Sydney Morning Herald [Sydney, New South Wales, Australia]
January 13, 2023
By Chip Le Grand
[Note from BishopAccountability.org – For more on the allegations against Pell, as well as his trial, see our summary and our detailed timeline: Timeline of the Allegations and Prosecution Faced by Cardinal George Pell.]
Instead of flights of angels, the death of Cardinal George Pell provoked another roiling culture war to sing the Cardinal to his rest. It’s what Australia’s most prominent church figure would have wanted. The only certainty, other than death, is that arguments about Pell’s ecclesiastic and cultural legacy will rage for years after his remains are interred in the crypt beneath Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
The battleground preferred by Pell’s supporters, most prominently former prime minister Tony Abbott and Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton, is the ill-fated criminal prosecution of Pell for historical child sex offences which saw him jailed for 14 months before the High Court unanimously set aside his conviction and acquitted him of all charges.
From within his solitary confinement cell inside Unit 8 of Melbourne’s Remand Centre, the Cardinal came to see his imprisonment as proof that anti-church sentiment had motivated the charges against him and poisoned his prospects of receiving a fair trial.
“This is a vexed and difficult business as many priests and teachers feel the pendulum has swung too far against the presumption of innocence,” he wrote in his prison diaries. “Just as wisdom and discernment are needed, so, too, courage is required of those investigating and judging, so they can be independent of the tidal waves of public opinion.”
Pell’s sense of injustice was shared by his barrister Robert Richter, KC. During a jailhouse visit, the self-described Jewish atheist encouraged Pell to read the Book of Job, in which a pious protagonist wrestles with the dilemma of undeserved suffering while maintaining his faith.
“We came from totally different personal and intellectual backgrounds but over years of working on this matter we developed a mutual respect and, I believe, an admiration,” Richter said. “Whatever else happened, he was a man of true faith, and he died that way.”
On the day of Pell’s death, Abbott described Pell’s incarceration as a form of crucifixion and declared him a saint for our times. Dutton urged the Victorian government and its institutions to reflect on their role in facilitating a political prosecution. Writing in Pell’s preferred newspaper, The Australian, Australian Catholic University law professor Greg Craven described Pell as the ultimate victim of the church’s child abuse scandal.
For Chrissie Foster, the mother of two girls sexually assaulted at primary school by a predatory Catholic priest who had been long protected by church officials, every plaudit was another cut. Both her daughters, as teenagers, resorted to substance abuse to dull the pain from their childhood trauma. Emma suicided. Katie walked in front of a car and now requires life-long care. Foster says anyone seeking to canonise Pell should read the findings of the royal commission into child sex abuse into his time in the Ballarat and Melbourne dioceses.
“They are denying the truth,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “It is not just us whingeing about our stories. Our truth has gone through the Victorian parliamentary inquiry and a forensic examination of documents in a royal commission. If you look at the unredacted part about George Pell, that is what he is about, that is how we get treated. That is the heart of him and the heart of the problem. The rest is just a facade to maintain their power, their glory and their money.”
John Ellis was sexually assaulted for five years by Father Aidan Duggan, a priest he served as an altar boy at Christ the King Catholic Church in Sydney’s Bass Hill. Ellis is synonymous with a cynical defence adopted by lawyers acting for the Sydney Archdiocese, with the approval of then Archbishop Pell, which blocked his avenue to redress through the courts, deterred other abuse survivors from pursuing litigation and protected the assets of the church.
Ellis says Pell was an enigmatic figure who, through the priority he gave to protecting the church’s finances and reputation, missed an enormous opportunity to help people who had suffered clerical abuse.
“Clearly, he was a highly intelligent and competent person. And I have it on good authority that he had a good heart. The only way I can make sense of it is he did understand all this and possibly, in his heart, had compassion for survivors but decided that was a fork in the road. He made a decision to pursue the path that would protect the interests of the church.
“He was a person with an enormous amount of power within the church. There has been very few people, I would imagine, in the Australian church who have wielded that sort of power and influence. Had he used that in a different way, things would have been very different for survivors of abuse.” Pell eventually disavowed the Ellis defence and apologised for adopting it. The NSW government abolished it in 2019.
Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli agrees Pell is the most influential clergyman Australia has produced. When asked what Pell might have achieved had he directed all his power and influence towards redressing historical sexual abuse, he replies that Pell probably thought he did.
Pell’s incarceration will remain a defining event in his life, but his legacy goes well beyond the sexual assault allegations levelled by a former St Patrick’s Cathedral choirboy. Francis Sullivan, the former chief executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council appointed by the church to facilitate its response to the royal commission, says Pell’s muscular brand of Catholic orthodoxy was a reaction against the progressive reforms of the second Vatican Council which split the church and led to the conservative papacy of John Paul II.
By the time Pell was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and certainly by 2001 when he moved to Sydney, that ecclesiastic schism was receding before a more pressing crisis. The greatest trial of Pell was not the one in the Supreme Court.
“The young Pell, as a bishop, was a person of his time, which was defensive and managing the issues from a risk management perspective rather than getting to the heart of the problem, which was the toxic nature of the church and its propensity to be self-serving and self-interested towards something that had the propensity to bring it down,” Sullivan says. “We had a narrative that developed for decades where the scandal was contextualised and minimised, and an attempt made to say it was just a few bad apples in the bunch. The royal commission demonstrated, I think quite clearly, that the Catholic Church abused children at an industrial rate.
“Over time, Pell became a symbol of the Catholic Church. The whole scandal was reduced to George Pell. He carried that personally and in lots of ways the focus and the attention of the public was concentrated on Pell and a lot of the anger and disillusionment with the Catholic Church and its performance in the whole sex abuse scandal became personified. There was a blurring between Pell the symbol and Pell the person.
Sullivan says this wasn’t fair but it was Pell’s lot. By the time findings previously redacted by the royal commission could be published without being prejudicial to Pell’s criminal proceedings, his acquittal by the High Court had already set off another furious public debate. As a result, the royal commission findings were relatively muted, although they screamed to survivors of clerical abuse.
Pell by 1973 was “not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy … he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it,” the royal commission found. By 1982, he was party to a discussion about moving one of Australia’s most prolific abusers of children, Gerard Ridsdale, from a country Victorian parish to Sydney to protect the Ballarat diocese from further scandal. It found Pell’s claim that he was deceived about this to be “implausible”.
The royal commission found that in 1989, Pell was aware of child sex abuse allegations against another notorious paedophile, Peter Searson, and failed to intervene. “It was incumbent on Bishop Pell, as an auxiliary bishop with responsibilities for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of his region, to take such action as he could.”
Put bluntly, Pell along with other priests buried his head in the sand about child sex abuse and, by doing so, aided the cover-up.
The most jarring line from Pell’s evidence, when asked what was commonly known about Ridsdale abusing children at another country parish, was his response: “I don’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t. It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.” When asked by counsel assisting to explain what he meant, Pell went on. “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated.” In 1993, he accompanied Ridsdale to court.
Viv Waller, a lawyer who specialises in historic child abuse cases and represented the St Patrick’s choirboy, said Pell before his death never properly acknowledged what the royal commission found about his conduct. “I sat through all of those royal commission hearings and each occasion when he said he didn’t know or hadn’t been told. You might think that is a plausible explanation of one or two occasions but the cumulative effect of him saying that again and again, in lots of different circumstances, just wasn’t compelling evidence.”
Where does this leave Pell’s legacy and the church?
Central to this question is the Melbourne Response, a pioneering redress scheme which Pell established in 1996, in consultation with leading civic figures such as Victoria’s then-governor Richard McGarvie and James Gobbo. The scheme appointed an independent commissioner to investigate and determine the claims of historic sex abuse, provided counselling and medical services and made ex-gratia payments to abuse survivors. It also carried an explicit rider that, if survivors preferred litigation, it would be “strenously defended” by the church. At the time of the royal commission, the scheme had had upheld 102 cases of abuse from 367 complaints and awarded nearly $10 million in ex-gratia payments.
Comensoli says when he arrived in Melbourne from Sydney, there was a “poisoned reality in perception” about the Melbourne Response, which he scrapped at the start of last year. The initial $50,000 payment cap, increased to $150,000 in 2015, was seen as meagre by survivor advocates and its reparation processes too difficult and legalistic.
“Was it a failure at the time to set up this scheme as it was? Probably not. It was something that was set up that was better than anything else that was on offer at the time. Was it the best thing that could be set up? No. In hindsight that is clearly the case.”
Francis Sullivan is less convinced. “The church authorities always had the interests of the church at heart,” he says. “A proper response to victims would have the interests of victims at heart, whatever it took.”
A consequence of the limitations of the Melbourne Response, and recent law changes by the Victorian government which removed the statute of limitations on child sex offences, nullified the Ellis defence and enabled plaintiffs to set aside old deeds of settlement, is that Melbourne Archdiocese is now a litigation capital for historic abuse cases. There is a national redress scheme and a new church redress scheme covering the four Victorian dioceses but with most complainants preferring litigation, there are currently more than 100 unresolved civil suits on Comensoli’s books. Six months ago, the first civil historic abuse case against the Melbourne Archdiocese to reach a verdict awarded nearly $2 million to the survivor. More alarmingly for the church, it established the vicarious liability of the Archbishop for the failings of his predecessors and the futility of any Ellis-style defence.
The Archdiocese is appealing that decision but Comensoli says the onus on the church is to behave like a model litigant and keep settling as many cases it can.
When Pell was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne, 27 per cent of Australians identified as Catholic according to that year’s Census. By the time of the most recent census, that figure had dropped to 20 per cent. Comensoli says the exodus of parishioners nationally cannot be fairly attributed to the Cardinal. It is the product of demographic and lifestyle changes and part of broader story of shrinking congregations in other major Christian denominations here and across the Anglosphere. History will record that the first Australian to rise to a position of influence within the Vatican presided over a declining empire at home. In his prison diaries, Pell lamented the state of the church in country Victoria, where he was raised and served his formative years as a young priest.
Literary critic Peter Craven, one of Australia’s leading conservative intellectuals, says Pell was blamed for the crimes of the church because of his thuggish public persona, but it was this same refusal to compromise, combined with an earthy manner and capacity for self-deprecation, which made him a cultural icon of the right. “He was aware of the fact that he came across like a bulldog of religious conservatism, but he could also send himself up and all sorts of people felt his magnetism and his charm.” Those charms were not extended to anyone seen as a challenge or threat to the interests of the church, whether it be a rainbow-sashed parishioner requesting communion or a victim of abuse demanding that more be done.
Sullivan says an aspect of Pell poorly understood is the extent to which his approach and attitude evolved, particularly after his elevation as Cardinal. “The older Pell, the one I dealt with through the royal commission time, I think was wiser about the approaches of the church in earlier decades. I found in him a greater propensity to be open-minded and caring.”
Even the great defender of Catholic tradition understood that after the royal commission, change was unstoppable.