Can Cardinal Pell be judged by 21st century standards?

By Chris Davis
March 7, 2016

Cardinal George Pell makes a statement following a meeting with survivors of sex abuse.

Dr Chris Davis.

Autres temps, autres moeurs.  French for "other times, other customs". A phrase that is relevant as the media and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse examine 20th century decisions using 21st century morality.

For those who weren't there, I'll share my 20th century experience.  My boys' only school was a place of great good, thanks to some exceptional teachers.  The most enduring and inspiring was an English spinster who had lost her fiancé in World War I.  Her surrogate children were her "boys".  She taught us English in the finest tradition, as well as a love of literature and a code of excellent conduct.  Having been in the choir of St Paul's Cathedral in London, she sang beautifully. She was strict, but with a delightful warmth and sense of humour. The headmaster was a World War II veteran, highly decorated for his skill and courage.  He imparted wisdom and balance, acquired from having witnessed the best and worst of the human condition.

Sadly, there was a dark and unspoken side to it all.  Older unattached male teachers who lived in at the boarding school. They invited schoolboy "pets" in for special tutoring and special occasions, and exclusive weekend camps. Given the status of teachers, amongst boys being a "pet" was seen as an achievement. Not that anyone talked about what actually went on behind closed doors, except when it emerged as unacceptable sexual behaviour amongst boarding school pupils.  Some of it was seen as entertaining, such as when a "misbehaving pet" was backside up on the teacher's lap for the duration of a lesson, whilst being intimately "spanked".

Looking back, I am struck by the acceptance. It was not a matter we boys discussed with adults. Nor did they ask. It was almost as if it was accepted as part of schooling, as part of adolescence. And the harm it did was not readily apparent at the time. Sadly, later on, I witnessed some victims adopt lifestyles that resulted in deaths from AIDS, suicide, and other self-harm.

Thankfully our rejection of that behaviour has progressed greatly, but it does beg the question as to how any champion of morality would have fared in trying to change the culture of the time. There were no doubt many fine people in authority back then who simply looked the other way and got on with what they were paid to do. Prevailing power structures are remarkably effective at side-lining those who challenge them internally. As far back as 1532, Macchiavelli wrote in detail about the difficulties, dangers and failures inherent in attempting change.

As a history scholar, Cardinal Pell would have known this. This is not to excuse acts of omission, except to observe that if he had tackled them he probably would not be where he is today. In all likelihood he would have been outed as a "whistleblower" or a troublemaker. He presumably decided he could do more good inside the tent, and grace required him to accept the things he could not reasonably change.

Whether or not we agree with his decision, procedural fairness may require that we judge him according to the customs he encountered at the time, rather than by current standards.   Such arguments have surfaced throughout history, such as in the Nuremberg trials.

It is also important to keep perspective on the Catholic Church.  Whilst churches preach the word of God, their reliance on mortals confers all the frailty of the human condition. It is easy at times like this to allow personal failings of some clergy and other agents to blind us to the enormous good that has been done and continues to be done by faith based institutions, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, welfare and spirituality. Whilst recent events may lead us to question our support of these institutions, we would be far better to engage with them so they are enabled to embody and teach the best of human virtue, whilst also being held accountable for their performance.


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