Cardinal Pell, the Church or Civil Society: Who’s on Trial?

Guest Post by Frank Golding
Honorary Research Fellow, Federation University Australia
Vice-President CLAN

Cardinal George Pell’s committal hearing is a big story. The international and local media jostle for elbowroom at the committal hearing of the highest-ranking Catholic churchman ever to face allegations of criminal charges. The case is all the more intriguing as there is a suppression order in place over some of the information relating to the case.

Some survivors have him behind bars already, but his supporters say he will never be given a fair trial. Many commentators are sceptical, doubting even that there will be an outcome given the processes that have slowly unfolded so far and are likely to be pursued in the coming months, even years.

Survivors are upset to read that, if the matter does go to trial, “it’s a good bet that Cardinal Pell will win” because of low conviction rates in child abuse cases. Besides, Pell is taking no chances: he has hired high-priced barrister Robert Richter, a man well practiced in separating the professional aspects of his career from the suffering he encounters as part of his trade.

Survivors can’t detach their feelings from the facts so glibly. Many have been scrutinising Pell for years, even before he was spotlighted in the witness box at the Royal Commission—in Sydney in 2014, and by video link from Rome in 2015, and again in 2016.

It is generally agreed that the Cardinal did not acquit himself well because of his inability to show empathy for victims and his lack of personal warmth—indeed, some would say his aggression—even when confronted by family members carrying the deepest grief. So, whatever the nature of the alleged crimes about to be revealed, some Care Leavers see Pell as the perfect villain.

The Cardinal’s qualities are not just a personal matter, however. They are seen to embody the utter failure of the church to put the needs of victims ahead of protecting perpetrators and safeguarding the interests of the church as an institution by reacting to scandals as if it were a large corporation dealing with a massive toxic spill. Care Leavers are acutely aware that governments must re-assert the supremacy of the laws of the land over the laws of the church. Sexual abuse of a child is not a sin to be forgiven by the church, but a crime to be prosecuted by the justice system.

The spotlight on the Pell case, and on clergy child abuse generally, could lead people to forget that not all of the criminal abuse took place in church settings. In fact, nearly half of the survivors who told their stories to the Royal Commission in private were abused in orphanages, children’s Homes, foster care and other out-of-home care facilities. Many Care Leavers say the spotlight should be refocused on to the abuse in these institutions.

Care Leavers who were sexually abused want their day in court too. They hope that a proper proportion of the prosecutions already in train following referrals by the Royal Commission—some 2,575 at last report, with more likely to follow—will include their perpetrators.

The state sent children to these places to provide the care and protection that their parents were deemed incapable of providing. The state assumed complete responsibility for their care and protection—and failed them absolutely. Finding Pell guilty won’t necessarily help Care Leavers. It’s the state that betrayed them. It’s the state that needs to put things right.