My late mother was as devout a Catholic as you could get — Sunday mass, fish on Fridays, donations to the parish church. She even left provisions in her will to a charity that helps finance young priests. I think she’s rolling in her grave right now at the level of abuse that has infected members of her faith’s clergy.
Truly, the little children are indeed suffering under the care of an element of the priesthood. Sexual abuse is a malignancy that has festered for too long in the dark shadows of the church and those who wear the cassocks and crusade with the crucifixes.
Last week, Pope Francis, a spiritual leader I admire for trying to bring the Roman Catholic church into the 20th century while the rest of us deal with the challenges of 21st century living, convened a gathering of senior church officials to deal with the very topic of sexual abuse. Whether it will have any effect isn’t clear, but it did at least send a rather quiet message that the church is concerned. But earlier this week that was indeed a very loud and clear message, one that made headlines around the globe, that Cardinal George Pell, once the leader of Australia’s Catholics and formerly the treasurer to the Vatican — a position that’s the third most senior in the church and its 1.2 billion followers — is now facing up to 50 years behind bars for sexually assaulting children.
The details of the cases are simply disgusting, representing a complete abuse of the moral position and power Pell held, and I can only hope that there is a special place in hell reserved for his kind.
On the day he was revealed to the world as a convicted sex offender — he was convicted last November, but there was a gag order on the conviction for legal reasons as he faced other cases — his old high school in an Australian goldfields town physically scraped his name from one of its buildings.
The torture and pain to be endured by his young victims won’t be removed so easily — and they will live with those scars for their lifetime.
In Ballarat, Pell’s hometown in the state of Victoria, about 120kms from Melbourne, a thick black-taped line was also put through his once-revered name in Patrick’s College honour board.
It’s the fifth name on the board to be taped over.
A jury in the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne found Pell guilty on December 11 of five offences against two 13-year-old choir boys, committed when he was the Roman Catholic archbishop of the city in the 1990s. But a court-imposed suppression order banning reporting of the trial that was only lifted on Tuesday, giving Pell’s hometown its first opportunity to respond. His name looms large in the town of 100,000. Everybody knows him. His father was the local publican, and the son proved himself to be a dogged defender of the faith as a young priest in the gold district, one of the country’s biggest Catholic dioceses.
The physically intimidating former athlete, measuring more than 190cm tall, would later cut a path all the way to Rome, where he became the Vatican’s economy minister and one of the pope’s top advisers.
But a government-ordered inquiry in 2013 started to expose wide-ranging allegations of clerical child abuse and cover-up, with Ballarat at its epicentre. Pell testified at the hearings, mostly about his knowledge of complaints in the 1970s and 80s. He was not named as an alleged perpetrator at the inquiry.
The 77-year-old Pell was back in court last Wednesday for his sentence plea hearing, where his bail was revoked and he was taken into custody ahead of his sentencing on March 13. Before his appointment to the Vatican in 2014, Pell held senior positions within the Catholic church in Australia, including as the archbishop of Sydney and the archbishop of Melbourne. He is known for his staunch conservatism on issues including marriage equality and abortion.
Support and counselling
He is Australia’s most senior Catholic. He was made a companion in the Order of Australia in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2005 for his service to the church. Pell is now also the highest-ranking Catholic official in the world to have been convicted of child sexual abuse.
Pell has attracted criticism since the 1990s for the way he responded to allegations of child sexual abuse while he was working in Australian Catholic institutions. As archbishop of Melbourne he formulated the much-criticised Melbourne Response, which offered support and counselling to victims of sexual abuse but capped compensation payments.
In 2014, Pell noted that the church was no more responsible for child abuse carried out by church figures than a trucking company would be if they employed a driver who molested women. That’s certainly not a fair comparison, given the positions of moral authority, education and trust that comes with ordination.
For a church struggling to come to grips with abuse cases in Europe, North America and Australia, there’s no sign of the crisis going away. If anything, that summit convened by Pope Francis has a lot more work to do. And for those victims of monsters such as Pell, that can’t come quick enough.
— With inputs from agencies