The Perils Of Comparison


Churchill once compared a good speech to a woman's skirt. It should be long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest, he quipped. Comparisons can be enlightening but they can also be problematic.

Australian public life has produced two troublesome comparisons over the past week or two, and neither involved a modicum of deliberate wit. Both touch on what might be termed the sins of His Eminence George Cardinal Pell: one a sin of commission, the other of omission.

The sin of commission was on show when Cardinal Pell gave video evidence from the Vatican to the Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission last week, evidence which prompted questions about the obligations of those who act as fiduciaries.

Equity courts from antiquity have found that people who bear a fiduciary duty must conduct themselves “at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd”. Think doctor-patient, teacher-student, parent-child, lawyer-client, confessor-penitent, priest-parishioner, truck driver-passenger.

Truck driver-passenger? Do we have a category problem here?

If so, it did not stop the Cardinal telling the commission chair Justice Peter McClellan, with apparent earnestness, that the owners of a trucking company should not be expected to bear any responsibility for the problematic conduct of a truck driver who molested a female passenger.

Accordingly, by the same comparative reasoning, the Church bore no responsibility for the wayward behaviour of a molesting priest.

Following 2,000 years of Catholic theological and philosophical thought founded on the shoulders of canonised intelligentsia of the order of Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary Prince of the Church was publicly advocating the fiduciary equivalence of priest and truck driver.

If on the path of life one chances upon a priest, the common expectation is that the man will conduct himself in the image of Christ; if on the same path we come across a truckie, we expect him to behave like a truckie. The Church has been reciting the sanctity of priesthood narrative for millennia; it’s not one we need to make up.

With a succession of convictions of that magnitude, the former Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, now a Vatican bureaucrat, is widely regarded as suffering from an abundance of moral and intellectual blind spots. I accept that view is not universally held, and am reminded for one of Rupert Murdoch tweeting this vindication of Pell earlier in the year: "Pope Francis appoints brilliant Cardinal Pell from Sydney to be no. 3 power in Vatican. Australia will miss him but world will benefit."

That brave defence aside, the Pope might be well advised to take steps to ensure that Pell is no longer put in front of cameras and microphones. His public utterances are damaging to the Church’s already fragmented authority and credibility.

Not that the credibility of the Church is assisted greatly by some of its lay apologists. Speaking on national television last week, the co-director of the Sydney Institute, Anne Henderson, defended the legalistic tactics used under Pell’s widely discredited Melbourne Response by impatiently asserting that those type of tactics are what anyone would expect from an institutional response.

The Church, on that view, conducts itself like any other big institution: Exxon Caltex, Philip Morris, James Hardie. Expect no better! The truckie analogy is writ large.

The sin of omission arose from comparisons of an asylum-seeker detention centre with a prison. The matter was raised by the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, as part of the Commission’s inquiry into the children of asylum seekers under the ‘care’ of the Australian Government.

In response to Professor Triggs’ proposition that the children were being kept effectively in a prison, the relevant government minister Scott Morrison and his department deputy secretary sank into spasms of moral indignation.

“Are you suggesting that Long Bay jail is the same as a full-fenced alternative place of detention on Phosphate Hill on Christmas Island?” Mr Morrison asked.

“I have been a practising lawyer since I was 22-years-old and I have been to many prisons. I know a prison when I see it,” Professor Triggs replied.

The border protection deputy secretary joined in suggesting that armed guards are required to satisfy any definition of a respectable prison and the guards at the Christmas Island detention centre are not armed.

Triggs might have asked why not. Operation Sovereign Borders is, after all, a military operation headed up by a 3-star general so why are the guards not armed? Are the people detained not a danger to our sovereignty? But she didn’t. She was being intimidated and thought it better to leave it at that.

Not before the minister made the point that he had seen too many children die in the sea and so needed to pursue the policies he was pursuing. That proposition would be more credible if we blot from memory the activities of the former Opposition, of which he was leading player, when they publicly trumpeted with barely-concealed glee each boat that arrived, and some that didn’t.

Back to Cardinal Pell. I have written elsewhere that the Catholic Church under the Cardinal’s leadership in Australia has been constrained in taking a principled stand on the treatment of asylum seekers under both Labor and Coalition Governments dating from the Tampa incident in 2001.

The failure of bi-partisan policy on this matter has become a national and international embarrassment, with both major parties having painted themselves into a corner.

In Australia a number of bishops and priests have taken strong personal stands on the issue and the Catholic Bishops Conference, to its credit, has established a special committee to look at the question. But under Cardinal Pell, no effective Church position has been established in the public mind.

It is a matter of regret that an issue of national significance has had to rely on a public servant, the head of the Human Rights Commission, to risk her job to take the matter up to the Government of the day. The issue is one that is central to the mission of a Church that pretends to be a focal point of moral and spiritual guidance.

The time has come to re-state on the record that the game the Australian political parties have been playing since the Tampa incident is to toy with the lives of desperate people escaping in many cases from regimes that Australia officially denounces.

And for what reason?

For no other reason than to attempt to win elections by either cynically appealing to or not offending the most nasty and primitive instincts in the electorate.

Australians can do better than that, and the Catholic Church has the wherewithal to do something about shifting the moral compass.

Pell has finally gone. Forty-seven per cent of the Australian Cabinet members are nominally Catholic. The leader of the Opposition is a Catholic. The time has come to rehabilitate the reputation of a great institution that has been blighted by successive failures of compassion around child abuse, homophobia and xenophobia.

We have overstepped the mark on asylum seekers. It is time to restore some balance.

* Paul Begley is an Australian Catholic who works in public affairs. The views expressed here are entirely his own. You can follow him on twitter here. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.