Cardinal George Pell has said he’ll return to Australia to give evidence at the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, if he is required to do so. The recent revelations from Ballarat are so horrifying as to beggar belief and I expect he will honour the commission’s request for him to appear later this year. We naturally want to know the full extent of the cardinal’s knowledge about the paedophile priest Gerald Risdale. And justice – natural, and divine – demands Pell give the commission and the public the full story.
Yet whether we like it or not, the royal commission is not a court conducting a criminal trial. Nor is it an inquiry into George Pell. Whether you conceive of the Cardinal as the Great Satan or a priest ahead of his time in dealing with child abuse (a view that is still prevalent among Catholics), litigating his personality on 60 Minutes or through Gerard Henderson’s nuggets of pedantry in the Australian does little to deliver justice for victims.
Of course, when the powerful refuse to humble themselves, stripping them of their mystique is a kind of justice in and of itself. Yet the cardinal’s reputation can hardly fall more in the eyes of the Australian public and among some sections of the church.
As an observer of the commission and as a Christian, what I want to see is an acknowledgement that the situation has begun to change. Two years into the commission’s work, will anyone admit Pell is no longer the biggest obstacle to justice for victims? The reluctance to do so is pervasive on either side of the divide: the cardinal’s defenders barely know how to do anything else but fight rearguard actions; and his critics want to see Pell caught out in a lie, or a smoking gun document produced.
Yet the commission is already beginning to move forward, recommending a federal redress scheme, funded with co-operation from the states and organisations in which abuse has taken place. Mediation, restorative justice, apologies from those in positions of power and ongoing financial and counselling support for victims are at its core; it is in line with what victims have told the commission they want and represents best practice in alternative dispute resolution and the like. The final report on this and related matters is weeks away.
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