Our Opinion

The conviction of George Pell – the repercussions yet to be realised

I am distantly related to a Catholic priest. He is an elderly man who is now semi-retired but continues to live and work in his parish located on the outskirts of London. He has a lifestyle that is probably best described as austere – having stayed with him for a few days several years ago, I can attest to the fact that it is indeed austere. While materially poor or at least displaying none of the trappings of privilege or wealth, he is a man who is conversely rich in intellect, compassion and sincerity. Aware of the kind of work I did, he pummelled me with questions during my stay with him about the sexual abuse of children including especially abuse perpetrated by priests and others living in monastic orders. It was apparent throughout our talks that he was deeply troubled and conflicted by a mix of sadness, anger and a sense of betrayal – a palpable anguish. I can only imagine what further havoc the news of George Pell’s conviction has brought to his mind and spirit. In many ways, he is, along with many other men and women who devoutly share his faith, also a victim of the unconscionable actions of George Pell. This is not to suggest in any way that the harm inflicted upon them is comparable with the harm experienced by the boys offended against by Pell or their families and loved ones, and I’m quite sure that these people would not want to be compared with them in this way either. They are nevertheless experiencing their own pain and it is likely that many are going through the turmoil of querying either or both their confidence in the Church and their actual Christian beliefs and faith.

It’s relevant that when sentencing Pell, County Court Chief Judge Peter Kid drew some distinctions between Pell the man, Pell the Cardinal with a role in personifying the morals and teachings of the Catholic Church, and the Church itself. “In sentencing you today, Cardinal Pell, I am not sitting in judgement of the Catholic religion or Church. It is George Pell who falls to be sentenced”. Nevertheless, Judge Kidd also noted that Pell’s “obvious status as Archbishop cast a powerful shadow over his offending” describing the abuse of his power and authority and the associated breach of trust that the boys were entitled to in their relationship with Pell as “grave”. This is where the lines can become blurry within the court of public opinion, if not a court of law, in drawing distinctions between Pell the man, Pell the Cardinal and the Church.

There appeared to be no attempt to draw or recognise these distinctions in the favourable character reference provided by former Prime Minister John Howard or within Tony Abbott’s description of Pell in media reports as “a fine human being and a great churchman”. Fortunately, public comments by the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, urging Australians to support the victims of child sexual abuse were much more appropriate and worthy of a person holding this office.

Then of course there has been the public commentary provided by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine including their extraordinary attacks on ‘juries that get it wrong’ – or perhaps not so extraordinary in the case of Mr Bolt when consideration is given to his usual pattern of using perverted logic when it suits him to twist arguments that support his own world views. To the best of my knowledge, Mr Bolt has never before set himself up as an advocate for the ‘wrongfully convicted’ (with the exception perhaps being in relation to findings concerning his own breaches of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2011), and the dragging up by Miranda Devine of the Lindy Chamberlain case as evidence of the justice system’s fallibility is too convenient and home-spun to be taken at all seriously. It seems unlikely that either commentator is motivated by a quest for justice. Rather, it seems that both are desperately and clumsily using attack (of the justice system) as the first line of defence (of the privileged establishment they shared with Pell).

It appears that the Catholic Church itself has not, to its credit, become publicly embroiled in these debates and has been avoiding any exacerbation of the reactions to Pell’s conviction and sentencing. The question is however whether the Church has taken a sufficiently active role in de-bunking some of the views expressed and in leading a way forward. Prior to Pell’s conviction, the Church issued statements indicating that it would accept the court’s adjudication and take its own actions in respect of Pell informed by the findings of his guilt or innocence in accordance with its own ‘rule book’ and in February, the Church’s ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ initiated its own investigation of the charges against Pell. Actions that the Church may take involve laicisation, otherwise known as de-frocking, which would banish Pell from the Church, take away his ordination as a Cardinal and strip him of any other clerical title, and remove obligations held by the Church to house him or provide for his medical care.  Due to Pell’s ranking within the Church hierarchy, these are decisions that can only be made by Pope Francis.

While on the one hand, the Church’s stated intention to accept and be informed by the court’s findings was welcomed news, it also prompts some discomfort – discomfort from thinking that the Church felt compelled to make a statement of this type, as if it had a choice about whether or not to accept the court’s findings and exercise its own responsibilities in accordance with these findings.

Admittedly, there are some circumstances when the Church may justifiably not accept the findings of a court, but these would seem to be limited to those where a country’s system of law may be corrupted or used as a means of undertaking religious persecution. There has been no accusation of this type made by the Church in relation to Australia’s system of law and to contemplate the Church making such an accusation would be outrageous, so why therefore imply that the Church has any choice in the matter other than to accept the court’s findings?

Of course, the wheels of justice in their dealings with Pell have not yet stopped spinning. The appeal process has not yet run its course, the outcomes of which will undoubtedly produce a further flurry of media and public commentary. The views expressed are likely to be extreme with either the confirmation or over-turning of any or all of his convictions being welcomed or railed against as a travesty of justice. Whatever the range of views are that will be expressed, it is likely that they will share as a common element the muddying of understandings and expectations of the judicial process with value-laden praise or criticism borne out of personal experience or religious and moral beliefs.

How the Church itself responds to the outcomes of the appeal will be of interest. In the event that the convictions are over-turned, will Pell’s de-frocking proceed in the absence of a reason (or some may say ‘excuse’) for this action having been provided to the Church by a court of law? Beyond the criminal offences for which Pell was charged, there is a litany of other complaints levelled against Pell that have not, as yet, made their way into a court of law – alleged ‘bribing’ of victims of sexual abuse, covering up of abuse and the concealment of misconduct by other priests. Are these matters to be also investigated and taken into account by the Church in independently reaching its own ‘verdict’ and judgement about his de-frocking or other possible responses?

At the heart of the widely disparate commentary and responses that Pell’s conviction has already prompted with more likely to emerge when the outcome of his appeal becomes known is the historical conflict between Church and State. To what sets of laws are priests, Church officials and Catholics primarily accountable – State and Commonwealth laws or Canon Law? How can this be managed, if at all, when the two sets of laws and the outcomes of their application conflict? The wording on a placard waved by a protester outside the court where Pell was sentenced summed up the tension well – Religion or Law?

It would be a mistake however to think that this tension is confined to the relationship that exists between the Catholic Church and governments or is limited to only those circumstances when courts of law come into play. It’s a tension that exists, even if not obviously, between all faith-based organisations and governments, especially when these faith-based organisations are in receipt of government grants. What Pell’s case is potentially bringing to the fore along with various inquiries not the least of which includes the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, are increasing levels of public expectation that tax payer dollars will not be allocated by governments to organisations with a values base or ethos that may conflict with, be imposed upon or compromise the best interests of those who are the recipients of their services. This potentially extends beyond the more obvious conflicts such as the confidentiality of the confessional within the Catholic Church that received much media attention during the course of the aforementioned Royal Commission. It may also be regarded as encompassing the withholding or massaging of services or advice provided to client groups to avoid conflict with an organisation’s values base or religious beliefs, the inclusion of religious messages within mission statements and descriptions of the services being provided, and the branding of these organisations, all of which may sometimes be unacceptable or cause offence to some clients.

It would similarly be a mistake to think that this is a matter that will pose challenges for faith-based non-government organisations only. The level of scrutiny placed on the values of other non-government organisations and how these values are perceived and understood by governments and the general public are also likely to come under increased levels of scrutiny. For example, some governments have, in the past, ruled out giving grants to ‘for-profit’ organisations or alternatively placed caveats around the funding they do receive. Despite the protests of these organisations that they re-invest their profits into service development and improvements and the fact that there are many ‘not-for-profit’ organisations with extensive property and investment portfolios that are just as profit-oriented or commercial in nature, the perception of organisations ‘profiting’ from their delivery of human services has not been regarded as palatable by these governments.

Similarly, while the increasing use of the term ‘industry’ to describe the community service sector is embraced by some, for others it represents a dilution and cheapening of the unique profile, motivations and philosophies of this sector that should not be compared with industries such as mining, hospitality or retail.

So where does the answer lie in seeking ways forward towards achieving a resolution of these emerging tensions? While not yet known what the full impact of Queensland’s human rights legislation will be, it seems that it will, at the least, make a significant contribution. This Act will require a massive re-conceptualisation of the services provided to children and families and the manner in which these services are delivered. Adoption of a rights framework is likely to serve as the catalyst for not only changing ways in which government allocates and regulates services, but will also change ways in which non-government organisations frame and manage their delivery of these services. Even more significantly, it will shift the content and nature of the dialogue that exists between government and non-government organisations by placing the rights and entitlements of children and their families at the centre of these discussions and hold all parties accountable to them. This surely must be regarded as a good thing and something that was obviously absent in the transgressions of Pell the man, Pell the Cardinal and the Church in its responses to the abuses he perpetrated throughout this time.

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director

PeakCare Queensland

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11 Comments

  1. Name withheld on March 24, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    A sensitively written blog but one which doesn’t pull any punches

  2. Anonymous on March 24, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    It will be interesting to see if the tensions you have identified grow stronger. Of course, we shouldn’t wait until that happens before governments and non-government organisations – whether they are faith-based or not – start dealing with them.

  3. Industry? on March 24, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    I must admit that I am one of the people who baulks when I hear the sector referred to as an industry. To me, it’s turning our clients into ‘commodities’ and I can’t imagine that it is a term that appeals to them. Keep up the good work in challenging us to reflect on our values and the importance of the language that we use.

  4. HRA - wait and see on March 26, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    I hope that the Human Rights Act does bring about those shifts in thinking that you flagged and some shifts in the dialogue. It’s needed.

  5. Margaret Pestorius on April 1, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks Lindsay. There are a lot of practicing and ‘cultural’ Catholics caring about community.
    As one of them it is good to read something with compassion at its heart.

    I’d like to say frankly that until this country looks at Truth Telling around the invasion, and the Frontier Wars, the Frontier violence and brutality that was BUILT UPON sexual slavery of Aboriginal women AND children, then nothing will be resolved. Sexual violence is embedded in the colonial legacy of punishment and submission and many are still caught up in the secrecy that binds transgenerational trauma. I certainly am not just referring to the trauma of First Nations people – but also very much to perpetrators who’s experiences/actions are caught in the tightest silence. Who will speak of wrongs committed by our own?

    So Makarrata – truth telling with justice, healing and conflict resolution – it must be. So that we can pull the sexual violence of the past and present into the light. Otherwise there will just be continued hatefulness and resentment without truth and healing. We all suffer including our beloved Land. My brothers blood cries out ….

  6. Sam on May 7, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Well you got that wrong didn’t you?

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