George Pell criticised by Catholic bishop as 'destroyer of unity' on child sex abuse

By Bridie Jabour
August 23, 2015

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson arrives to give evidence at the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Sydney on Monday.
Photo by Dan Himbrechts

Cardinal George Pell “destroyed the unity” of the Catholic church’s response to child sex abuse, an Australian bishop has told the royal commission.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who played a key role in developing the Australian church’s response to child sex abuse, also said Pope Francis was yet to show strong leadership on the issue and one of his predecessors, John Paul II, responded “poorly” to revelations of child abuse.

Robinson worked with other bishops on an Australia-wide clergy response to abuse, Towards Healing, from 1994. When Towards Healing was close to finalisation in 1996, Pell created the Melbourne Response, taking the country’s largest dioscese out of a united response.

Robinson said Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, created the rival program because he wanted to be seen as a leader on abuse.

“What he came up with has a lot to recommend it, but I had very big problems with it too,” Robinson told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse in Sydney on Monday.

“The major one was that the very first point of contact for a victim was a QC in a city office ... I found the system was asking too much that people go to a city office and see a QC, and that in any case he had destroyed our unity.”

Robinson said the global church’s original response to revelations of the systemic abuse of children focused too much on priests rather than victims.

“John Paul II handled the abuse poorly,” he said. “Imagine way back in 1987 that he’d come to the microphone at St Peter’s Square and said something like this: ‘I received a report during the week that shocked me to the core. It tells of widespread sexual abuse of minors. How terrible ... I’ve got the responsibility and I’ve got to act [and] I call on every bishop in the world to act with me ... There’s no place in the church for it. From now on part of the oath of loyalty [to the pope] is being loyal to victims. If you’re not loyal to victims you’re not loyal to me.’

“It would have sent a message to the whole church. Instead what we got was silence, so bishops were loyal to the silence.

“It didn’t fit into his image of church and he couldn’t deal with it. Real leadership from the pope would have been marvellous. From subsequent popes we haven’t had that kind of leadership, not even from Francis.”

Robinson has long spoken out against the church’s initial response to victims of child sex abuse.

He was always opposed to bishops dealing with abuse by themselves.

“[The response was] too orientated to priests, rather than victims. It envisions each diocese setting up its own response and I never wanted that, I wanted one response for the whole country,” he said.

“I thought as long as each bishop was doing his own thing we would never have a consistent answer, we would never have a good answer.”

An extract from a discussion paper was read out to the commission which was supposed to stay private was read out to the commission which said there were worse sins than sexually abusing children, such as abortion or homicide.

Robinson was so outraged by the quote that he copied it down so it could be reproduced.

“I think when a child gets abused that’s what makes God angry, saying these things are worse is a concept that’s totally foreign to me. It got to me. How can I talk to people who think this way?” he said.

When speculating on what the church could do to prevent future cases of child abuse Robinson pointed to reform.

“Celibacy itself isn’t the cause of abuse but I believe obligatory celibacy does,” he said.

“I think the church should look at it, then it would decide to leave it behind.”

Robinson said the church’s culture was too male dominated and allowing women into the clergy was also a worthy proposal but would have too much opposition in the Vatican.

He said those who took a firm stance against child sex abuse risked losing the confidence of their priests.

Robinson cited Pell, who subsequently became a cardinal and archbishop of Sydney, as an example of such a bishop, although he did not detail why he thought priests lost confidence in Pell.

“A bishop who loses the support of his priests is a most ineffective bishop,” Robinson said.

“The most common word you might have heard is disengagement ... That particular bishop lost the support of the majority of his priests and that alone made him a most ineffectual bishop.”

Asked specifically who he was referring to, Robinson said: “Cardinal Pell. The majority of the priests wished he’d get transferred somewhere else.”

Robinson, 78, offered to come to the commission early as he has terminal cancer and wanted to give evidence while he still could. He spent 50 years as a priest in Sydney and 31 years as a bishop.

He was shocked when, at a meeting in 1987, bishops were given a presentation about the extent of abuse of children by priests in the church in Australia and around the world.

“It was a considerable shock to me and I believe to many of the other bishops, because for the first time it showed us that this was a large-scale problem present in most places and most countries,” he said.

“And that I found incredibly shocking. I really had no idea that priests could do such things. I’d only heard snippets before that and now here is a presentation that you couldn’t deny that showed this was a problem.”


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