The Catholic Church is a stain on civilisation

For many of us, the conviction of cardinal George Pell comes as a shock only because a guilty verdict was reached by a court. It’s extremely difficult to prove criminal guilt (beyond reasonable doubt) in cases of historic abuse where the evidence is limited to the recollection of a victim. This is especially so in cases such as Pell’s, in which a second victim who could have provided corroborating evidence died of a drug overdose well before the trial. An appeal is yet to be heard, but even if successful, it is unlikely to change public attitudes to Pell. 

In recent years, we’ve heard harrowing details of violence and rape in submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Catholic Church has dominated the inquiry, perpetrating abhorrent abuse on a scale possible only with the complicity of the institution’s hierarchy. The commission’s final report found “catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades”. Around 7 percent of priests are child abusers, and there has been systematic concealment of that abuse. 

As auxiliary bishop and then archbishop, George Pell oversaw the church’s dealings for many of those years. He was responsible for relocating and facilitating priest and prolific child sex offender Gerald Ridsdale, convicted of the rape of children as young as six, his victims estimated to be in the hundreds. Pell gave continued support to Ridsdale after he was charged by police, attending court with him in 1993.

We now know the extent of the man’s hypocrisy. While Pell and other church leaders perpetrated, abetted and covered up the real abuse and suffering before them, they used “protecting children” to pursue their agenda. In 2002, Pell described abortion as “a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people” because it destroys a “child’s” life. He opposed LGBTI rights because they would “deny a psychological problem which makes homosexuality against the social fabric”. His dedication to conservative control – a preservation of the “social fabric” as dictated by his institution – made Pell a darling of Australia’s establishment. 

In recent years, conservatives have echoed the church in evoking the protection of children to oppose marriage equality, reproductive rights and the Safe Schools program (aimed at challenging homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools). The freedom for children and adults to live and love as they choose was framed by the right as forms of child abuse. Yet their fever-pitched moral outrage and usual cries for tougher sentencing laws were absent at the news of Pell’s conviction. 

News Corp columnists and right wing law professors instead rejected the guilty finding. Jesuit priest Frank Brennan defended the cardinal in an article distributed to all parents of children at Catholic schools. Former prime minister Tony Abbott questioned the veracity of the jury’s finding and described it as a “tragedy” – for Pell. And in a character reference tendered to the court, another former prime minister, John Howard, described Pell as “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character” and said that his conviction for child rape didn’t “alter my opinion of the cardinal”. 

Just like Pell rallied for the despicable Ridsdale in 1993, his supporters in the political elite now rally around him. The hypocrisy is palpable. 

The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention was launched on false claims of paedophile rings in Indigenous communities. The Intervention, supported by Liberal and Labor and egged on by the press, required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. All it took was innuendo – not charges, let alone convictions – for the government to send in the army to “protect the children”, while enacting draconian laws and welfare quarantining. 

Now, the political elite are faced with royal commission findings that an institution of great influence and power has operated in ways that resemble an organised paedophile ring. Will all the special privileges of the church – the tax breaks, the hundreds of millions of dollars in public money going to its schools, the government contracts and so on – be rescinded? Will the military be sent to occupy Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to “protect the children”? Will the archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney have their bank accounts frozen and be put on the BasicsCard so we know how they are spending their money?

What will the political elite do? Nothing.

This highlights the scale of the complicity, which extends far beyond the pulpit. The political establishment continues to allow the church to run schools, chaplaincy programs in public schools and social services despite the overwhelming evidence that it has systematically abused children. The church is also exempt from paying tax on the income it receives from investments in Australia. And it pays no land tax, council rates or payroll tax. If the government wanted, it could revoke these privileges immediately. But it won’t. The rich and powerful look after their own.

Though the reporting of the trial has been limited, the glimpses allowed have highlighted the contempt for victims so frequently deployed in criminal trials. In an appeal for leniency in the sentencing hearing, Pell’s “highly esteemed” counsel disgracefully described the rapes as “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”. That any such notion could be introduced to the court reflects a total failure to acknowledge abuse for what it is, and a tacit acceptance that the vulnerable can be used by the powerful. The defence was obviously prepared to sink to great depths for a client paying an estimated $50,000 per day. 

The willingness of the church to defend one of its own, no matter what the crime or cost, sits in staggering contrast to the feeble efforts made to compensate abuse survivors. At that time of his offending, Pell was leading the “Melbourne Response” to allegations of child abuse against the church, which silenced survivor victims and tried to limit the church’s liability. Later named “Towards Healing”, the payouts made between 1997 and 2014 averaged just $48,300. 

This was much less than victims might have won in court, which is why the church, under Pell’s direction, set an example of former altar boy John Ellis. It spent $1 million fighting Ellis’ claim and pursued costs against him. In doing so, it established a precedent that the church could not be sued as a legal entity and held accountable for the actions of its priests and employees. Hundreds of small settlements were offered instead. They came too late for many victims lost to suicide and, from a church whose net worth in Australia is estimated to be $30 billion, amount to little more than an insult. 

The question of compensation and the difficulties of making claims were the subject of one recommendation to emerge from the royal commission: that there be a single national redress scheme to assist survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. The scheme is inadequate; the average offer is $76,000 (is this the price we put on a stolen childhood and a lifetime of trauma?), prisoners cannot access it, and money can be denied to those who have served sentences of more than five years, a group disproportionately Indigenous. But even this was too much for Pell and the clergy! In December 2018, the Catholic Church announced that it would not enter the scheme as a single entity, again seeking to limit its potential liabilities. 

This isn’t the only recommendation of the inquiry that the church has rejected. It has also refused to accept that it mandatorily report information regarding child abuse disclosed in confession. It’s a law that all public authorities in Australia are subject to, and yet this organisation of child abusers remains exempt from it.

The Catholic Church will likely never be held to account for its crimes in Australia. It continues to prioritise self-preservation over any commitment to justice for its victims or to ridding itself of the rot at its core. The church and its defenders have no moral authority to lecture us on how to live our lives. There is no place for them in the public life of a civilised society. The power they continue to exert with our political elite is a stain. We need to wash it out.