Cardinal Pell and the culture of silence

By Neil Ormerod
Eureka Street
March 09, 2016

There was an obvious irony in the timing of Cardinal Pell's evidence to the royal commission last week, coinciding as it did with the awarding of the Oscar for best film to Spotlight, the searing expose of the Boston Church's failure in relation to its own sexual abuse crisis.

The Commission put the spotlight on the Cardinal in relation to what he knew and did not know about the multiple cases of sexual abuse in the Ballarat diocese while he was a young priest working there.

This was not the Cardinal's first evidence to the commission. He has been under considerable scrutiny over the John Ellis case and the Melbourne Response, his own attempt to deal with sexual abuse within the Melbourne Diocese.

The Ellis case in particular was very damaging, with contradictory evidence given by the Cardinal and key figures in his offices about who knew what and when. We are yet to see the findings of the commissioner, Peter McClellan, in relation to that conundrum.

The latest interrogation had a focus on the case of the out-of-control pedophile Gerald Ridsdale. Evidence has been received of person after person who seems to have had some knowledge of Ridsdale's offending: bishops, priests (one of whom went on to become a bishop), religious and laity.

Ridsdale was being regularly moved while then Fr Pell was on the council of consultors for the diocese; Ridsdale had a 14-year-old boy living with him in his presbytery; complaints were coming in from parents about his abusive actions.

In this whirl of rumour and concern, the Cardinal's consistent evidence is that he heard nothing at the time about Ridsdale's activities. While there were failings all around him, particularly from Bishop Mulkearns and other diocesan consultors, he is innocent of wrongdoing because he had no knowledge.

The senior counsel for the commission, Gail Furness, and the commissioner himself, have made it clear it will be the commissioner's task to determine whether this position is credible. Furness has suggested this level of ignorance is 'implausible.' This does not bode well for the final findings in relation to Pell.

Oddly, there is something plausible about the Cardinal's denials. He is adamant that he has no memory of any evidence in relation to Ridsdale. He never raised any question in relation to the multiple moves Ridsdale enjoyed. He admitted to knowing Ridsdale was a 'difficult fellow' but the nature of the difficulty was never clear to him. He was happy to take the bishop's word that the moves should take place.

What could account for this systemic blindness? There is an old scholastic axiom that 'what is received is received in the mode of the knower.' Cardinal Pell said as much in his response to first finding out about Ridsdale's tragic legacy: 'It was a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.'

Whatever the future Cardinal may or may not have been told, it is quite a different question as to what he heard. Such matters were simply not of 'much interest to me'. It is quite likely that whatever he may have been told, it was simply not considered important or significant enough to be remembered.

Of course on the final day of evidence the Cardinal attempted to 'correct' the record in relation to these words. The commissioner will need to judge whether this was a face-saving exercise after what was actually a frank admission.

Even as a young priest George Pell was clearly marked for higher things. He was a protégé of B. A. Santamaria who had a significant following among Victorian bishops and priests. He was known as a high-profile sportsman who might have gone on to higher things in AFL.

He was chosen to go to further study in Rome and then in Oxford, the first Catholic priest to complete a DPhil at Oxford since the Reformation, according to his own evidence.

He was quickly given positions of responsibility: episcopal vicar for education, running the local teachers college, being on the college of consultors for his diocese, editor of the diocesan newspaper. All his priestly life he has had important backers who have seen him rise to the highest ranks in the Vatican.

Within this trajectory there was no room for a priest who rocked the boat on clerical misconduct. To ask questions about why Ridsdale was being constantly moved, about why he could no longer remain in his various positions, was evidently not part of the plan.

Undoubtedly it was a 'sad story' and the pain of the victims was real, but 'it wasn't of much interest to me'. In the end it seems such concerns were filtered out, present but nor seen or heard.

This type of selective blindness is not that uncommon where there is a culture of abuse. It is regularly seen in families where there is sexual abuse and domestic violence. No one knows, yet everyone knows. The victim is not believed or even heard. People want a peaceful life, not to rock the boat.

In particular they want to believe the Church is a safe place to be. Sadly and tragically this was not the case in Ballarat. No one is safe until the culture of silence is broken.


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