Cardinal Pell meets the media after a meeting with survivors
The missing context in media coverage of Australian abuse and Cardinal Pell
Screen shot of Cardinal George Pell testifying by video link from Rome to a Royal Commission in Sydney.
It is a remarkable coincidence that Cardinal George Pell, one of the Vatican’s most senior figures, should be giving evidence to an Australian child abuse enquiry in the week that the Spotlight movie received an Oscar, and not long after the Pope’s safeguarding advisory body suspended one of its members.
It is also remarkable that this extraordinary confluence of events should be taking place in Lent, a time for facing past failings and sins. There is a strong sackcloth-and-ashes feel both to Spotlight, and to the evidence that Cardinal Pell is giving each night over video link from the Quirinale Hotel in Rome to the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to sexual child abuse.
The Commission is investigating the extent to which Cardinal Pell was party to decisions by bishops in Ballarat and Melbourne to shuffle paedophile priests between parishes, despite the appalling harm they committed. This is the third time that Pell has voluntarily given testimony to the Commission.
Pell has been firm in rebutting claims that he knew or should have known about those cases but contrite about the appalling mishandling by bishops.
“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” the Cardinal told the lead counsel, Gail Furness. “The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the Church in many places, certainly in many places, has mucked things up, has let people down.”
Specifically over Gerald Ridsdale, one of the most notorious priest abusers with more than 50 victims in the 1970s-80s, the decisions taken or not taken by the then Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, constituted “a catastrophe, a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church,” Pell said.
Although he was not party to those decisions, Pell confessed, with admirable candour, that he was not inclined at that time to pay attention to rumours of priests molesting children. “If a priest denied such activity, I was strongly inclined to accept that denial,” Pell said.
Asked if, as one of the bishops’s official advisors on his so-called Board of Consultors, he was curious as to why Ridsdale was being constantly transferred, Pell admitted he was happy to take the bishop’s word that it was appropriate for him to be shifted.
“Gentle and euphemistic language … was regularly used by Bishop Mulkearns on these occasions, so that some of us were kept in the dark,” he told the Commission.
Last night he was confronted with the history of Fr Peter Searson, who tape-recorded children’s confessionals, forced them to kneel between his legs, pulled a handgun on parishioners, stabbed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children and held a knife up to a young girl’s chest while saying, “If you move, this will go through you.”
Cardinal Pell, who was an auxiliary of Melbourne at the time, said he had only recently learned of the stories, and that at the time he had not been “informed about the variety and the seriousness of the problems” by Archbishop Frank Little.
When the Commission put to him that this was an “extraordinary” position to take, Pell answered that it was an “extraordinary world” at the time, “a world of crimes and cover-ups. And people did not want the status quo to be disturbed.”
Pell’s apparent detachment has caused outrage. A well-known columnist who has previously defended the cardinal says that either he is lying or he was ‘dangerously indifferent’.
On Monday night he drew gasps of shock from a group of Australian abuse survivors who had flown over to Rome to hear the Cardinal give evidence at the Quirinale. It was when the commission chairman, incredulous, asked Pell if he had really heard nothing about Ridsdale being a paedophile, given how widespread the rumours were.
“I don’t know whether it was common knowledge or not,” Pell replied. “It’s a sad story but it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
He had recently moved to Ballarat after finishing his doctorate at Oxford and was busy managing the diocese’s education provision and teaching. “I had no reason to turn my mind to the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated,” he said.
The remarks were greeted with shocked silence, and then jeers — which have continued in an outraged Australian press, fed by indignant quotes from survivors.
The truth that has been ignored
Yet Pell has honestly named the point which consistently gets ignored in the coverage of child sex abuse, especially in relation to the Church — namely, the vast gulf of moral awareness and empathy that separates our time from the 1970s-80s.
Back then, people didn’t much know or care about child abuse. There was a generalised social silence. Victims hardly ever complained. It wasn’t seen as a police matter, and if the police were informed they tended to pass the matter onto the bishop to deal with.
To the extent it was a problem — as it was, clearly, for bishops at the time who had to decide what to do with their priests — the focus was always on the perpetrator, not the victims. It was seen as a sickness that needed treatment and time away on leave, like alcoholism, followed by rehabilitation in the form of another parish assignment. When Cardinal Pell recalls the discussion about Ridsdale being conducted in vague, euphemistic language, he exactly captures the time. The words “paedophilia” or “child sexual abuse” barely existed in common parlance.
The same euphemisms were deployed by organizations such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association which argued for the legalization of sex with under-age children, whose members (they included one of Boston’s most notorious paedophile priests, Paul Shanley) were interviewed on the media as part of a nationwide debate about the frontiers of legitimate sexual expression. To look back at such debates now is to be amazed. No one, it seems, thought of the victims. Barely anyone, it seems, imagined there were victims.
As Hugo Rifkind recalls, as recently as 1989 in the UK the late disc-jockey John Peel was so relaxed about sex with the underage that he told a funny anecdote in a newspaper interview about accidentally receiving fellatio from a 13-year-old. Nobody alerted the police or appeared even to notice.
A growing awareness
What Spotlight brilliantly draws out is the growing moral realisation that comes with embracing the point of view of the victims. But it could only happen because the reporters truffled them out, and persuaded them to speak.
Even then, few could communicate their experience. When a victim tells one of the reporters that he was “molested”, she asks him to be more specific: “the time for sanitising language is over,” she tells him, giving permission for the pain to be expressed in words hitherto avoided: rape, anal penetration, forced masturbation. At that moment, the door began to be opened on the harrowing and desperately sad hidden world of the bewildered abused child, usually poor and lonely, whose craving for affection was brutally exploited for the gratification of older men, and who carried their trauma into addiction, depression and suicide.
As the language was found, the pain could begin to be expressed — and the evaders became crusaders. That conversion took place in the Boston Globe itself, as the reporters begin to realize that it was a story that the newspaper itself had unwittingly buried. They had been given the information, but didn’t act on it, not until 2001, when an outsider — a new Jewish editor, flown in from Miami— began to see the story that no one else had wanted to or cared to or were capable of seeing.
From evaders to crusaders
The evasion was not abnormal or pathological. It was typical and normal. It still is, in many quarters. It is normal because, on the whole, people have trouble hearing the voice of victims until they finally do.
As a society, we have barely begun to face the uncomfortable truth that anywhere between 8 and 20 per cent of British people have suffered abuse as children — something like 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders, according to a Guardian collation of different studies in an article by one of the sharpest reporters in our country. Child sexual abuse remains hidden, and silent.
Yet this knowledge seems to create barely a ripple, just as the massive 2002 Irish study which showed that 27 per cent of Irish adults had been sexually abused as children was pretty much forgotten by political and social leaders who were furiously excoriating the Church — and rightly – for its shameful cover-ups.
Of those, 60 per cent had been abused by people within their own families, and most of the rest by people within the family circle of neighbours and friends. Less than 2 per cent of the abuse had been committed by clergy.
The Globe, like the rest of Boston society (its police and judges and political leaders) was an evader. Cardinal Pell, like almost everyone at the time, was an evader. The BBC, whose dressing rooms were brazenly used by Jimmy Saville to abuse teenagers, was an evader.
Should further evidence of the Church being an evader be needed, yesterday saw the publication of a devastating report into the Pennsylvania diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, that charted the usual sad story of at least 5 abuser priests and systematic concealment over decades to protect the Church’s image. The police were part of the cover-up.
It is the same pattern, over and again, whether in the Church or in any other institution. No institution displayed awareness of the suffering of the victims of the time.
Society was deaf. We were deaf.
Now, like almost everyone in Church and society now, Pell is a crusader. So, too, are the BBC, the Boston Globe, the Vatican, the police, and the judiciary. Western society has been converted to the voice of the victim.
Conflating past and present
Yet what is missing is an acknowledgement of that moral conversion, a paradigm shift in Western society. Refusing to admit that it was all once different, we seem to want to castigate those who, back then, shared that lack of awareness.
This same displacement lies behind a consistent unwillingness to recognise that the Church — which is now the leading organization worldwide in prevention — has itself undergone that process of conversion, and is now a major part of the solution.
Yet so much reporting continues to be predicated on the assumption that “the Vatican” needs to be “made aware” of the problem, or that “the Church” needs to face up to some kind of intrinsic sickness. The interrogation of Cardinal Pell has been underpinned by this thinly veiled condescension.
What is missing from this frame is the story of what happened in the Church after the Boston crisis, as Christopher White points out. Sadly, Spotlight‘s producers have exploited the myth of the Church as an unreformed institution. Surrounded by the cast and crew in Hollywood on Sunday night, Michael Sugar issued a call for Pope Francis “to protect the children and restore the faith” — as if this is the first he has heard about the matter.
What is also missing is the way the impulse for reform first came from within the Church. The books from the early 1990s which, in Spotlight, the survivor pulls from his box, were by Catholics: Richard Sipe and Jason Berry. The latter’s crusading journalism, backed by the National Catholic Reporter, provided the first systematic attempt to document the evasion, at least a decade before the Globe became interested in the story.
As Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said, in response to Spotlight, “The media’s role in revealing the sexual abuse crisis opened a door through which the Church has walked in responding to the needs of survivors.” But it was firstly Catholic journalism that opened that door.
The Australian enquiry into institutional responses, like the Goddard enquiry just beginning now in the UK, is necessary. We need to understand. All our institutions need to sit in sackcloth and ashes and repent their collective deafness to the voice of victims, while recognizing that they now have the benefit of an awareness of that voice their predecessors did not have.
But to move on from the crisis and to learn from it, we have to avoid scapegoating particular institutions or individuals by heaping indignation on them for their lack of past awareness. That is another symptom of the displacement activity that has long dogged this issue.
Realizing that shame and guilt and evasion brought about yesterday’s silence, we can put in place measures to ensure it can never happen again; and finally see the Catholic Church — the institution that has undergone the most radical conversion of all Western institutions — as now a leader (however imperfect still) in that field of prevention.
Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. This article first appeared on its website.
What happened to the presumption of innocence?
Cardinal Pell meets the media after a meeting with survivors
The Australian media has been in a frenzy this week as the country’s most senior Catholic cleric – and head of Vatican finances – Cardinal George Pell, testified to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
For his supporters he is a man of principles and integrity, but for his critics, Pell was culpably negligent in failing to act on reports of abominable sexual abuse by priests in the dioceses of Ballarat and Melbourne.
Though no charges have been laid against him, in the court of public opinion he is a guilty man. As Pell wrapped up his testimony via video-link in Rome’s Hotel Quirinale, almost all of the major Australian mastheads condemned him for his gross inaction and mocked his supposed “ignorance” of the abuse. Commentators demanded his resignation and abuse victims decried his lack of compassion.
Yet after reading the transcripts of Pell’s 19 ½ hours in the witness box, it strikes me there are several key issues that have not received sufficient attention.
I am not arguing for Pell’s innocence or guilt. But the proceedings of the Commission are supposed to be fair – the enquiry, after all, should aim at justice.
1. PELL’S CLAIMS that he was unaware of some cases of abuse is not as incredible as some suggest. The Commission and the media have scoffed at this, calling it “implausible” and his narrative of events “extraordinary”. Nevertheless, the Commission has received significant evidence over the past year supporting Pell’s contention that chaos and deception were rife in the administration of Ballarat and Melbourne from the 1970s to early 1990s.
Take the case of notorious paedophile priest Gerard Ridsdale. Various members of the clergy, present and past have said they knew nothing of Ridsdale’s offending. In fact , a well-known Australian political journalist, Paul Bongiorno, is a former priest who lived in with Ridsdale and Pell. He opened up about his experience last year:
“I had no idea what he was up to. And when people look at me quizzically, I say let me tell you this. There are married men and women now who sleep with their husbands and wives and don’t know that their husband or wife is having an affair. Let me tell you that Ridsdale never came to the presbytery in Warrnambool and said, ‘Guess how many boys I’ve raped today’.They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me. And when it came out after I had left the priesthood, I was shocked and I was ashamed.”
The Australian journalist Tess Livingstone comments in her biography George Pell that it was not just the Cardinal who says he was surprised to hear of Ridsdale’s offending: “other priests, and former priests, who shared presbyteries with Ridsdale say the same thing. So do many parishioners from various parishes where he served”.
Gail Furness, the steely Australian barrister assisting the Commissioner in cross-examination, made much of the claim that Ridsdale’s offending was “common knowledge” and the subject of “rumours”. Yet as a friend of mine who attended the hearings in Rome observed, the assertion seems to imply that it is not just that Pell was guilty, but that there was a systemic guilt in the Ballarat diocese.
2. IN THE 1980s and 1990s, Pell was deeply unpopular amongst many of his fellow priests. They were intimidated by his bluntness, his loyalty to Rome, and his reforms in the Melbourne seminary. It is completely plausible that he had no inside information on scandalous abuse because he had been excluded from the inner circle of the clergy who ran the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Sir Frank Little, the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 to 1996 was unhappy with Pell’s appointment as an auxiliary bishop and often shut him out of decisions. When asked about Pell’s appointment, Little tersely replied: “others do the choosing”. As Livingstone recounts, “It was no secret that the two men…were often at odds over the Church’s direction, especially in relation to issues like seminary formation, school Catechetics, and the devolution of some of the traditional roles of parish priests”.
In a statement made well before the abuse scandal broke, Pell said of his role as Auxiliary Bishop: “the only decision I have to make every day is which side of bed to get out on”. So much for a position of power.
Pell also clashed with good friends of Little, including the then head of the Jesuits in Melbourne, Fr Bill Uren. These tensions give context to Pell’s claim that Little withheld information from him.
3. THE CATHOLIC Education Office may not have told Pell about the psychopathic Father Peter Searson, the parish priest of Doveton, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In the closing minutes of the hearing, Pell’s lawyer, Sam Duggan, presented evidence from the former head of the Catholic Education Office, Monsignor Thomas Doyle, specifically stating that the auxiliary bishops of Melbourne had not been briefed about Searson’s behaviour. They were “not part of the decision-making structure in this area [education]” he told the inquiry earlier.
Astonishingly, only one journalist appears to have acknowledged the evidence: “In fairness, we’ve just seen evidence supporting Pell’s claim that he wasn’t told about Searson’s abuse by the Catholic Education Office”, tweeted The Australian’s Dan Box.
4. IN HER questioning Furness constructed a scenario in which Pell, as an auxiliary bishop, ignored clear signals about Searson’s abuse. Yet Archbishop Little withheld crucial information and – incredibly — teachers from the parish school complained about him but “asked that he be allowed to stay on”.
What isn’t in dispute is this: as Archbishop of Melbourne Pell sacked Searson as soon as he had a clear case. In the closing minutes of the last session, Pell’s lawyer produced a transcript of the interview in which he terminated Searson. It is reveals the quality of Pell’s resolve:
SEARSON: Whatever they have said is fiction. I’m sure of that. The Police investigated and they don’t want to take any action. Archbishop Little also decided not to proceed. In spite of all that, Mr O’Callaghan [the investigator] took the attitude all the way through … I feel helpless now.
PELL: I need to know whether you are going to retire or not.
SEARSON: I’m prepared to step aside. … All I want to do is get on with my life as a priest.
PELL: You don’t seem to understand. Do you accept my invitation to retire and resign or not?
SEARSON: I’m prepared to step aside. The conditions preclude me being a productive priest …
PELL: … Retire and resign.
SEARSON: And do nothing?
PELL: Do nothing.
SEARSON: You are asking me to step down and do nothing for doing nothing. Resignation is no problem, but allow me any opportunity to do a little.
PELL: I’m inviting you to resign. If not, I am proceeding canonically to remove you. I have already taken civil and canonical advice on that.
SEARSON: What about working in another Diocese?
PELL: Any Bishop would consult me and I would advise him of the findings of the Independent Commissioner.
SEARSON: But he could know that the Independent Commissioner was wrong. So is working in another Diocese a possibility? It does not require your consent.
PELL: It is outside my writ. But you certainly won’t get a clearance from me
5. THE CARDINAL was under intense pressure. Each day he entered and exited through a media scrum. He is 74 and has a heart condition. He testified for 19 hours over four nights (Rome time) into the early hours of the morning. The breaks were short. On the final day the cross-examining barristers worked in a relay with relentless and sometimes insolent and provocative questions. “I suggest very directly you are lying about this to protect your own reputation. What do you say about that?” one of the more brutal ones.
And interrogation of this length and intensity would test anyone’s stamina. It is unfair to judge the Cardinal on occasional slips of the tongue. He did say that “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me” about Ridsdale’s abuse. But these apparently callous words did not represent what he meant and he clarified and withdrew them later.
6. THE MEDIA has painted George Pell as an energetic and ambitious cleric eager for advancement within the Church who lacked compassion for vulnerable victims. This portrait is unrecognisable to people who know him. He showed his considerable empathy in a meeting with the Ballarat survivors who had gone to Rome to attend the hearing immediately after the fourth and final day of testimony.
“I heard each of their stories and of their suffering,” said Cardinal Pell. “It was hard. An honest and occasionally emotional meeting… “I know many of their families and I know of the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat, a goodness that is not extinguished by the evil that was done.” He pledged to support “a research center to enhance healing and to improve protection” in Ballarat.
I don’t know of many men who have the charity and strength to hold a frank and cordial conversation with his fiercest critics straight after four emotionally and physically exhausting days. Pell is a man who talks the talk and walks the walk.
As I stated initially, my aim is not to exonerate the Cardinal. My point is simply this: the facts and the historical context of Australian sex abuse are complex. Don’t prejudge Pell. Don’t be misled by sound bites. Don’t get swept away by hysteria. Give him a fair go.
Xavier Symons is doing a PhD in bioethics at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
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