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An unholy mess or a road to Rome

ROME (SE): Whether or not the former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, George Cardinal Pell, would return to Australia from his present posting in the Vatican to appear before a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which has now shifted its base from Ballarat to Sydney, has been an ongoing saga in the Australian media over recent weeks.

Although he had promised to return to give testimony for a third time on the handling of complaints by Church authorities, he later asked to be excused on evidence from his doctor that flying could be a danger to his heart condition.

While the commission accepted the request, the Australian public has not been impressed and a crowd-funded group of 15 victims, who had been sexually abused by priests and brothers, flew to Rome to front him as he sat before the cameras at the Hotel Quirinale in the late evening from February 29 to March 3 to give evidence by videolink.

Part of their funding came from the proceeds of a satirical song utilising rather off colour language by Tim Minchin, Come Home Cardinal Pell.

While satire always invades the high moral ground, the song was a smash hit climbing to number one on the charts, reflecting the mood of a people who believe that they have not been listened to.

While the suggestion of the commissioner, Peter McClellan, that Cardinal Pell could return to Australia by ship is probably disingenuous, certainly his no show in Sydney makes things more difficult for victims seeking closure, as well as for members of the Catholic Church and the general public wanting certainty about the past and assurances that things will be better in the future.

At stake in the hearing is whether or not Cardinal Pell had knowledge from the 1970s and 1980s of the activities of one of Australia’s most notorious predators of children, Gerald Ridsdale, a former priest in the Victorian city of Ballarat with whom then-Father Pell shared digs at the cathedral presbytery.

Also, as a consultor to the then bishop of Ballarat, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, the commission wanted to know whether he knew anything about why Ridsdale was shifted quietly out of parishes and, if he knew nothing, why.

The questioning from the commission was hostile. Cardinal Pell was asked what he remembered and to the accusation, “That is implausible” from counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, when he replied, “I didn’t know” about Ridsdale’s activity, Cardinal Pell shot back, “That is complete nonsense.”

However, with the wisdom of hindsight, he did say of Bishop Mulkearns’ tenure as bishop of Ballarat, “His repeated refusal to act is, I think, absolutely extraordinary.”

Cardinal Pell then added that he could not think of another bishop whose actions were so grave and inexplicable.

Cardinal Pell continued by saying that the bishop’s handling of the case was appalling and his silence a gross deception.

In the early 1990s when the extent of Ridsdale’s crimes was unfolding, other bishops in the country believed that Bishop Mulkearns would probably go to prison.

But Furness was not satisfied and continued to ask Cardinal Pell if he made any inquiries as to why Ridsdale was being moved around. He replied that he didn’t, because he had “not much interest” in what was happening to him.

While Cardinal Pell continually denied that he had any involvement in any type of cover up or shielding of those who sexually abused children, he did admit that at least in one instance the action he took was probably not good enough.

But the drama has gone beyond the courtroom. On February 18, the Melbourne tabloid, the Herald Sun, telephoned Cardinal Pell in Rome asking for a comment on a Victorian police investigation into him for sexually abusing five boys.

Cardinal Pell has responded by asking for a public inquiry into the leaking of spurious claims to the media by elements of the Victorian Police, as he says that they have never sought to interview him on such a matter.

The police from the state of Victoria are also under scrutiny regarding their response to complaints filed in the diocese.

Legal scholar, Father Frank Brennan sj, says, “Justice McClellan and his fellow commissioners have a daunting task in the next fortnight according due process and natural justice to a high profile witness on the other side of the world who has been labelled scum, buffoon and a coward, (and) being subject of unauthorised leaks about uninvestigated complaints…”

When Cardinal Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he did act quickly to respond to complaints about sex abuse.

Although some say he acted more to protect the name of the Church rather than care for the victims, he was decisive, even if the accusations are true.

However, his carefully coiffeured profile promoted by his own public relations office was readily embraced by the media, which happily embellished it with titles like Australia’s foremost Catholic, top official and most senior Catholic, even spiritual adviser to former prime minister, Tony Abbott, none of which he was.

His brother bishops never elected him as president of their conference and Abbott never sought him out as a spiritual adviser.

But as Terry Laidler, former priest and now forensic psychologist, points out, “Nor are they characterisations Cardinal Pell has ever sought to eschew or correct with any vigour... The cardinal allowed his voice to be taken as that of the whole Australian Catholic Church on issues as broad as AIDS education, climate change and marriage equality.”

The media may have created a tall poppy and the cardinal may have acquiesced, but Australia remains a hostile climate and rough terrain for tall poppies and Laidler says that today all that went before sounds hollow.

But it is the hollow voice of that same tall poppy that Australians want to hear an apology from today.

Whether the commission can adequately complete its business without Cardinal Pell’s presence is for the commission to figure out, but whether or not the victims can find healing and closure, and others see remorse and hear an apology is the important question.

On March 3, Cardinal Pell met with the abuse victims that sat in front of him while he was being grilled through the videolink from far off Sydney.

Cardinal Pell described the meeting as honest and occasionally emotional. “I hope that my appearance here has contributed a bit to healing, to improving the situation,” he added.

One victim, Phil Nagle, was quoted as saying, “I think he gets it now.”

The group of survivors intended to stay in Rome for a few days with the hope of meeting Pope Francis.

But in the wash up, the meeting never took place and Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, said that Pope Francis never received a request for an audience, but the victims maintain that they used the protocol given to them by Cardinal Pell’s advisers.

The group did meet with a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Father Hans Zollner sj, and shared ideas about how to effectively safeguard children and adolescents.

A statement released after their meeting says that he was highly appreciative of their concerns and proposals, and would report back to the commission on their input.

The survivors spoke of models of educating children, parents and teachers so as to affect a structural change within the Church and society concerning the effective protection of children.

But the restrained and respectful tone of the statements released in Rome was in sharp contrast with the angry tone of reports published in the Australian media, which quoted the victims as saying they believe they were shunned by Pope Francis and angry at the snub they had received.

Should Cardinal Pell have taken the risk and flown home? Some have expressed the opinion that he should have, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of the victims and the Australian Church.

However, he has made his decision and others have to live with it. But what has to happen is that the commission do its job well and help ensure the safety and protection of children in the future.


As Father Brennan says, “It is an unholy mess” and as Laidler suggests, “All roads lead to Rome.”

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