By Michael Bradley.
Two questions arise from the history of child abuse in the church, and the fact that they don’t have any good answer is the best explanation for the outpouring of rage. First, how did this happen? Second, why the stony face? Michael Bradley writes.
Watching the movie Spotlight, I was moved like any normal person to tears and anger and disgust.
The movie outlines how reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered evidence that almost 90 priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had allegedly molested children over decades (one priest alone had 130 victims), that the Church hierarchy had known about this and that it had done everything in its power to hide the evidence and silence the victims.
The scandal broke in early 2002. In December that year, Boston Archbishop Bernard Law finally resigned in the face of overwhelming evidence that he had actively covered up the evidence of abuse by priests under his control. In 2004, he was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
You can watch the trailer for Spotlight below. Post continues after video.
It occurred to me that Vatican City must have by far the highest concentration of paedophiles and their protectors in the world, and I’m not even joking. We’re way outside the bounds of irony here. We’re in the bounds of a global institution whose mission is the work of Christian faith and charity but which has its own bank and is richer than, well, God.
That’s not strictly relevant, of course, other than that it adds a bit more context to the gobsmacking absence of morality which allowed the Church to not just tolerate endemic sexual abuse by its own ministers, but enable its perpetuation for decades by hiding it – while also doing everything it could to avoid paying the damage bill.
We need to keep the depth of this in mind when assessing the current storm breaking over the head of our own Cardinal, George Pell.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has ruled that Pell be relieved from having to fly home from the Vatican to personally give evidence, on medical grounds. He will be allowed the much less stressful experience of appearing by video link, thereby avoiding being in the same room as some very angry victims and families who have indicated that they’d really like him to look them in the eye.
This hasn't gone down so well. In support of a crowdfunding campaign that has so far raised more than $165,000 to fly abuse survivors to Rome so they can confront Pell face to face, comedian Tim Minchin yesterday released a song dedicated to Pell called Come Home.
Minchin isn't pulling any punches. His lyrics call Pell a "goddamn coward", "pompous buffoon" and "scum", and close with this invitation: "Oh well, Cardinal Pell, if you don't feel compelled to come home by your sense of moral duty, perhaps you will come home and frickin' sue me."
The answer to this opprobrium is obvious: Pell has a proper excuse for not appearing in person. The Royal Commissioner, Peter McClellan QC, is not a softy and would have been well aware of the significance of his ruling. End of story.
Watch Meshel Laurie and Gorgi Coghlan discuss George Pell below. Post continues after video.
Looked at that way, the anger directed at Pell may appear over-heated. After all, he isn't not co-operating. He's never been personally accused of abuse; the worst allegation against Pell himself is that he tried to bribe a victim to drop his complaint. OK, that's pretty bad, but he's categorically denied it already.
It might be argued that Pell is somewhat unfortunate in finding himself in the role of poster boy for the Catholic Church's institutional response to child sexual abuse. Perhaps he's copping more than his fair personal share of rhetorical abuse. A major reason for this is that, in all his public responses to this crisis, he has never demonstrated anything even approaching empathy or remorse.
He has delivered a perfunctory apology to the separate Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into abuse cases in 2013. But he will be better remembered for what he said when he last appeared before the Royal Commission in 2014 (by video link from the Vatican), comparing the Church to a trucking company:
If the truck driver 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.
Stop and consider that statement. Yes, it was mind-blowingly insensitive to draw that analogy and to so blithely refer to "some lady". But there was a much bigger hole. In the world according to Pell, if the Catholic Church has a policy that tells its priests not to rape children then, if they still do so, the Church cannot be held accountable.
Wait - does that mean that, if the Church didn't have a no-rape policy, it'd be OK? Surely, you'd think, priests might be expected to feel bound by some overarching moral code that tells them to keep their hands off children? And surely, you'd think, the Church might accept some responsibility if they don't? According to Pell, no.
Two questions arise, and the fact that they don't have any good answer is the best explanation for the outpouring of rage. First, how did this happen? The Holy See (Catholic HQ) reportedly investigated allegations involving about 3,000 priests between 2001 and 2010. A 2010 study by a Catholic university covering a 50-year period concluded that approximately 4 per cent of Catholic priests had "had a sexual experience with a minor", as they put it. But the numbers are simply unknowable; all we can conclude is that the problem is longstanding, endemic and systemic. In a 2,000-year-old church, driven by the mission to do good in the world, how is this even possible?
Secondly, why the stony face? How is it that the men who run the institution, who have risen to its heights, have almost uniformly seen their primary responsibility as being that of protecting the institution itself? How is it that they so routinely moved priests around, allowing them to continue their predations? How could they have so little compassion or regard for the victims? And, most perplexingly, how is it that they continue to fail to comprehend the damage that has been done?
There is no acceptable answer. Cardinal Pell will, once more, deny what he can deny, explain what he can explain, say sorry and cut the cheque for what the Church must pay. Then he'll return to his palace and contemplate I really don't know what about all this. He will sail on in his magnificently bejewelled robes. The Church will prosper. The victims will fall silent once more.
Hence the anger, measured in defamatory song lyrics or funds quixotically raised. But when this all passes, it's not anger we'll be left with, or disgust. It's nothing.