Cardinals Conduct Holds Bitter Lesson for Abuse Victims

The Age

July 9, 2008

CARDINAL George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, is about to play host to the Pope and an estimated 25,000 young Catholics from around the world. It can be assumed that yet another scandal about clerical sexual abuse is not the kind of advance publicity he would have been hoping for. The controversy in which he is now embroiled, however, appears to be of his own making even if the accusations of dishonesty that have been levelled against him are set aside. To many critics, inside and outside the church, of the way the Catholic hierarchy has dealt with the sexual-abuse crisis, the lesson will be that Australia's most senior Catholic cleric has learned nothing.

In 1982, Anthony Jones, then 29 and working in religious education, was assaulted by a Sydney Catholic priest, Terrance Goodall. Twenty years later he lodged a formal complaint with the church, and the matter was investigated by a former policeman, Howard Murray, who recommended that the allegations in the complaint be sustained without qualification. Mr Murray also investigated another complaint against Goodall, by a man who was an 11-year-old altar boy at the time of the assault. In 2005 Goodall was convicted of indecently assaulting Mr Jones under a law dating from the time of the incident, when homosexual acts were still illegal in NSW.

In a letter to Mr Jones, however, Cardinal Pell told him his allegation was not being upheld by the church because no other complaint had been received about Goodall. On the same day, he also wrote to the other man who had complained about the priest. The cardinal now says that his letter to Mr Jones was a mistake, because he had believed that aggravated sexual assault was synonymous with rape. The letter was "poorly put", he maintains, because he was attempting to inform Mr Jones that there had been no other allegation of rape.

In an ABC interview on Monday Mr Jones accused Cardinal Pell of misrepresenting the truth. "He had to know that there were other complaints because he wrote to the man who as an 11-year-old boy was assaulted by Father Goodall on the same day. His signatures are on the letters, so he had to know."

Whether or not Cardinal Pell's explanation of his response to Mr Jones' complaint is disingenuous, however, it is undeniable that he has at least grossly mishandled the matter. The cardinal did receive Mr Murray's report on the complaints against Goodall, and shortly after signed letters to two complainants on the same day. What would be said about a senior officer of the Attorney-General's Department or the Department of Human Services who, after responding to two victims of sexual assault, later admitted that he had misunderstood the term "aggravated sexual assault", and who appeared to have forgotten about one of the victims when writing to the other? There would be a public outcry, with demands for the officer's dismissal. Some of those making such demands might even be prominent church leaders.

Cardinal Pell is not going to resign or be sacked as a result of his handling of Mr Jones' complaint. But if Pope Benedict does apologise to the victims of clerical sexual abuse during his visit to Sydney, as many within the church have been urging him to do, the apology will have a hollow ring not because of any insincerity on the Pope's part, but because the practice of senior clerics still does not reflect sufficient understanding of, and compassion for, the plight of victims.

Even if there was no deliberate misrepresentation of the truth on Cardinal Pell's part, the implicit message in his letter to Mr Jones and his subsequent defences of it is that sexual abuse by those who have the pastoral care of others is a problem to be managed, in order to minimise damage to the church though bad publicity. The bitter irony, of course, is that such attitudes generate even worse publicity, as has now happened in the case of Mr Jones.

And it is not the only bad publicity the church must contend with in the lead-up to World Youth Day. Changes in the law in NSW will allow police to arrest and fine anyone deemed to be causing "annoyance or inconvenience" to those attending World Youth Day events. In effect, this gives police broad powers to prevent even peaceful protests. It is a shameful infringement of free speech, and Cardinal Pell ought to have advised the NSW Government that the laws are unnecessary. In the wake of the revelations about Cardinal Pell's handling of Mr Jones' complaint, the likelihood is that there will now be more protests than might otherwise have been the case.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.