Editorial
Pell and fury

George Pell calls it “pathetic pointscoring”. Through a spokesman, he says: “The suggestion that Cardinal Pell should be accountable for all the wrongdoings of church personnel throughout Australia over many decades is not only unjust and completely fanciful but also acts to shield those in the church who should be called to account for their failures.”

He says: “The Greens would be well aware of the Cardinal’s decisive actions to address the evils of abuse and the changes he has implemented in the church over 20 years ago.”

The cardinal was responding to a senate motion calling for him to return to Australia to face abuse allegations. A brief of evidence has been passed from Victorian police to prosecutors, although no charges have been laid.

The motion comes as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse makes clear the level of paedophilia in the Catholic Church since 1980. The numbers could be only called disgusting.

The commission identified 1880 alleged paedophiles working inside the church in the 35 years analysed. A further 500 unknown perpetrators were also counted. In some orders, two in five brothers were paedophiles. The commission found 4444 children alleged sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church between 1980 and 2015.

There can be only numbness in comprehending these figures. This is an abacus of depravity. Abuse on this scale was only possible inside a church that actively harboured its paedophiles, that shifted them from parish to parish and sought to silence their victims. These numbers represent a conspiracy of inaction.

More figures: 60 per cent of the alleged victims who gave private testimony to the commission were abused in faith-based institutions. Of those, nearly two-thirds were abused in Catholic institutions.

When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission, Pell was indignant. He accused the press of focusing unduly on the Catholic Church. “We object to it being exaggerated, we object to being described as the only cab on the rank.”

The phrase was bizarre and his own. Later, he described the church’s culpability as no greater than that of a trucking company whose driver picked up “some lady” and raped 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.”

Pell has twice avoided appearing at the commission in person. His approach to hearings has been unfeeling. At times, it has strained credulity.

This week, instead of dealing with the extraordinary scale of abuse in his church, with the thousand of childhoods that were stolen, with the vile exploitation of innocence and the lives cut short by suicide, he talked about pointscoring as if in a game. He has not the language to deal with tragedy. He has not the feelings with which to know horror.

Francis Sullivan is responsible for co-ordinating the church’s fresh response to child sexual abuse. He is the chief executive of its Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Sullivan is a man marked out by decency. He is not a priest. Prior to his current role he was secretary-general of the Australian Medical Association and an adviser to the West Australian health minister.

“These numbers are shocking,” he told the commission this week. “They are tragic and they are indefensible. As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame.”

It is telling that the greatest honesty in the church comes not from its religious hierarchy. Sullivan’s voice rings through silence.

Some more numbers: the average girl was 10-and-a-half when she was first abused by someone in her church who she trusted. The average boy was five months from celebrating his 12th birthday. The scars of this are deep: the average child waited 33 years before reporting what had happened to them.

These numbers have faces. George Pell should look into those faces. He should see the betrayal that looks back at him, at a church that failed its most vulnerable, that continued that failure and added to its victims in pyrrhic defence of its ill-gotten moral worth. He should feel on his skin the heat of a nation’s disgust.

 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340; Lifeline 13 11 14.