Cardinal George Pell obeyed canon law at the price of child victims

By Karen Brooks
March 07, 2016

As Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell (right) accompanied paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court. Pic: 60 Minutes.

Cardinal George Pell at last week’s royal commission hearing.

Cardinal George Pell in Rome in the lobby of Hotel Quirinale after the fourth day of giving evidence.
Photo by Ella Pellegrini

Victims, from left, David Ridsdale, Andrew Collins, Phil Nagle and Tony Wardley, are not a mob but real people seeking genuine acknowledgement of their anguish.

[with video]

AS THE Academy Awards were presented and Spotlight, (the film about the Boston Globe exposé on the clergy and child sex abuse) won the Oscar for Best Picture, Cardinal George Pell began giving evidence at the child abuse royal commission from the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.

Ironic really, as Pell’s adamant stance he “knew nothing”, “was deceived” and his consistent use of the “hierarchical defence” (it was someone else’s responsibility) was a performance in itself.

From confident and articulate to almost bumbling and vague, what became very clear over the four days of questioning was that, regardless of Pell’s protestations of innocence and/or ignorance, he never once asserted himself on any victim’s account, nor went out of his way to prevent what was clearly happening from continuing.

On the contrary, Pell did the minimum required at all times and then, it appears, dismissed it from his mind.

Like the stories of Father Gerald Ridsdale’s abuses, they were sad stories “and of not much interest to me”.

But, after all, Cardinal Pell had a career to shore up. Is it a coincidence that the more he “didn’t know” and act upon the harrowing tales of sexual abuse of children, the higher up the Catholic ladder he climbed?

Senior Counsel at the commission Christine Furness summed up general feelings when she said the Cardinal’s insistence he was mostly in the dark regarding the abuse being suffered was “completely implausible”.

According to Kieran Tapsell, a lawyer, author and former acting judge who has made a submission to the royal commission, the culture of silence around the horrific events are evidence of systemic issues within a church that not only encourages but endorses secrecy by enshrining it in canon law.

Tapsell, in a Radio National interview last week, said that before 1917 priests who sexually abused children were dismissed and handed over to civil authorities.

Pope Pius XI changed that by applying, in 1922, the “permanent silence” of the “Secret of the Holy Office” to internal investigations of child sex abuse by clergy. Silence was now the rule.

In 1974, this “office” was renamed the Pontifical Secret by Pope Paul VI, who expanded its reach to include not only the information gathered following internal investigations but also the originating allegation/s.

Perhaps aimed at protecting the faithful, this canon law also, conveniently, protects the Church per se and criminals hiding within it.

So, when Pell claims “it wasn’t my responsibility”, he’s not only exposing one of the problems the Pontifical Secret created – demanding the nondisclosure to civil authorities of the criminal act of child abuse – but he’s surely also revealing his own ethical and moral weaknesses.

As Tapsell inferred, Pell may be trying to shield the Church but there seemed no doubt he was trying to protect himself. This is something so many of us bearing witness to his testimony and the survivors and victims of the various priests listening recognised at an instinctual level.

Pell’s actions or inactions and his testimony seem to stand in stark contrast to those of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who not only states protecting children and helping victims of the abuse is a priority for the Church, but understands it’s his moral obligation to report such crimes to police.

Pell, on the other hand, apparently didn’t dare break canon law and thereby challenge the culture of silence and secrets it commanded.

Until last Wednesday, there was only one man loudly banging the Cardinal’s drum: conservative columnist Andrew Bolt.

Previously portraying Pell as the victim of a “witch-hunt” and a “smear-campaign”, and somehow politicising this and linking it to his despised “lefties” Bolt, to borrow his words, “gave in to mob rule” and did a volte face, taking Pell to task.

If the notion of a “mob” wasn’t so offensive, then the subsequent column Bolt wrote where he performed another volte face and basically re-contextualised his criticism of Pell as praise and admiration was worse.

Well, I have news for Bolt, Pell and other apologists for the Church; it’s not a “mob” that’s seeking justice/closure but real people who aren’t baying for blood but simply genuine acknowledgment of their protracted anguish and the Church’s and thus Pell’s role in this.

The last thing they wanted or needed was for the Cardinal to deflect blame and to deny his own role in what was catastrophic mismanagement by the Catholic Church of the child sexual abuse crimes that were allowed to be committed within its walls.



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