in winter. And of course Rome will have to make up its mind.