THE ‘CASE’ AGAINST CARDINAL PELL
7 . 3 . 17
- FIRST THINGS
The Rise and Fall of George Pell
melbourne, 277 pages, $11.21
George Cardinal Pell was charged last week with multiple counts of sexual abuse of children. He currently resides in Rome, tasked with cleaning up the Vatican finances. In the coming weeks he will fly to his native Australia, where he vows to fight all charges. His successor in the see of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, advises letting the justice system take its course.
Australian civil authorities have yet to announce the number and nature of the offenses with which Pell is charged. But allegations against Pell have been accumulating for years. He stands publicly accused of complicity in a sex abuse coverup in the diocese of Ballarat in the 1970s and early 1980s; complicity in a sex abuse coverup in the archdiocese of Melbourne in the late 1980s and 1990s; and various counts of child molestation, assault, and indecent exposure, from 1961 through 1997.
In recent decades, child sex abuse cases have notably arisen from, and elicited, public hysteria. They have created poor conditions for the operation of the justice system. Ludicrous prosecutions and unjust convictions have resulted, far too numerous to count as the cost of doing business. In Australia, public hysteria concerning Pell is already extreme. Here is Louise Milligan’s florid book, written “from the complainants’ point of view.” Its publication was advanced from July to May, presumably to influence the deliberations of the civil authorities. Once Pell had been charged, its publisher removed it from local bookshops to avoid influencing the deliberations of jury members. But its claims have already been broadcast throughout the Australian media. Archbishop Fisher’s repose in the justice system may prove mistaken.
The formal charges against Pell may differ from those highlighted in Milligan’s book. It is in the nature of sex abuse hysteria that allegations, true or not, will multiply. So I would be surprised if the formal charges did not include novel accusations. But let us scrutinize the case we have before us, in the same way those formal charges must be scrutinized: in terms of their cogency, credibility, and underlying assumptions.
Milligan does not attempt to conceal her hostility to the Catholic Church. She recalls her Catholic girlhood with a shudder. When she can, she quotes her sources disclaiming any vendetta against the Church. But she is equally happy to quote a source, for instance, who recalls that his mother “took her shoe off and hit me in the face about six or seven times and said I was dirty”—in accordance, he says, with the “Catholic system.” Whenever she can, Milligan associates Catholicism with the victimization of children.
In her image of Pell, this association takes a monstrous form. Pell exhibits a “sociopathic lack of empathy,” not least in his adherence to traditional Catholic moral teaching. This portrait soon descends into schoolyard caricature. Taking up a popular epithet for him, Milligan calls Pell a “bully” over a dozen times. As a bishop, Pell used print, radio, and televisual media to bully his flock, by (for instance) voicing his concurrence in Veritatis Splendor. Pell is a bully because, when confronted by people who feel that Catholic moral teaching is unkind, he insists, nonetheless, that it is true. One source recalls Pell’s televised argument with actress and remarried divorcée Colette Mann: “There was sheer pain in her voice and there was pain and hurt in her whole attitude and she was speaking from her heart. If George had just reached out to her and touched her on the forearm and said something like ‘I am so sorry’ … But no. He hasn’t an ounce of empathy.” Pell is endlessly convicted by his critics of being insufficiently therapeutic, of failing to model emotiveness and bring about catharsis. The freighting of one churchman with such vast psychodynamic potency verges on the fetishistic.
A longstanding trope about sex abuse attributes empathy to alleged victims and their advocates, and lack of empathy to alleged pedophiles and their defenders. Accordingly, Milligan presents herself as Pell’s empathetic opposite. She confesses herself “a heart-on-my-sleeve type of person.” Narrating her interviews with accusers, she depicts their signs of emotion in detail, and relates her own feelings in response. Occasionally, empathy compels her to descend to inanities: “My heart’s in my throat. … It’s the feeling you get when you’re a little kid and you lift up a rock in the yard and a whole lot of bugs scurry out and you throw it down.” Lurking behind the kiddish prose is an attempt at coercion, in the grand tradition of the 1980s. “We believe the children” was the slogan of that decade, with its daycare scares and Satanic panics. All were obliged to show empathy for the victims—and empathy demanded belief.
Milligan has inherited this formula. In order to empathize with the victim of child sex abuse, we must first of all believe his claim that he is a victim of child sex abuse. Since we are not sociopaths, we arrive at the dogma “Children never lie”—which is absurd on its face and ruinous in application. In the 1980s, it required the conviction of preschool teachers for raping their charges in subterranean catacombs that did not exist; for sodomizing them with butcher knives, which mysteriously failed to inflict tissue damage; for abducting them in hot-air balloons; for administering magic philters and narcotic candy corn; and for whatever else a childish mind can dream up. We have since discarded the Halloweeny trappings, but the residue of this tradition endures. We retain the imperative of empathy, and its function as epistemological coercion. Feel what the children feel—don’t think about what they say.
Milligan’s first substantive charge against Pell is that he was complicit in a sex-abuse coverup in the diocese of Ballarat, Victoria during the 1970s and early 1980s. At this time, Pell was a junior priest with no authority in disciplinary matters, nor any formal charge to inquire into pedophilic infractions. His critics strain to establish his responsibility for crimes in which he played no part. Such was one goal of the prosecutors who examined Pell in Rome last year for the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse—a major Australian television event, notable for how blunt and stumbling Pell was. Milligan relates the proceedings in eight digressive chapters.
Pell responded to the prosecutors’ questions with a frankness that bordered on heedlessness. He admitted that in 1974, when a boy spoke vaguely to him of the pedophilic behavior of a Fr. Dowlan of the Christian Brothers, Pell did not inquire further or intervene. Asked by the prosecutor to explain his inaction, Pell was blunt: The boy “wasn’t asking me to do anything about it.”
From a Catholic perspective, this answer is unsatisfactory. Unfortunately for the prosecution, Catholic moral teaching is not legally binding in Victoria, Australia. Victoria’s mandatory reporting laws require adults in certain professional groups to report any knowledge or reasonable suspicion of physical or sexual abuse of a minor. These laws, however, were not on the books in 1974. At that time, sexual contact between adults and minors was not assumed to be injurious. Insupportable as it seems now, the medicolegal stigmatization of such contact was considered more injurious than the contact itself. Philip Jenkins summarizes the consensus of Western psychologists and civil authorities, from roughly 1950 to 1975: “A sexual episode would cause little harm to a child, provided the police or courts did not ‘make an issue’ of it.” Mandatory reporting did not exist in the southern or northern hemispheres, nor did the other kinds of special treatment we now accord pedophilic and ephebophilic offenders. Pell’s inaction, though St. Peter marked it a sin of omission, was not a crime at the time.
Nor would it be today, since Victoria’s mandatory reporting laws apply to doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, principals, and police, but not to priests. Speaking of sins of omission, Milligan relates none of these legal or historiographical facts.
Throughout Pell’s interrogation, which took place over nineteen-and-a-half hours in the middle of four consecutive nights in Rome, the prosecutor evoked several blunders. One admission, concerning rumors of another priest’s depravities, was instantly notorious: “It was a sad story and of not much interest to me.” Pell convicts himself of tactlessness several times over. Narrating the interrogation, Milligan is a spastic cheerleader, getting excited every time the prosecutor “[goes] in for the kill”—though in every instance the prosecutor fails to kill. Somehow, her clumsy prey keeps escaping criminal responsibility. Perhaps it’s the facts.
The prosecutors and journalists see the problems. Pell appears to have known little, even of discrete acts, much less of serial acts and their abetting. Hence the refrain of the legal and media pursuers of Pell: “He knew or should have known.” If Pell did not commit a crime by failing to act on the scant knowledge he possessed, then he committed some pseudo-criminal infraction by failing to acquire fuller knowledge. This gambit excuses the prosecutors from having to prove anything about Pell’s action or inaction, his knowledge or ignorance. Pell is, in truth, on trial for failing to take sufficient interest—for lacking empathy. Lack of empathy is not a crime according to any law currently on the books in Australia, but it may serve for a hanging offense, if they can raise a hue and cry.
Arriving at Pell’s next assignment, auxiliary bishop of Melbourne from 1987 to 1996, Milligan levels a more ambitious charge: that Pell acted as “an archdiocesan fixer,” who “warned [people] off speaking the truth” about sex abuse. Pell’s superior at this time, Archbishop Frank Little, is widely blamed for covering up sex abuse. Milligan reports that Little was extremely secretive, including around his subordinates; she acknowledges that Pell’s relations with Little, a doctrinal liberal, were “decidedly frosty.” She avoids clarifying Pell’s status as Little’s antithetical successor-in-waiting, and the widely held expectation that Pope John Paul II would retire Little early in order to replace him with Pell, as indeed he did. Pell, for theological and political reasons, seems to have been as far out of Little’s loop as any churchman in the archdiocese. Despite all this, Milligan would have us believe that Pell spent nine years “fixing” things on Little’s behalf. (It is also interesting to note the kid-glove treatment Milligan affords Little, a “progressive” churchman who was “all for openness and embracing the laity.” She barely discusses his protection of pedophiles, and she reports that her sources are “at a loss to explain” it. I suspect that if Little had been a conservative, an explanation would be ready to hand.)
There is some dubious stuff in these pages. The culminating vignette is the story of Eileen Piper. In 1993, Eileen’s daughter, Stephanie, lodged a rape allegation against a priest in the archdiocese of Melbourne. One day, Eileen was at the house of her ailing brother, a monsignor in the archdiocese. While she was there, Milligan writes, George Pell showed up, “in a dominant mood.” He dismissed Eileen from the room and shut the door so that she would not hear the conversation that ensued. Milligan, undaunted, transcribes the money quote: “Don’t you dare have anything to do with your sister’s case, now that’s an order.” Bracket my doubts about this story, which are not exhausted by concerns about acoustics and Eileen’s memory (she was ninety-one when interviewed by Milligan). We know that the monsignor went ahead as he had planned: He stood by his sister at the trial, giving her moral support. Nor did he catch any flak for it. Stipulate that Pell spoke and acted as Eileen claims. I do not see what Milligan imagines he “fixed” by doing so.
Pell stands accused of making no threats, no bribes. He is not accused of instructing any victim or parent to keep quiet. The most he did, if he did even this, was to tell other priests not to get involved in scandals. At least Milligan’s ace reporting has established that Pell was a—what’s the word?
If these accounts of people being warned off speaking the truth by an archdiocesan fixer are true, they suggest Pell was a man used to getting his own way, to throwing his weight around with the priests below him and who … felt comfortable in exercising raw power, and was dismissive of those beneath him.
“Bully,” that’s it. For kicks, notice how this sentence says the same thing twice (I have omitted a parenthetical). More important: Milligan argues here that if it’s true that Pell was a fixer, then clearly he was a bully. This is a bizarre climbdown. For if it’s true that Pell was a fixer, then surely he is a criminal—guilty of intimidating witnesses, obstructing justice, probably tampering with evidence, and who knows what else. Why doesn’t Milligan say that, rather than retreat to her routine charge, that Pell lacks empathy and social finesse?
One hundred days after becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell empowered an independent commission to investigate allegations of sex abuse lodged against clergy or lay employees of the archdiocese. The commissioners were also authorized to provide complainants with counseling and financial compensation, as they saw fit. Known as the “Melbourne Response,” this system made a form of justice available to victims who were disinclined to establish legal liability—though it did not preclude their also pursuing civil action, if they wished. The year was 1996, six years before the American sex-abuse crisis.
The Melbourne Response seems designed to unfix everything Pell supposedly had fixed while serving as auxiliary. But if one is relying on Milligan, one does not glean this. For Milligan neglects to summarize the Melbourne Response process, in her haste to quote criticisms of it as “top-down, paternalistic,” “patronising, incomplete, and insufficient,” and prone to “re-traumatize” victims. Milligan records complaints about optics and power dynamics, with some claimants offended by the masculine decor in the office of the archdiocese’s solicitor. A “senior priest,” one of Milligan’s many anonymous sources, pronounces the last word on Pell in Melbourne (it’s five letters):
When I push the senior priest to tell me what Pell was then, if not a pioneer on child abuse, he is blunt: “To be honest, I don’t think anything of him. He was an ambitious man and a bully and all the things I don’t think bishops should be.”
If it’s not exactly true that Pell was an archdiocesan fixer, at least Milligan has shown that he was a bully. If Milligan cannot exactly discredit the Melbourne Response, at least she can show that Pell, in implementing it, was a bully. If none of the criminal charges are landing, at least they are sticking—they are adding up to something, even if it is only that Pell is a bully.
Below, we shall see how Milligan’s depiction of Pell as a bully substitutes for coherent charges of criminal responsibility.
Milligan claims that in 1961, as a seminarian assisting at an altar boys’ camp on Phillip Island, Pell repeatedly thrust his hands inside the pants of twelve-year-old Phil Scott and molested him. He is said to have accomplished this assault several times inside a tent, during sessions of wrestling or pillow-fighting, in the presence of other boys—who in every instance were “seemingly oblivious,” so busy were they “horsing around.” Pell is also said to have assaulted Scott during an “evening stroll,” in the presence of the other boys, and to have put his hands inside Scott’s swim trunks as Scott swam or walked in the waves. Forty-one years after their alleged occurrence, Scott reported these assaults to Church authorities. A criminal inquiry into his complaint led to its dismissal by a judge in 2002.
Milligan acknowledges a problem with these charges (a problem from which Pell’s bullying will save her). Typically, an offender cultivates a relationship with his victim, gaining trust, creating incentives for cooperation and silence, before assaulting him (this convention is referred to as “grooming”); and the initial assault is rarely forcible. The abruptness, both social and physical, of Scott’s claimed assaults is abnormal.
Milligan asks an anonymous Church official for comment. Anonymous acknowledges that “straight-out grabbing” is anomalous behavior for a sex offender. “But if there was ever anyone who might offend in that way, I can imagine that George might,” because George is “not a very subtle person.” Milligan hastens to add, “To be clear, this person is not saying Pell is an offender, but rather, if it was proven that Pell was, it wouldn’t be a shock to learn that this was the way Pell chose to offend”: like a bully. (Reader, to be clear, I am not saying you are a wife-beater, but rather, if it were proven that you were, …)
More fatally, Scott admits the presence, often the close proximity, of eyewitnesses who in every instance failed to eyewitness. Supposedly, horseplay served as camouflage for assaults that took place in plain sight. I have encountered this conceit before, and I shall return to it shortly.
There is no eyewitness evidence, no physical evidence, no circumstantial evidence, no cogency, and no contemporary report. Scott lodged his claim four decades after the alleged assaults—enough time for memories and evidence, if there had been any, to perish; and enough time for Pell to have become a lightning rod in the Australian media. We are left with Scott’s word against Pell’s. The judge at the inquiry was finally “not satisfied that the complaint [had] been established,” in view of “some valid criticism of the complainant’s credibility.”
Scott has been a bookmaker, drunk driver, drug addict, drug trafficker, and violent criminal—an altar boy with a life of crime, as the Herald Sundubbed him, uncharitably though not inaccurately. He has thirty-nine convictions from twenty court appearances, for offenses including but not limited to tax avoidance, substance abuse, and physical assault. Milligan never finds quite the right tone in which to relate these facts. “Dealing amphetamines was a major slip-up, to put it mildly. … It was really, really embarrassing.” Indeed.
Milligan charges that to adduce Scott’s biography in the context of his allegation is “character assassination.” On the contrary, it is unavoidable.
Phil Scott is Patient Zero. In every spurious sex abuse case, there is an original accuser, whose story proves contagious. The exemplary Patient Zero is the paranoid schizophrenic woman who instigated the seven-year-long McMartin Preschool fiasco. More reputable people may then tell similar untruths: some confused, or misremembering, or misguided, or mobilized by the media, or browbeaten by enthusiastic police or prosecutors or therapists; others opportunists who see little risk and lots of upside in a venture that someone else has boldly opened.
Phil Scott’s allegation was lodged and publicized in 2002. In 2015, two men, friends from childhood on, alleged that Pell had assaulted them in the Eureka Stockade Pool in Ballarat. In the summer of 1978-79, when Lyndon Monument and Damian Dignan were eight or nine years old, Pell would visit the pool and play “the game.” “The game” involved stirruping a boy’s feet underwater, then tossing the boy into the air. It is alleged that, while he was at it, Pell fondled the boys and may have digitally penetrated them. Milligan notes a similarity between this allegation and one of Scott’s allegations—the one in the waves, in that both settings involve water. She views the similarity as corroborative, though others may regard it as evidence that Australians like to swim and read newspapers.
We are given to understand that Pell accomplished his assaults in plain view of swimmers and sunbathers, without visible deviation from the physical business of “the game.” Let us sharpen the picture, which Milligan has left rather blurry.
Monument and Dignan both claim that Pell, having linked his hands beneath the water and taken a boy’s two feet upon them, would “let one hand go” and allow the free hand to “wander” upward. Pell, therefore, performed a feat of stamina and dexterity that would tax a magician or a circus performer: balancing a boy upright on one hand, while with the other hand molesting him. This arrangement requires the boy to hold his legs tight together. Yet Monument’s account of the molestation precludes this: “The hand on my crotch would cover my penis and testicles and would also cover my anus area.” And so far, we have supposed that the fondling took place outside the boy’s clothes; this seems the simplest prospect. And yet: “Pell would put his hands”—wait, plural now?—“under the shorts and underpants that Monument was wearing, touching his genitals.”
Pell would then need to extract his hand (or hands). Milligan never clarifies when or how this was done. She and the complainants seem to suggest that Pell kept a hand inside the boy’s clothes during the act of tossing him into the air:
“Father Pell would throw me into the air and I would dive into the water.” Monument says the priest would have an open hand cupped around his crotch during this. He later explains to me at one point that he distinctly remembers Pell’s fingers being at the entrance to his anus, but as to whether the priest digitally penetrated him, he cannot comfortably remember.
But that is impossible. Our predator must have withdrawn his hand or hands from the boy’s limbs and garments while the boy was still in the water. Then he must have placed his hand or hands down again, to link or re-link them beneath the boy’s feet. Only then would he have been able to release the boy into the air.
Monument characterizes the assaults as “furtive and fleeting.” On the contrary, the performance he and Dignan describe can only have been strenuous, intricate, and time-consuming. The motions of assault and extrication are not consonant with “the game”; nor are they discreetly appended to it.
Factor in digital penetration, and the proposition becomes still more complicated—though you’ll have to do the math on that yourself. Nor will I dwell on the impediments presented by the boys’ clothing: drawstrings (on Dignan’s board shorts and Monument’s footy shorts) plus underwear. And I will adduce without elaboration the natural mobility and reactiveness of a child who is being manhandled.
Perhaps these assaults occurred. But the account Milligan has extracted is incoherent. With its illogical and elusive particulars, it is downright surreal.
In its surreality, it recalls the case of Arnold Friedman of Great Neck, New York. In the late 1980s, Friedman held regular computer classes in the basement of his home, teaching boys aged eight to eleven how to do things with PCs. In 1987, he was accused by more than a dozen students of having forced them to participate in sex games, including sessions of sodomitical leap-frog. As one accuser put it, years later: “Yeah, leap-frog. I remember about that. … Arnold … would leap, one person to another, sticking his d*** each in their a**.” The flagrancy of this nonsense, which was contradicted at the time by several of the boys in the computer class, did not save Friedman from prosecution. (He committed suicide in prison in 1995.) Nor does it prevent his accusers, now adults, from persisting in their claims. Only a sociopath would disbelieve them.
In Friedman’s basement as in Pell’s pool, we observe a distinctly childish ignorance of what is anatomically practicable. Genitalia are always easy to find and fondle, even inside clothes. Orifices are not just easy to find, but elastically permissive. This sort of thing reached its hysterical height, perhaps, with the 1986 conviction of Gerald Amirault, proprietor of a daycare center in Maiden, Massachusetts, for, among other things, penetrating his charges’ bottoms with a butcher knife. It is no surprise if children fail to consider the practicality of these propositions. But adults have no excuse.
In Friedman’s basement as in Pell’s pool and the altar boys’ tent, “the game” provides a pretext; assault is a variation on the fleeting contact entailed by sport or play. This type of allegation is common in spurious sex-abuse cases, in part because it solves a common problem: If the victim was never alone with the predator, when and where did the assault take place? Magic answer: In plain sight, during “the game.” Pedophiles are so adept at sleight-of-hand. (Pushing a child on a swing is another popular pretext.) But in truth, sexual assault can almost never be disguised as innocent ludic contact. The latter is necessarily fleeting. Molestation, definitionally and as a practical matter, is not.
Of all the charges in Milligan’s book, the following is the one I find most credible. It is, in the words of one journalist, the “story of [Pell’s] not rushing to get dressed” after surfing, “to the puritanical appal of some chap.” But let us consider the charge with seriousness.
At the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club during the summer of 1986-87, Les Tyack walked into a changing room. He beheld, in the far corner, Pell, naked and toweling himself. Three or four meters from Pell were three boys, aged eight to ten, “also naked and getting changed.” Confusingly, Tyack says both that Pell was “facing” the boys at this point, and that he “had his back angled towards” them. Tyack entered the showers, which were “behind a screen” on one side of the room. Tyack claims that he showered behind the screen for “five to ten minutes.” He claims that after his shower he beheld Pell again, still in his corner, still naked, with the towel now “over his right shoulder.” He claims that the three boys, now dressed, were where they had been, and that Pell and the boys were looking at each other. Tyack became “very suspicious” (a word he uses three times) that what he had interrupted was an act of indecent exposure. (It is hard to see what room remained for suspicion, if the boys were indeed gazing steadily at Pell’s naked front, as Tyack seems to say.) Tyack claims he told the boys to get out, then addressed Pell: “I know what you’re up to, piss off, get out of here, if I see you back in this club again, I’ll call the police.” Pell, we are told, turned to face the wall, making sure that “at no time was [Tyack] given the opportunity to see the front of him.” Pell did not otherwise respond to Tyack’s challenge.
We know from records that Pell continued to patronize the surf club in the years after 1986-87. Tyack did likewise, serving as a lifeguard and bringing his sons around. Tyack never mentioned the incident to other members of the club, nor (I presume, since Milligan does not mention it) to his sons. Nor did he call the police. He says he figured his threat to do so would have done the trick. Gradually, Tyack became “aware of the bigger picture and the problem that was going on with priests.” He was “seeing more and more people coming out with accusations on the priests, on other priests’ activities, and then with Pell.” In 2012, he reported his story to the civil authorities. He hoped that “those collating all the evidence could put it aside there, and it might help form a dossier on Pell’s activities. I saw it as being perhaps very supportive of the victims of pedophilia.”
I’ll limit myself to three questions.
Did Tyack really spend five-to-ten minutes showering behind a screen in a changing room? People generally do not luxuriate, or execute lengthy hygienic regimens, in public showers. And we are to believe that the boys hung around all that time, with nothing to do but stand in place and gaze at Pell. The timing is important, since duration—lingering—is necessary to make a man’s nakedness in a changing room malign. That, and his “suspicious” preference that another man not see his front. (But most men will prefer not to have their naked fronts looked at directly by other men.) By stretching the shower to five-to-ten minutes, Tyack opens up a blank that, he says, can only be filled with indecent exposure.
Why would Pell expose himself when he knew there was an adult in the room, just behind a screen? Tyack was liable to poke his head out at any moment. He was also within earshot, should the boys cry out or seek help. And hearing the shower go off, surely a man with something to hide would wrap that towel around his waist.
Why did Tyack wait a quarter-century, including a decade after the Phil Scott allegation had hit the news, to make his report?
My mother and I once contradicted each other in our separate depositions to an insurance company lawyer, on a point of importance concerning a traffic accident we had witnessed: Had the cab been against the curb, or in the right turn lane, when the fire truck scraped its fender? We each told the truth as we remembered it. The incident was recent, and my memory was vivid. Alas, having a vivid memory is not the same as having a tape to play back. Asked to supply a detail I did not possess (or did I? I thought I did), I constituted that detail in a manner consonant with what I believed was true: “Oh, definitely against the curb.” For the cab driver had not been at fault. And he needed our help, lest he be held liable and fired and deported (he was a recent immigrant). It was clear that the firemen and police intended to railroad him.
In 2012, Tyack told the truth as he remembered it. The incident was twenty-five years in the past, but his memory was vivid. No one can accuse him of fabricating an allegation out of whole cloth. He avoids claiming that he saw a crime; he saw something “very suspicious,” and alleges the crime by inference. He claims that his shower lasted five-to-ten minutes, and he stresses Pell’s reluctance to show him his naked front. On the strength of these details, Tyack’s memory invites an interpretation that accords with what he believes is true: that the Catholic Church, and Pell in particular, are hurting kids. And it allows him to act out his good-citizen’s impulse: Toss this in the dossier, it might do some good.
“The more I have heard over the years of the incidents involving the victims of the Catholic Church, the more this incident has played on my mind.” Indeed.
Milligan ends with an “explosive new charge” against Pell, provided by a claimant she calls The Kid. The Kid is in his thirties by the time Milligan meets him. His pseudonym is a misnomer, though not an idle one. We believe the children, even after they have graduated from college.
The Kid alleges that in 1997, when he and his friend, the pseudonymous Choirboy, were thirteen-year-olds singing in the choir of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Archbishop Pell assaulted both of them. One Sunday after Mass, The Kid and The Choirboy supposedly went to a back room, where they got drunk on communion wine. Pell, supposedly discovering them, locked the door and forced both boys to give him oral sex. (This is the account The Kid has given to police. Milligan, without explanation, omits the detail of the communion wine.)
The conceit of naughty choirboys sloshing communion wine, and an archbishop prowling about his cathedral seeking whom he may devour, mashes up Maria Monk with parochial-school daydreams. But let’s permit The Kid his clichés, and address his logic. According to The Kid, St. Patrick’s stored communion wine unsecured in an unlocked back room, in sufficient quantities to intoxicate two adolescents. And the archbishop, when desirous of malign pleasures, exacted them from two victims simultaneously, generously furnishing each with a corroborating witness. He did this while having the favor of the pope and eyeing a red hat. Perhaps recognizing the incongruousness of these elements, Milligan characterizes the assault as Pell’s “last major slip-up.” I would add that, like Phil Scott’s drug-dealing, it was really, really embarrassing.
After the release of Milligan’s book, a police report was obtained by an Australian newspaper, containing an interview with a priest who had been on Pell’s staff at the time in question. The priest says that the cathedral’s communion wine was kept locked in the safe that contained the chalices. He says that it is “physically impossible” for Pell to have been alone with any choirboys, anywhere in the cathedral, “before, during, or after the celebration of Sunday Mass or on any other occasion.” On Sundays, Pell arrived at the cathedral fifteen minutes before the eleven o’clock Mass; was met at the door by this priest and attended by him constantly thereafter; vested for Mass; celebrated Mass, which ended shortly after noon; stood at the door of the cathedral, shaking hands with exiting Massgoers; removed his vestments; and departed the cathedral, to have lunch at a restaurant or visit a parish, still accompanied by the priest.
The Kid is clean-cut and college-educated. Milligan disclaims The Kid’s clean record as a basis for our credence; she is offended by the very idea of needing to establish the credibility of an accuser. Yet she keeps mentioning The Kid’s clean record, as much as to say, “Why would he lie?”
The Choirboy does not have a clean record. He struggled with drug abuse and depression throughout his teens and twenties. On several occasions, his mother asked him whether anyone had sexually abused him. You can call this an enlightened motherly intuition, as Milligan does. Or you can call it obedience to a pop-psychology canard, whereby all psychological disturbance is a warning sign of sex abuse. Every time he was asked, The Choirboy answered No. Milligan wonders why The Choirboy would lie. This time, the question is not rhetorical. Shades of Roland Summit’s debunked but influential 1979 paper, “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.” Summit’s thesis was that “children never lie” about sexual abuse—except when they conceal it, as they routinely do, in order to accommodate their abusers. When it comes to child sex abuse, denial is confirmation; No means Yes. And so, The Choirboy is the only one of Pell’s alleged victims who is capable of deceit. But despite his lies, The Choirboy’s mother went on suspecting. The Kid has now vindicated her. And what does The Choirboy say to that? Nothing. He is dead.
He died of a heroin overdose in 2014. His mother says that Pell and his people “need to be responsible for that death.” Toss in one count of manslaughter. Why not?
During his trial or after it, three years or three days from this writing, new facts may emerge that demonstrate to me and all the world that George Cardinal Pell of Australia is guilty as sin. On that day, I will regret this review, but I will not repent of it.
Charges have been flying at Pell for fifteen years. Hundreds of claimants insist that he must have done this and must have known that. Perhaps I have persuaded you that the imperative of empathy for victims of child sex abuse does not necessitate your belief in each and all of the charges leveled at the cardinal. You surely have not fallen for Milligan’s “Why would he lie?” gambit—a version of “Children never lie,” extended to children who are past their majority.
So you are not hysterical. But I suspect you are disinclined to sympathize with a man to whom so many gross suspicions cling. You reckon the proof is in the proliferation: “Why would they all lie? There has to be some truth in it, somewhere. Some of this stuff is true, or half-true. One or two or a few of these claims are true. Somewhere in there.”
But the dazzling proliferation of claimants and allegations is common in spurious sex abuse cases. Arnold Friedman had over a dozen accusers. The McMartin Preschool case generated 321 charges from forty-one children. We now know that every charge was a lie and every child was a liar. Yet today, with the children now well into their thirties, many of them still insist that their charges were true. In Wenatchee, Washington, in 1994, forty-three adults were arrested on 29,726 counts of sex abuse alleged by sixty children, aged nine to thirteen. In 1995, every last charge was dropped.
If proliferation is not proof, perhaps passion is. Pell’s critics are in hysterics over him; surely they are not spun up over nothing. Of course evils have been wrought by the Catholic clergy, in Australia and elsewhere. But why should Pell be the one monster, embodying all the evils of the evil city? Because he is the country’s only cardinal; for decades, he has been the country’s most visible, audible, and CatholicCatholic. Pell is the monster, not because of what we can establish about what he did or knew, but because of his stature, and because his ideology runs afoul of the great and the good, and because he is not constantly damp with empathy. And because René Girard was right: There is always a scapegoat; it’s just a question of who.
Scapegoating campaigns do not require evidence or answer to logic. They do not always even convince their participants. For example, I do not believe that the parents of the McMartin Preschool children really believed there were Satanic catacombs beneath that preschool. Certainly not after they had excavated the site for the first time, and come up empty. (This actually happened.) On that day, the parents of the McMartin Preschool children should have confessed: Their children had lied about the catacombs. Instead, they hired a second archeological contractor to dig up the lot again. In this ludicrous episode, the McMartin parents’ pursuit of “the truth” was revealed as a lie—but a lie to which they had committed themselves so fully, they could hardly recant. No doubt they were lying to themselves.
At some point during her researches, Louise Milligan should have asked herself whether she was digging up the antipodal catacombs.
Milligan concludes her book with a victory lap on behalf of doctrinal liberalism. Pope Francis is “an entirely different sort of leader to Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II,” in that he “warns of the perils of theological rigidity” and seems open to liberalizing the Church’s moral teaching on sexuality. In his pontificate, doctrinal conservatives are out of favor: Raymond Cardinal Burke, Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Pell himself—what Milligan calls “the Pell faction.” Milligan appears to expect that, through personnel shakeups and apostolic exhortations, Francis will evacuate Catholicism of its doctrinal commitments.
True, Francis did a strange thing by promoting Pell to head the newly constituted Secretariat of the Economy, with a brief to reform the Vatican finances. But fear not: Pell’s reform has failed. Francis canceled the audit Pell had planned, and he has gradually retracted Pell’s prerogatives. “The Cardinal’s wings have been seriously clipped.” Milligan favors the continued financial corruption of the Curia, because if malfeasance and embezzlement were to cease, it would represent a victory for Pell.
In 2015, Milligan’s good man in the Vatican, Francis, appointed Juan Barros bishop of Osorno, Chile. Barros is widely blamed by Chilean Catholics for covering up the crimes of the notorious pedophile Fr. Fernando Karadima. Hearing of Chilean Catholics’ objection to the appointment, Francis was filmed calling them “stupid.” During Barros’s ordination Mass, Chilean Catholics stormed the Osorno cathedral. The man was consecrated bishop in a bulletproof vest—whisked into the sanctuary by bodyguards at the crucial moment, then whisked away again. Quibble about the Melbourne Response, and whether it demonstrates sufficient empathy. I will take it over the Osorno Response.
In many and various ways, Francis is worse on child sex abuse than Benedict, his “rigid” predecessor. The Vatican’s child sex abuse task force is falling apart. In 2014, Francis personally restored to the priestly state a Fr. Inzoli, a friend of Francis’s friends, who had been defrocked in 2012 after his conviction for child molestation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two years after Francis’s intervention, Fr. Inzoli was convicted by the Italian civil authorities and sentenced to prison. (Yet he remained in the priestly state until just last week—until the very day of Pell’s charging, in fact.) In 2010, Godfried Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, a liberal Catholic hero, spoke with a victim of his pedophile friend, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, in a meeting that was secretly recorded. On tape, Danneels instructs the victim to remain silent and to “ask forgiveness” for the abuse: “Acknowledge your own guilt.” Three years later, the just-elected Pope Francis greeted the world from the St. Peter’s loggia, with Danneels in his retinue. He has continued to favor Danneels with plum appointments.
Francis is the first good pope in Milligan’s lifetime. He has clipped the wings of Pell. I’ll let you decide why Milligan wrote this book: because she hates pedophiles—or because she hates the Church.
Julia Yost is associate editor of First Things.