Collins Comments on Catholic Church Scandal

By Ali Moore

July 7, 2008

Ali Moore speaks with Dr Paul Collins, a former priest and one of the most controversial commentators on the Catholic Church following the allegations of a cover-up by Cardinal George Pell.


ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Dr Paul Collins is a former priest and one of the more controversial commentators on the Catholic Church.

He's also a broadcaster and author whose most recent book 'Believers, Does Australian Catholicism have a future?' was published earlier this year.

Dr Paul Collins has been watching events unfold and I spoke to him late today in our Canberra studio.

Dr Paul Collins how serious is this for the Catholic Church and for its highest representative in this country, particularly coming as it does just days before the arrival of the Pope?

DR PAUL COLLINS, FORMER CATHOLIC PRIEST & AUTHOR: Well I think we've got to remember that Cardinal Pell himself was accused of sexual abuse not long after he became the Archbishop of Sydney.

And essentially he was cleared of those charges but he certainly went through a fairly difficult stage when he was facing up to that. So I mean the sexual abuse story has been running now since really the late '80s.

So this story has been going on and on and on and it's seemingly almost endless. I think that the impact, I think people just shrug their shoulders. They just say oh well another example, you know, it's something that we've always known.

So I don't think that it will necessarily have a big impact on World Youth Day. What I think it will do, though, it may well have, it will certainly create problems for Cardinal Pell; certainly create problems for his credibility, and his authority in the church in Australia.

ALI MOORE: How severe do you think those problems are going to be particularly when it comes to the question of credibility?

If we look at some of what Cardinal Pell has said, he says the fact he attributed the finding that the claim of aggravated sexual assault could not be substantiated, the fact he attributed that to his investigator Howard Murray, when in fact Howard Murray made no such finding.

He says that was an innocent error and an overstatement. He talks about his letter to the victim of having, being badly worded and a mistake. Is that good enough for a man of his standing?

DR PAUL COLLINS: Well, you know, I mean I can understand how mistakes are made, you know, I'm a human being myself. I've made some terrible mistakes in my time, and some of those mistakes have impacted on other people very badly.

However I would have thought that particularly given that this was not long after Cardinal Pell's own experience, that he would have been looking at these kinds of issues, much more carefully.

I mean to me, you know, there's a kind of a lurking question here. The abuse of the attar boy, for instance, that he mentions in his letter, I mean did he report that to the police?

I mean this is the kind of this is the essence of the story, it seems to me, and what responsibility did he have in that case? Was this something that happened before his time or did it happen under his watch and what are his responsibilities in the light of that?

I mean I think there is still quite a number of unanswered questions but at the same time I think we have to say that I really do have some sympathy for Cardinal Pell in this situation because these are very difficult, very sensitive cases and I suppose it is easy to make a mistake, that I can understand.

ALI MOORE: But isn't the very fact they are sensitive, they are complicated, he is the highest representative of the church in the land, I was him writing the letter, he would take great care to get it right?

DR PAUL COLLINS: I would have thought that's what you do but, you know, we're human beings, we make mistakes.

But allowing for that at the same time I do think that it does affect his credibility that he hasn't apparently taken care with this particular issue.

ALI MOORE: When he talks about bad wording in terms of his letter, part of what he's referring to is the claim that he made that no other allegations had been made against Father Goodall when in fact we now know, as you said, there was the attar boy.

There are now suggestions of other cases. If other cases are proved to have been known at that time and known to the Cardinal, what then?

DR PAUL COLLINS: I think that, that places the Cardinal in a very, very difficult position. I don't know that evidence, I haven't heard the evidence as I understand it, it is coming on 'Lateline' this evening but I mean until we see what that evidence is it's very, very hard to comment.

But hypothetically, and that's all we can do, hypothetically it would seem to me to make Cardinal Pell's situation a very, very difficult one, especially if he was responsible bishop at the time when these cases were reported.

And if he knew about these cases then it seems to me that his position he's going to have to do a lot more explaining.

ALI MOORE: A lot more explaining, his position is difficult, they're your words, would his position be untenable?

DR PAUL COLLINS: I think we have to wait and see what the evidence is. I don't think we can, it's not; I mean I've seen enough of these situations to want to prejudge them.

I think we really need to see what evidence is brought forward this evening apparently and then I think we can flake a judgment on it.

ALI MOORE: What is the process of review? Indeed is there one given the position Cardinal Pell holds within the church?

DR PAUL COLLINS: As I understand it, there is a way of reviewing cases. That is that if a person is unsatisfied with the decision they can ask the professional standards committee to appoint a reviewer who is totally neutral, who is from outside the Church.

Often the person will be a lawyer because of the legal issues that are involved in this and, you know, usually I would expect that the lawyer would not be a Catholic and would not necessarily be, you know, carrying the Catholic Church's bags for them.

When the reviewer puts in their report that still doesn't bind the bishop. The bishop can still, if you like, say thank you for the report but I'm not going to act on that, I'm going to use my own authority.

This, of course, I suppose, highlights the situation of the whole question of accountability on the part of bishops, the whole question of accountability on the part of the Church.

ALI MOORE: Are you in effect saying that Cardinal Pell is in effect above reproach?

DR PAUL COLLINS: Well, look, it's not for me reproach Cardinal Pell. I think the word reproach is perhaps the wrong word there.

I would certainly say as an archbishop or as a bishop he is essentially in the end accountable only to himself and to God and at times in these kinds of situations God can be a remarkably long way away.

ALI MOORE: Of course there's also the Vatican, Cardinal Pell says he's not informed the Vatican. Would the Vatican be aware now of the circumstances of this and what do you think their response would be?

DR PAUL COLLINS: I think that especially in view of the Pope coming next week, or next Sunday, the Vatican would certainly be a ware of the situation.

I mean their tendency, especially under Pope Benedict is to say well, this is a local problem, this needs to be dealt with locally. However, a lot of these sexual abuse cases, of course, end up in Rome to be decided by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith which Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict presided over.

So I'm sure they would be aware of what's happening and I'm sure they will be looking at it carefully. What I think it does is that it puts more pressure on them, and specifically on the Pope, to apologise to the victims of sexual abuse. I mean I don't think we can avoid that now.

ALI MOORE: Dr Paul Collins many thanks for talking to us.


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