A few weeks ago, Cardinal George Pell was questioned for two days over his role in the mishandling of the John Ellis case at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The very first Sunday after he was questioned, I attended Mass only to hear my local Priest refer to him as “Our Beloved George Pell” – I almost choked on my communion wine.
I want to say right from the start that I have met the Cardinal on more than a couple of occassions. He once told me that the parish I was working for was the “Jewel in the Crown” of the archdiocese. I have even had lunch with him with my Parish team when I was youth minister. I always found him congenial and engaged, however also dull, emotionless and full of himself. My overall opinion of him is that he is doctrinal rather than relational, authoritarian rather than democratic, and dismissive of opinions other than his own.
I also want to say that I watched the Cardinal being questioned during the Royal Commission (this being quite a difficult task with two littlies vying for attention!) I read many of the articles, both for and against the Cardinal. However I have one thing that is different from the casual observer in this case. My parents, in the 90’s, were heavily involved in the revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and my own mother is a clergy sexual abuse survivor.
With all this behind me, I feel that I am quite able to comment on the happenings at the Royal Commission less than a month ago.
Some people have praised the Cardinal in the past for setting up a response to church sexual abuse whilst the archbishop in Melbourne, saying it shows that he was and is committed to addressing the issue. It may seem to be so on the surface, and I have no doubt in my mind that Towards Healing was a positive and revolutionary step by the archbishop. It most certainly would have been better than nothing.
My quibble with the Archbishop has more to do with his moral compass. It seems to me that his true North no longer points to Jesus, but to the Law. In the cardinals mind, and at his own admission, he was acting according to legal advice which he thought to be sound and reasonable. The legal advice was this – that John Ellis be questioned in court about the authenticity of his claims that he was sexually abused for 10 years by his parish priest. This was despite the fact that the position of the church is to always believe people who claim to have been abused by clergy. So, if under Towards Healing John Ellis was to be believed, why did the cardinal resort to legal action to validate the claims? This is hardly a move by someone compassionate to the impact of sexual abuse on its victims.
During questioning, the Cardinal was asked if he had any knowledge at all on the impact that sexual abuse had on its victims. His response was basically that he had done no research on the issue. How then could he make a judgement call as to whether John Ellis was as broken a man as he claimed to be? Ultimately, the Cardinal made the call that John Ellis seemed too together to be a victim, and must therefore be swindling the church of money along with his law buddies. The severity of this mistake broke John Ellis’ life beyond recognition as it forced him to reveal the depth of pain he had suffered at the priest’s hands, under legal scrutiny.
Why should a man of the church take such a legal position? The hero of the Commission in my view was John Usher, the head of Catholic Care, who could see upon his appointment to this position that things were not going in a morally upstanding way, and made steps to rectify his misgivings. The Towards healing program was favouring the church at the time, however it was clear that there needed to be a shift in favour of the victims. Certainly, a man of God would see that this was a shift that was essential!
I cannot help but think of the Pharisees and compare them to the attitude of the cardinal during all of this. There is a sort of superiority complex going on in someone who believes that they know better than another about the genuineness of their claims, or who pushes forward with something that would be morally unacceptable if it did turn out the claims were indeed true. How dis-compassionate of the Cardinal.
In any case, Jesus lives in the broken, the marginalized, the poor, the disillusioned and the abused. Perhaps the Cardinal needs to turn off his legal blinkers, and open his eyes to the real Jesus in the lives of those he meets. Maybe then, the apology he gave John Ellis at the Commission – an apology he made without looking once at the man – would mean more.