George Pell and the Catholic Church’s cross to bear on child abuse

It is a grim reality that George Pell’s leadership of the Catholic Church in Australia will be defined by the abuse of children. In many ways, the church’s cynical handling of clerical abuse will overwhelm all other works of the past few decades. Abuse has become the church and the church become abuse.

Senior clergy have known this for some time. Now and then, both here and abroad, they have conspired to hide this information. Priests have been moved from parish to parish, their abuse prolonged by a strategy that kept them beyond the law. The church has been dealing with this issue, secretively, for as long as it has been happening.

In light of these years of abuse, across many hundreds of cases, it is remarkable that the church seems so unable to comprehend the enormity of this issue. When abuse is addressed publicly, it is more often with pigheadedness than compassion. And that is when it is addressed at all.

Last year, before the enormous and much overdue royal commission into child abuse was announced, George Pell gave evidence to a smaller Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sex abuse in the church. He was no more capable of empathy then than he was at the commission last week.

David Marr, who has become the great chronicler of Pell’s obstinacy, was there at the earlier inquiry. He saw a man completely unprepared for the gravity of what confronted him, except that he had prepared carefully for it.

“The cardinal’s colour rose all afternoon,” Marr wrote. “He smiled once or twice after negotiating a difficult passage. He clasped and unclasped his hands, never quite in prayer. He droned. He snapped. He stared at the six members of the Victorian parliament’s family and community development committee with a gaze that seemed focused somewhere south of Macquarie Island.”

At that inquiry, deputy chair Frank McGuire asked the questions that are now and have always been the crux of this issue: “Did you ever transfer a priest about whom you knew there were allegations of child abuse?”

Pell’s response was hardly reassuring: “I don’t believe I did. I never meant to. I don’t believe I did. And therefore I’m quite happy to say I didn’t.”

McGuire: “Did you in any way cover up offending?”

Pell: “No.”

McGuire: “Were you guilty of wilful blindness?’’

Pell: “I certainly wasn’t.”

Pell’s blindness was there again last week, as he compared the church to a trucking company whose driver “picks up some lady and then molests her”. The flaws in this analogy are enormous, even before the question of decency. No company would excuse this driver his offences or shield him from police. It is difficult to conceive, either, of a trucking company that would treat the victim with sustained callousness – force her to sign away her rights, intimidate her, offer her a pittance of compensation and then organise its assets so as to protect itself from civil remonstration. Pell says he was hoping for a “non-controversial example”.

The problem with the church’s leaders is that each time this issue confronts them, they act as if they are thinking about it for the first time. They have no moral depth to draw on, just bluster and a squalid superiority. They have been aware of all this for horrible decades but they have chosen to know nothing of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 30, 2014 as "A cross to bear".

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