Cardinal George Pell is a terrier of the wrong sort. Combative for the Catholic church, he does the Pope’s bidding down under with a loud bark and occasional bite. Much of it has proven disastrous for the Church’s reputation in Australia and elsewhere. That particular institution is very much in the spotlight of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Child Abuse, and things are not going well. Before Victorian parliamentarians, Pell demonstrated, as he has done for so long, that he shows a distinct “sociopathic lack of empathy” for his victims.
Certainly, for Pell, a degree of blamelessness has been cultivated. This might well be his own interior justification. The abusive, institutional mechanism that so typified the church institutions might well have been a cultural monstrosity – but Pell was immune to it. Or at least, that’s the impression he gives. Governance, and action, are not necessarily the same thing in the Pell book of revelations.
His response, for example, to questioning about why the former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little did conceal instances of abuse is suggestive of that. “Yes, archbishop Little did cover up but he inherited a situation where there were no protocols and no procedures and, for some strange reason, he never spoke to anybody about it” (The Australian, May 28). The suggestion is specious, if for no other reason that the Catholic church remains one of the most protocol driven institutions on the planet, a hybrid creature of legal sophistication. Errors and heresies are noted; behaviour punished, when required. When necessary, bad behaviour has been concealed.
The sociopathic appellation was aptly coined by Anthony Foster, whose daughters had been raped by a priest. Pell’s response to the man, given in a furniture storage room at a Melbourne presbytery, was not one of much emotion. When shown a picture of Emma, one of the daughters who ultimately killed herself, Pell said blandly, “Hmmm, she’s changed, hasn’t she?” (The Age, Nov 23, 2012).
Then, the terrier sprung into action. “If you don’t like what we are doing, take us to court.” This is the Pell script, one of inscribed institutional violence and protection when necessary. Dissent will be quashed, and detractors punished. But those engaged in criminal acts… Well, that’s just something else. Canon law is a formidable shield, and one that continues to resist the incursions of Parliament and the common law. The current inquiry in Victoria is largely based on teasing out the links of a “Catholic mafia” that systematically frustrated police attempts to account for abuses.
Every concession to inappropriate, and in some causes fraudulent practices adopted by church institutions to complaints of abuse, is always qualified with a steel-like resistance. Pell has expressed his apologies that there was repeated sexual abuse of children, notably those taking place at the hands of priests and lay teachers connected with the church. He even goes so far as to admit that the church handled matters poorly some 25 years ago when a series of complaints came out of the rotting woodwork.
Before Victoria’s parliamentarians, he conceded that “lives have been blighted.” In his mind there was “no doubt about it that these crimes have contributed to many suicides” (The Australian, May 28). But, while being fully apologetic and “absolutely sorry” for those clergy responsible for abuse, the culture of silence had to be seen differently. “The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the church.” There was no inkling that this “mess” was “widespread”.
Once, however, he took that stance, terrier Pell assumed his aggressive posture. As Jack Waterford, editor-at-large at The Canberra Times observed, he did act decisively in setting up a mechanism of dealing with the abuses. Abusers were identified and punished; victims were embraced, at least to a degree. Job done, which is precisely why Pell has assumed a legalist posture that takes issue with the continued insistence on church mismanagement.
Some of his colleagues have done the same thing – Bishop Anthony Fisher, and the archbishop of Canberra, Mark Coleridge, for example, assuming stern rebuking positions of victims who remind them about what happened and continue to do so. Both men have taken issue with that they see as bleating on the part of the abused, the unnecessary spirit of “vengeance that drives them and conspires with the culture of violence”. But the victims, far from speaking to a culture of vengeance, have sought one defining attribute so often missing in Church governance: the presence of accountability in the face of violence that was normalised, ever present yet concealed.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org