The Catholic Church presents an implacable face as victims of abuse stream forward. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

George Pell’s blindness on child sex abuse

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Vatican.
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Vatican.
Credit: REUTERS / Tony Gentile

Emma’s anguish was an awful jigsaw to her parents. The pieces were discovered only gradually, by chance and with the help of psychiatrists. Eventually, after years, the picture cohered: Emma had been serially abused by Father Kevin O’Donnell in the early 1990s. So had her sister Katie.

Emma’s parents, Christine and Anthony Foster, were shocked one morning in 1995 when they opened their newspaper to read that O’Donnell, a parish priest at their daughters’ school – Sacred Heart, in Oakleigh, Victoria – had been charged with the molestation of male students. They found some relief in the false assumption that only boys had been subject to O’Donnell’s predation.

Regardless, the Fosters asked their daughters if anything had happened with Father O’Donnell. The girls awkwardly denied it. Not long afterwards, Emma developed acute mental problems. She repeatedly self-harmed; later, she made multiple suicide attempts. Emma was admitted, released and readmitted to psychiatric wards. Christine and Anthony were horrified and confused. They continued to seek help for Emma, but also for themselves.

Then another news article. Kevin O’Donnell had been convicted of child sex abuse, and his victims included girls. The Fosters’ suspicion deepened. In early 1996, Emma was readmitted to a psych unit after an overdose. The psychiatrists’ suspicions were firming, too. Last week, before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, Christine Foster recalled what Emma’s psychiatrist told them, that Emma “was displaying all the symptoms of someone who had been sexually abused”.

The Fosters relayed this to their own psychologist. The response was devastating: “I concur with his opinion. I would say that Emma isn’t just showing signs of someone who was sexually abused, I would say she was sexually abused. In fact, her behaviour suggests it happened repeatedly.”

Christine still wasn’t absolutely certain Father O’Donnell was responsible, but soon another piece of the puzzle emerged. Christine recalled her daughter, years earlier, saying to friends, “Coke makes me drunk.” She remembered a specific conversation between Emma and Katie. At the time it seemed inconsequential; childish fancy. Now it seemed like bleak affirmation. Katie had offered her sister a glass of cola, but Emma refused. “I don’t like the taste,” she said. Incredulous that her sister didn’t enjoy Coke, Katie insisted. Emma relented and took a sip. “It tastes different,” she said, surprised. “It’s okay.”

Christine shared her recollection with her husband, who then called a police officer familiar with the case. Anthony repeated out loud what the officer told him, so Christine could hear: “He used to drug kids. It was part of his M.O.”

Father Kevin O’Donnell had been raping and molesting children for nearly 50 years before he was arrested.

1 . Beyond a child's comprehension

It’s often the way. The revelation of child abuse comes subtly or accidentally. In fragments or whispers. A non sequitur voiced years after the fact might spring the realisation for friends or family. Children infrequently declare abuse, either voluntarily or under questioning. The authority of the abuser is a gag on the abused; the gravity of the abuse induces paralysis. The trauma is vividly experienced but only dimly comprehended. There is confusion and terror in equal measure. For the child struggling to make sense of the experience, there can be a suspicion of personal complicity – shame and embarrassment are common. And all of this visits upon a fragile, undeveloped psyche. Because the abused are cognitively and emotionally immature, these things have an outsized influence. They’re left undefended by the armour of experience and comprehension.

Katie Foster took to binge drinking to smudge the pain of her abuse. In 1999, drunk, she was hit by a car, leaving her brain damaged and requiring 24/7 care.

In 2008, Emma took her own life.  Hers was an exquisite expression of stolen innocence: “Coke makes me drunk.”

2 . Melbourne hearings

On the first day of the Melbourne hearings of the royal commission, silver-haired survivors of abuse in church schools and orphanages lined the front of the County Court. They greeted each other warmly, sipped coffee and spoke to journalists. Some held hand-drawn placards, glimpsed by the bankers and lawyers hurrying to work along the pavement. One sign read: “Suffer the little children: No more.”

Many wore badges on their lapels, or the blue and yellow scarves of their support group. Bit by bit, we filed through a security point and found our way to the courtroom. It was a full room – not just crowded with people, but with expectation and the near-graspable weight of collective trauma.

It must have been difficult for the victims. Their stories – serial abuse, concealment, the church’s unctuous obduracy – were folded into the unpleasant rhythms of legalese. Some of the victims wouldn’t have recognised their own histories, absorbed and reinterpreted by counsel. Either side of me, they leaned forward, vainly attempting to decipher a particular point of necessarily exacting law.

3 . Melbourne Response

These hearings were the 16th case study conducted by the royal commission, and the first undertaken in Melbourne. They concern the so-called “Melbourne Response”. This was conceived in 1996 as an internal church response to child abuse, when Cardinal George Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne, and was composed of four limbs: the investigation of complaints; compensation; provision of psychological care; and pastoral guidance. It has been dogged by controversy since. Last year, during the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into church abuse, Victoria Police made an excoriating submission about the Melbourne Response, asserting that it was failing to provide police with information about criminal charges. This was a shift from when the police publicly supported the process in its early years.

Associated with this problem of reporting – the questionable transparency between church and police – were the deeds of release. In exchange for compensation, victims signed deeds releasing the church from future legal action. Of the 326 upheld complaints since 1996, only a third have had claims presented to police.

The witnesses on the hearing’s first day – Christine and Anthony Foster, and Paul Hersbach – cited disgust with the fact that the church capped payments, originally at $50,000 and at $75,000 by 2008. Hersbach testified that the figure of compensation he received, which was well below that, appeared arbitrarily decided. The Fosters felt that the sum was distressingly inadequate for their loss, and sought redress by employing their own legal counsel.

For years now, victims who have gone through the Melbourne Response process have cited its intimidating, officious nature. In the past, Anthony Foster spoke of Pell’s “sociopathic lack of empathy” in meetings. Hersbach testified that he felt belittled and controlled. “I feel like the church has exerted complete and total control over my life,” he said. “I find it ironic that at the point where I finally wrested that control back, I signed a document giving up my rights and putting myself again under its control.”

4 . Pell's testimony

On Thursday, August 21, Cardinal Pell appeared before the commission via videolink from Rome. His pale, sombre face filled four large screens in the courtroom. He lives in the Vatican now, a city-state waging eternal war against darkness, but enjoying the earthly perks and protections of its sovereignty. In response to a question about the Vatican’s reluctance to provide the commission with documents outlining its relationship to the Melbourne Response, Pell said: “I was aware of [the request] and I thought it unreasonable … In following international convention [the Vatican] will not provide the internal working documents of another sovereign state.”

Pell was irritably laconic, answering with stiff monosyllables for much of the time. His voice seemed heavy with contempt, though perhaps it was fatigue – he was questioned for two-and-a-half hours. Nonetheless, Pell still managed a self-confident performance. He always has. For many politicians, his composure – cold and charmless as it is – must seem awe-inspiring.

Watching him, I thought of Errol Morris’s acclaimed 2003 documentary The Fog of War, about the life of former US secretary of state Robert McNamara. Morris questions a haunted McNamara about his decisions to exercise force in Vietnam and Cambodia. The documentary resonates because McNamara answers difficult questions in the same questing spirit in which they’re asked, and it results in a man morally, emotionally and intellectually examining himself. What we see is not capitulation to his interrogator, but a person grappling with ideas of contingency, doubt and error.

Last year, Morris attempted the same with former secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld, exchanging the Vietnam War for the second Iraq conflict. It didn’t work. Rumsfeld was slickly unabashed. He could admit no error. I was disarmed by his wit and reasonable manner, but the sum was unsatisfying – there was no traction, no doubt about the choices made in a death-dealing engagement. 

Now here was Pell. Less charming than Rumsfeld, but equally sure of his rectitude.

5 . Pell's 'non-controversial example'

Later in the questioning, Pell was asked about a legal form letter sent to victims contemplating the Melbourne Response. The Fosters received one such letter, and it was tended to the commission. An excerpt read: “The compensation offer, together with the services that remain available through Carelink, are offered to Emma by the archbishop in the hope that they will assist her recovery and provide a realistic alternative to litigation that will otherwise be strenuously defended.”

The word “strenuously” struck the Fosters as malicious and intimidating. Earlier in the week, the church’s lawyer Richard Leder admitted that the letters were inappropriate. “I think I apologised yesterday and I certainly apologise now,” he said.

Pell now said: “It’s an unfortunate phrase, but I believe that some phrase would need to be there in a non-offensive way stating that, if matters were taken to court, the church would certainly consider using the defences available to every citizen and organisation in Australia. In fairness to those contemplating that action, I think that would necessarily have been included, but in a less confrontational phraseology.”

Counsel responded: “The addition of the word ‘strenuous’ could be seen to be superfluous, Cardinal. Do you have a view on that?”

“I think I would now see it as superfluous,” Pell said.

“The only circumstance in which it wouldn’t be superfluous,” counsel continued, “is if indeed what the archdiocese was seeking to convey was that complainants should be discouraged from taking civil action because defence would be not merely be a defence of the action, but a strenuous one?”

Pell didn’t respond directly.

This week, much was made of another element of Pell’s performance – the trucking analogy. It became the contentious shorthand for his lengthy testimony, and ironically he prefaced it by saying, “Let me give a non-controversial example.” Pell was explaining his understanding of criminal culpability. “If there is a series of trucks carrying merchandise around the country, if in fact these are improperly serviced or the drivers are pushed to work for too long, obviously there is a culpability somewhere in the authority chain.

“If in fact the driver of such a truck picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate – because it is contrary to the policy – for the ownership, the leadership of that company, to be held responsible. Similarly with the church and the head of any other organisation.”

Pell forgets, perhaps, that Father Kevin O’Donnell – the man responsible for 20 per cent of all Melbourne Response complaints – had been offending for half a century. The analogy has become a font of ridicule, and used as further proof of Pell’s insensitivity. Certainly, it wasn’t the “non-controversial” example he imagined. It is also proof of a long, serial contradiction.

6 . Dogmatic implacability

In the late 1960s, when Pell’s devotion to the papacy and the institutions of Catholicism were crystallised, Pope Paul VI served as the ideal figure. Paul saw the Catholic Church less as a faith than a cosmic fort arrayed against barbarism. Barbarism was then largely defined as communism, but has variously been interpreted as astronomy, feminism and technology. Pell fervently agreed with the pope – he was animated by this Weltanschauung. He has since given his life to it.

As Pell saw it, the church’s strength was its longevity, hierarchical scaffolding and inviolable moral superiority. As it had always done, the Catholic Church would fight the demons its dogma had prescribed – it could never consider that dogma might be the demon itself. Nor the fact that the papacy is a residual element of mediaeval belief, a historical aberration aggressively maintained long after we abandoned a feudal conception of the world.

As Pell said in his testimony, the Catholic Church has every right to avail itself of the protections of common law. This is obvious. But it is much harder to reconcile his prosaic and imperfect analogy with his cosmic belief in the insuperable moral stature of his church. Is he a company man, or a man of God? He can argue that he is both, but this week the fissure between the two both bemused and aggrieved the many victims of church abuse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 30, 2014 as "The blindness of George Pell".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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