Pell Stands Discredited. His Failure Is One of Understanding

By Muriel Porter
WA Today

July 10, 2008

AS THE controversy deepens over Cardinal George Pell's handling of a sexual abuse case, comparisons are inevitably being drawn with the situation faced by former Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth in 2003.

Under sustained public pressure, Dr Hollingworth was forced to step down as governor-general over his mishandling of sexual

abuse complaints when he was Archbishop of Brisbane. In particular, he had been criticised for his response to a decades-old case involving the abuse by a priest of a schoolgirl in his care.

Now Pell is facing calls to resign, within days of the Pope's arrival in Australia for World Youth Day. The current controversy for Pell concerns an adult man indecently assaulted by a Catholic priest, since removed from the priesthood. In the matter that helped trip up Hollingworth, the priest had gone on to become a bishop, still licensed to officiate in the church in his retirement despite the complaints of his victim. Hollingworth, as Archbishop of Brisbane, had failed to remove that licence.

The similarities between the cases come down to a seeming lack of understanding of the nature of abuse on the part of these two church leaders. Hollingworth was criticised when he hinted that the schoolgirl had initiated the relationship with the priest. Pell has similarly courted anger because he decided that the abuse was a consensual act. In coming to this view, he ignored the contrary advice of the church's own investigator.

This may explain why Pell insisted in a letter to the victim, Anthony Jones, that there were no other complaints of sexual assault against Father Terence Goodall even though on the same day he wrote to another victim of assault by the same priest.

Neil Mitchell summed up the situation on 3AW yesterday, when he repeated several times that Pell "just doesn't get it".

Pell's comments in a television interview on Wednesday night corroborate that assessment. He spoke of taking the view that the act was consensual because of the circumstances. "There was a candlelight dinner, they swam together, they were sitting on the bed together," he said. "It was because of the circumstances as explained that I took that view "

Similarly, Hollingworth was seemingly confused about the abusive nature of the case involving Bishop Donald Shearman, because the relationship between the schoolgirl and her abuser continued for many years.

As Anthony Jones has explained, he initially tolerated Goodall's abuse because of his respect for the clergy. Had it been anyone else but a man of the cloth, he probably would have hit him, he is quoted as saying. That is what is central to the issue of clergy sexual abuse, and what makes it different in kind to that perpetrated by other people in positions of power and influence over their victims.

Clergy, particularly in the Catholic Church, have traditionally been exalted as representatives not just of the church, but of God. For devout believers, particularly in earlier generations, they were untouchable. Abusive clergy often deliberately misused their status as holy men. Claiming "God wants us to have this relationship" was typical of their abuse technique.

Some commentators have described this as "soul stealing", because many victims are so scarred by clergy abuse that they lose their Christian faith as well as the other damage they have suffered. People who are particularly vulnerable, either because of their age, personality or personal situation, find it spiritually almost impossible to reject the sexual advances of people they hold in such awe.

Until the abuse crisis hit the Christian churches in the mid-1990s, most church leaders held views similar to those of Pell. If there seemed to be any element of the abuse that suggested consent, they assumed it was indeed consensual. They fundamentally misunderstood the significant power imbalance between clergy and victim.

But by the 21st century, there was no longer any excuse. The evidence of the nature of clergy abuse was laid out for all to see. Pell, like Hollingworth, should have understood the sexual and spiritual dynamics at work. That it seems he did not, even while he was developing church protocols for dealing with the crisis, is deeply disturbing.

This is perhaps the gravest condemnation he now faces, above and beyond the issue of the two conflicting letters he signed on the same day.

Just recently, a retired Sydney Catholic bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, has tried to point out the danger the church is in because of the failure of its leadership to understand the reality before their eyes. A former director of the church's processes for handling sexual abuse complaints, he is deeply disturbed by the church's refusal to deal honestly with the issue instead of managing it superficially to avoid public scandal.

But Robinson has been ignored and pilloried by the church hierarchy, evidently unable to hear authentic, constructive criticism. Now, on the eve of the Pope's visit, misguided management has itself led to scandal. George Pell stands discredited. Worse, any apology the Pope makes to abuse victims while he is here may similarly be discredited.

It is unlikely the leader of Australia's largest Christian denomination will stand down from office. But the damage done this week would take much more than that to be redeemed.

Dr Muriel Porter is the author of Sex, Power and the Clergy (Hardie Grant Books, 2003).


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