His Eminence, Cardinal George Pell, the Australian Catholic leader who holds the third most powerful position in the Catholic Church, was finally interrogated last week by the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse. One thing is clear from the appalling revelations made over the two year old investigation: the Catholic Church’s tenure as a moral standard bearer in Australia is over. The systematic cover up that is enshrined in their guidelines, practices and culture is best epitomised by Pell’s role in the now infamous ‘Melbourne Response’.
When Frank Little was Archbishop of Melbourne, in the early 1990’s, there was a “growing awareness” of the child sex abuse that was taking place. Testimony from Bishops to the Royal Commission show that Little addressed the scandal by manoeuvring the priests, covering their tracks and remaining “blind” to the issue. In 1996, Little resigned for health reasons and George Pell was promoted from auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul. Three months into his tenure he engineered the ‘Melbourne Response’ for child sexual abuse victims. Pell publically called for victims to come forward and have their cases assessed by Independent Commissioners. If the abuse was deemed to have occurred, the Catholic Church would then call for an independent investigation into the allegations and provide the victims with ex gratia payments as compensation along with free counselling. The program was widely lauded as independent, fair and humane. It certainly seems like a win for all, doesn’t it?
The truth, unfortunately, is that the program was entirely self-serving. Firstly, it is estimated that the Melbourne Response saved the Church at least $62 million as the ex gratia payments were capped at $50,000[i] – with an average payment of $46,000[ii]– despite Pell saying payments were made “based on justice”. When comparing these payments to those who reached settlements in court, averaging at $270,000[iii], it is astonishing that only 14 of 335 victims in Melbourne chose the legal route[iv].
The Royal Commission has revealed that the Independent Commissioners assessing the cases actively deterred victims from taking the Church to court. The Church also had a policy of “strenuously defending” each of its court cases, regardless of merit and the legal fees involved (one case incurred fees of over $1.5 million[v]). In these cases, it employed a controversial legal loophole, known as the “Ellis defence;” this being that the Church cannot be held liable for the actions of paedophile priests as it is technically not a legal entity. For this reason, the ‘one true church of Christ’ never lost a single case.
The deliberately systematic and selfish nature of the Melbourne Response does not stop there. Minutes of a high ranking Curia meeting reveal that the priests in the Church were ordered that written records regarding the response be “kept to a minimum” during the response[vi]. They also showed that priests relocated for sexual abuse were designated as ‘special reasons’. Additionally, in the early 90’s, the looming crisis that led to the Melbourne Response well known amongst the Church’s hierarchy; leaked documents detailed the prominent concern of potential law suits and the hiring of one of the country’s best spin doctors, Laurie Kerr, and other PR consultants to address the issue. It must also be said that detailed within the internal documents were plans for multi-million dollar property deals and financial support to paedophile priests who were about to be released from prison.
Pell was promoted to Archbishop of Sydney by Pope John Paul in 2001 and was invited by his Holyness to the College of Cardinals in 2003. His lead in the Melbourne Response was pivotal in his promotion; in Sydney, he was immediately tasked with addressing sexual abuse allegations on 55 priests within the Archdiocese. Again, the Church that declares itself infallible in moral judgement did not lose a single case taken to court. It is clear in this case that those who serve the Church are promoted while those who do not, are not. Pell served the church by successfully resuscitating its reputation while saving it money during the scandal. It is a virtual repeat of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who was promoted to the Vatican despite being a fugitive from justice. In short, the Church has a systematic problem: individual priests who would probably be disgusted by the actions of the paedophiles cannot act in their own moral judgement as they would be replaced by someone who acts better for the Church’s reputation. It is not just “a few bad apples.”
George Pell in 2014 used the metaphor of a hypothetical trucking company as the Church, saying: “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate, because it’s contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”[vii]. The Church, however, is not a trucking company but the self-appointed infallible moral standard bearers for the world. For such an institution to promote those within it to cover up its scandals, rather than those who compensate and beg for forgiveness, is frankly beneath the morals of any trucking company. UPS, the world’s largest trucking company, has its harassment policy available online and has enacted reform when its culture of sexual harassment was revealed and settled cases for millions of dollars to individual sufferers, which is horrible but still a far cry from raping children. Instead, the Church exploited any legal loophole or underhanded means necessary to save money and reputation.
You may still believe Pell, who in last week’s hearing said he was “deceived” by those around him and never knew of the extent of the molestation. Where at a conference Pell was the only one in the room who was unaware that Gerard Ridsdale, a paedophile priest, was being relocated. Pell, who last week was charged by Victoria Police with personally abusing ten children in the 1980s, who had also been accused of offering bribes to cover up Ridsdale’s abuse while at Ballarat and of uttering the line “Gerry [Ridsdale] has been rooting boys again”[viii] by an altar boy.
It may be possible to believe Pell and all counts, but the trend is too consistent for the institution that is the self-proclaimed infallible protector of human morality. The same institution whose wealth was acquired through conquest, slavery, alliance with fascism, forced conversion, antisemitism, plunder from the poor, suppression of knowledge and the promotion of division; all of which were apologised for by Pope John Paul in March 2000. What could not be clearer is this; the Church is just like any human institution whose “instinct is to protect itself”, as George Pell said last week. Whether you are a believer or not, it is obvious that transparency and reform are desperately required. Had the Church acted with the morals of a trucking company, I believe we would have already seen this; and if a trucking company is morally superior to the once infallible providers of moral guidance, then moral guidance they shall provide no more.
By: Daniel Sneddon
Edited by: M.Al-waadh
[i] Report of Case Study 16, Australian Royal Commission, Page 6: Accessed March 9, 2016
[ii] Opening Address for Case Study 35, Australian Royal Commission, Point 18: , Accessed March 9, 2016
[iii] Opening Address for Case Study 35, Australian Royal Commission, Point 16: , Accessed March 9, 2016
[iv] Opening Address for Case Study 35, Australian Royal Commission, Point 15: , Accessed March 9, 2016