The Verdict on Cardinal George Pell
Sydney Morning Herald
March 4, 2016
Cardinal George Pell showed a little more compassion this week for the survivors of abuse by Catholic priests and teachers. We welcome, too, his meeting with some of the victims in Rome.
We need to be grateful for such small mercies because the Cardinal's testimony to the royal commission into child sexual abuse was littered with denials that beggared belief.
It was filled with the blaming of others; with qualified regret often in hindsight, rather than any admission that mistakes were made in the 1970s, 80s and 90s; and with words that betrayed a calculated attempt to avoid any concession that he did, indeed, fall short of what the community than and now would regard as caring for the wellbeing of children.
The Herald believes Cardinal Pell's testimony has left it open for the royal commission to reject his denials of knowledge about the abuses in his midst. It is also open to the commission to find him an unreliable witness and that his explanations for ignorance of disgusting events and criminal actions are implausible. The commissioners, we believe, are without doubt entitled to find that even if he did not know he should have known and done more to protect children.
Yet we also accept that some observers have interpreted the Cardinal's testimony quite differently.
These contrary observers claim others around Cardinal Pell in the 1970s in Ballart did not know, either, of the risk convicted paedophile Gerald Ridsdale posed to children. With respect, the Cardinal's testimony contradicts that. He indicated many in Ballarat and beyond knew of Ridsdale and other abusers but did not tell. Indeed, the Cardinal blamed his superiors and colleagues for not informing him. Yet the Cardinal preferred the word of priests to that of children who alleged abuse. When a boy did complain, Cardinal Pell said he took no further action because the child did not ask him to. In any case, Cardinal Pell admitted those in the church felt reason to hide the crimes. He conceded he was in the loop of knowledge regarding one offending priest, but claimed there was in issue of what could be done within church and state law. Surely there was no such issue as to what the right thing to do was, and that was to protect children.
These contrary observers accept the Cardinal's claim it was a different era then. Yet Christianity has asserted continuous moral authority for millennia. The primacy of keeping children safe is timeless, too.
The contrary observers claim that when Cardinal Pell's turn came to leadership as Archbishop of Melbourne, he moved quickly and effectively with the Melbourne Response in the late 1990s. Putting to one side the criticisms of that compensation mechanism and its secrecy, such lauding of Cardinal Pell's latter-day actions by inference must reflect an acceptance that he was entitled while lower down the church pecking order to watch on as earlier efforts to fight child abuse were slow and indecisive. Indeed, he had a duty to do more when auxilliary bishop of Melbourne. But taken to its logical conclusion, the leadership theory suggests church leaders would have a far great duty of care to protect children that those working in the parishes. That is untenable.
As to the Cardinal's recollections of events, these contrary observers claim the Cardinal generally showed impressive recall. Yet he frequently testified that he did not remember details, and even said his memory was "sometimes fallible". Notably, he did not recall what was said at crucial meetings where abusers were discussed, but could recall definitely that paedophilia or child abuse were not mentioned.
The royal commission's report on the Pell testimony will appear well after the Pope has to decide on June 8 whether to accept or override the Cardinal's mandatory retirement. We believe the Pope must act because Cardinal Pell had a special duty of care both as a priest – a trusted member of the community – and as a person. At the very least his testimony suggests he failed to fulfil that duty.
Being ordained and placed in the church organisational structure does not excuse anyone from doing everything possible to protect children. Yet four decades later, Cardinal Pell's testimony indicates he still cannot see that.