Below is the substance of a homily given at St Dominics Camberwell, on Sunday 3rd March 2019. After giving it, I was told that the Vicar General of Melbourne Archdiocese had issued a letter instructing us how to deal with this topic: Cardinal Pell’s conviction for the rape of two choir boys.
The Vicar General’s letter made nine points. The first told us not to give a personal opinion of Pell’s guilt or innocence, although many eminent Catholics have done so publicly. The fifth point instructed us to ‘inform your people that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence’.
The seventh point told us to ‘be mindful of all victims of sexual abuse in any form. Acknowledge with respect those who have had the courage in coming forward…’
This sequence does not necessarily indicate the relative importance of the points being made, but why – after a legal verdict – are church leaders still putting Pell’s claim above that of his accuser? This was the main reason for my giving that homily.
Since then I have found that Helen Last, employed by archbishop Pell until 1997, received a letter from his vicar general, Denis Hart, [shown here], warning that she was to be sacked for daring to enquire into the many complaints about Doveton parish priest Peter Searson.
The conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual offences has brought us to a unique point in the history of the Catholic church, and raises huge questions for every Catholic Christian.
Perhaps Jesus has something to tell us, through this gospel that we read today about how we can each cope with this difficult situation. He says here that the quality of each person is known by their fruit. What applies to persons must be said of institutions, such as our Catholic church. This weekend Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane sent his people a letter reassuring them about the good work that our church has done and is doing every day… fruits that show what we are as a church.
He writes that although we often see stories about the Church’s failures with child sexual abuse, ‘The Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area’… but will continue to help and heal the abused and their families. ‘We have much to atone for’… But he then, rightly, listed the good works of the Church which are less mentioned in media. Work for refugees; domestic violence victims; people with a disability; people on the poverty line; the homeless; dementia patients; prisoners; the environment. The church has educated millions of Australian children over generations and has provided first-class medical treatment in its hospitals. ‘This is what you, the Catholic church, do from day to day.’
All that is very true. But Jesus warns us, quite strongly, that we are quite skilled at noticing the splinter in the eye of another person, while we do not notice the plank in our own. Let’s dare to look for that plank. It is true that the Church is not now walking away from its responsibilities in uncovering sexual abuse, but we are doing this only after a five year Royal Commission has forced us to. This is what the Royal Commission uncovered: I am quoting directly from its Report, and I apologise that this can be hard to listen to.
In the 36 years from 1980-2015, Catholic authorities in Australia received complaints of sexual abuse from 4,444 persons. Of those who abused them:
- 32 % were religious brothers; 5 % were sisters
- 30 % were priests
- 29 % were lay people.
Through 60 years (1950 – 2010) 7% of all Catholic priests in the survey were alleged to be perpetrators.
Many senior church officials, over many decades, knew about allegations of abuse but failed to take effective action, catastrophically failed to help children and caused much suffering to them, their families and communities. Church authorities acted in their own interests rather than the interests of children. Survivors were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and sometimes further abused. This happened mainly because Catholics wanted to avoid public scandal, to maintain the Church’s reputation, and be ‘loyal’ to priests and religious.
Countless complaints were not reported to police. Reporting could have prevented further sexual abuse. Sometimes police also failed to act, for the reasons given. Some alleged perpetrators were allowed to continue in ministry in the same position for long periods; others were moved to new positions, where they continued to abuse children. Sometimes lies were told about why the abuser had gone; or no warning was given to the new place about the risk they posed. Some of the above can be excused because we lacked knowledge: for example leaders hoped that psychological therapy or counselling could ‘cure’ alleged perpetrators; or that abusers could be controlled by imposing restrictions on their ministry. Nevertheless, there is much that is worthy of serious blame.
Nearly four and half thousand abused children, over many decades! And now we have a cardinal convicted of abusing, and in jail. He is suffering. He is our brother. He urgently needs our prayers. Is he guilty? Or was his conviction unjust, still another terrible wrong? The Catholic community is divided on this. Some journalists and lawyers – including Jesuit Frank Brennan – claim he must be innocent. But if we say this, do we have a plank in our eye? Do we still think that church leaders can do no wrong?
Cardinal Pell has done much good in his life, and I respect him for that. But I attended eight days of his trial, and have no difficulty respecting the jury’s verdict of guilty. Those who still claim his innocence say that he was condemned by only one witness who claims that Pell raped him when he was 13 years old. There were actually two boys, on choir scholarships which paid their school fees at St Kevins. They loved going to choir… but suddenly stopped loving it, and wanted to quit. They did not tell their parents why. Most victims don’t tell, at least for many years afterwards. If it took them a year to leave the choir, it was because they could not reveal the reason. To leave would mean that they would lose the choir scholarships, and there families would not be able to afford school fees. But the boys did leave, and by about 16 years of age both were taking heroin. One eventually died of an overdose.
If the survivor’s story is true, can we imagine what he must have suffered? If his story was not true, why would he come forward 22 years later, with such an outlandish story, to take on the might and wealth of the Catholic church and the highest-paid lawyers in the state? Could he have been trying to save his sanity by coming out with the truth at last; to get justice? How many victims we have re-abused by not listening.
The QC, Robert Richter, grilled him thoroughly and challenged his story. The court was closed for the two and a half days of his evidence, so no one except the jury knows how genuine the young man appears, nor all the details of his case. Not me, not the journalists; not Fr Frank Brennan. If we Catholics expect that the appeal must declare that the jury was wrong, are we making another enormous mistake?
If you doubt his story, I suggest that you read the book by Louise Milligan, who listened to him at length. I have met Louise Milligan and she impresses me as a truthful woman, not at all sensationalist. She assures me that the young man is also genuine and truthful. Richter QC brought out small inconsistencies in his story, but do we expect a traumatised thirteen-year-old to have perfect recall after 22 years?
Pell’s supporters claim that the crime could not have been committed in the cathedral sacristy after high Mass because there were too many people around. We heard from many witnesses: two choir masters, the organist, sacristan, master of ceremonies and former choir boys. But they all had to speak in probabilities: ‘people were coming and going; people had jobs to do; the archbishop always followed this routine’. But they could not rule out exceptions. No one could swear to seeing the archbishop all the time. After every Mass, in the cathedral as in any church, people eventually drift away. There are moments of quiet. The sacristy is empty. No one noticed two choir boys missing from their places, but that doesn’t mean that they never went missing to trespass naughtily in the room where, it is claimed, Pell found them pinching the altar wine.
Please forgive me this distasteful detail: those who think Pell is innocent make much of this argument. I was astonished that Richter spent so much time trying to prove that a bishop dressed in a full length cassock with an alb over it could not possibly expose himself for the purpose of rape. It is a stupid argument. In my 53 years as a priest, if I wish to answer a call of nature when vested for Mass, it is a simple matter to lift the hem of the multiple garments or vestments I am wearing. End of story. It is astonishing that Fr Brennan is still spreading this foolish argument.
The defence QC also claimed that priests who abuse boys must first groom them over a time, winning their trust, and boasted that Pell did not do this. But grooming is only one way to abuse. There is another kind, practised by Jimmy Saville of the BBC, and Rolf Harris, powerful and wealthy men who mixed with royalty and Prime Ministers. No one would dare challenge them. They would abuse suddenly and recklessly; hit and run, even with other people present. Jimmy Saville would abuse children in their hospital bed. He abused an 11-year-old girl in the sacristy during Mass. When such revered public figures were eventually accused, many could not believe them guilty.
Cardinal Pell is convicted of a violent act of sheer power. He has admitted that he has a strong temper. The young delinquent boys were powerless. Pell’s actions might have been very risky, but he felt confident he could not be caught, even if the boys dared to accuse him, no one would believe them.
Pell’s defenders claim that the action was completely out of character. Was it? Sadly, the archbishop does not have a clean record. On at least three other occasions he has had to face accusations by individuals or groups. A judge once accepted that an accuser was telling the truth, but that so many decades had passed there was not sufficient evidence to bring the matter to court. The same happened recently with several men who said that as a young priest Pell had often abused them in the swimming pool at Ballarat. The case was about to go to trial, but was dropped last week because once again, after four decades, the evidence was legally inadequate.
And how has Pell treated those complaining of sexual abuse. Chrissy and Anthony Foster’s two little daughters were raped by their Oakleigh parish priest. If you read the Fosters’ excellent book you will be saddened to see that Archbishop Pell treated them abominably. So too was John Ellis, the Sydney abuse survivor whom Pell almost destroyed by legal trickery, which has now been reversed. During the Royal Commission I watched Cardinal Pell give evidence by video link from Rome. Like the Commissioners themselves, I could not believe him when he claimed not to know about several cases of abuse. He and his supporters boast of his Melbourne Response to abuse. But it is a plan designed to limit compensation and tended to gag those who accepted its small payouts. It was not a wonderful, original initiative, but was launched in haste before the other Australian bishops could finish their combined plan.
Bishops and cardinals can do wrong. Three eminent cardinals of Philadelphia lied, in succession, to grand juries about the huge amount of abuse in that diocese. Just last week Cardinal McCarrick of Washington was reduced to the lay state – stripped of his priesthood – for committing sexual abuse.
Cardinals are called ‘princes of the church’. A psalm that we sing in the Prayer of the Church says: God pours contempt on princes… They diminish, are reduced to nothing… But God raises the needy – the suffering – from distress. Was it a bad mistake, way back in our church’s history, to have allowed such rankings to become part of our church? Did Jesus tell us to use titles and privileges, bishops’ palaces and elaborate vestments? He positively forbade them! In today’s gospel he tells us: the disciple is not greater than the master…who died penniless, murdered for defending others.
Our church today is sick. Was it the structure of our church – the non-sharing of power; the clericalism that puts the clergy before others – which is a main reason why all this has happened? Some of our church’s fruit is rotten. We need urgently to pray for a renewed church. It needs deep reform. Jesus has not left us; the risen Christ in our hearts, in our Eucharist. Many agree that it is the form, the structure of the church that went astray, centuries ago. How to change it is a huge question. Possible solutions will be discussed at the coming Plenary Council. Don’t miss your opportunity to speak to it.
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