The response of the powerful to the conviction of Archbishop George Pell is telling, writes Joshua Badge.
The commentariat had months to devise their responses by the time the suppression order on Cardinal George Pell’s conviction expired. We might well have expected a humbled Church, respect for a rigorous process and, above all, empathy for survivors.
Such expectations proved hopelessly naive as prominent Catholics, politicians and commentators staged an impressive campaign to vindicate a convicted sex offender.
Calmer voices might have deferred until after the appeals process but instead last week became a naked demonstration of power as influential figures closed ranks.
The glowing character reference Pell received from John Howard must have felt like salt in a raw wound for Indigenous people still grappling with the disastrous effects of the Northern Territory Intervention — increased child removals, unemployment and suicide among much else.
After all, Howard ordered the Australian Army to occupy Indigenous communities based on little more than his preconceptions about black people and hearsay. How he squares his justification for the NT intervention with his implicit support of Pell, nobody but him can say. What’s sure is that there’s no cavalry to spare for survivors in faith communities.
The loudest voices rang out from the inches of News Corp columns. Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine led the charge by dismissing the unanimous verdict and casting aspersions on the survivors. After years of branding media coverage of Pell as a prejudicial ‘witch hunt’ it is remarkable how contented they were to conduct a trial by media so long as they umpired.
Vice-chancellor of the ACU Greg Craven joined them in arguing that the jury could not have been impartial, but such a claim ignores the rigour of the jury selection process.
Though he had the opportunity, Pell himself did not challenge any of the individuals selected from the unusually large pool of 250 potential jurors.
Pugilists like Lyle Shelton and David van Gend weighed in with verve. The media, the jury, and individuals and social media had made a sacrificial lamb of Pell to atone for the sins of the Church, they said. Their argument foregrounds Catholics — and Pell specifically — as victims of anti-religious discrimination.
It is undeniable that the exercise of law can be deeply discriminatory and it is often sensible to question the system. Many marginalised groups, Indigenous people not in the least, can tell you just how fallible and unjust the Australian legal apparatus can be.
Yet last week did not see the mass awakening of social consciousness but the banding together of influential people with vested interests. Many have a stake in depicting faith communities, and by extension conservatives, as persecuted by institutions corrupted by secularism. So it is that child abuse becomes fodder for the culture war.
Perhaps the most callous response, though, was penned by Frank Brennan, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. He provided a lengthy apologia which was notable above the others for its rigid indifference to the trauma and grit of survivors.
Neither was there any discussion devoted to what Pell’s conviction might mean for the Church. Pell is, of course, the highest-ranking Catholic official in the country. He was the architect of the Church’s response to institutional sexual abuse and has campaigned against breaking the seal of confessional.
Instead, Brennan marshalled all his efforts to prove Pell’s innocence. The liturgical vestments he was wearing are restrictive, he argues, lifting arguments from the defence. It bears saying that a cincture does not prohibit movement from the waist down and that the jury physically inspected such robes.
He goes on to argue that the circumstances of the assault would be against protocol. The cardinal would be expected to lead the procession and would have assistants. On the basis of the evidence, which included a tour of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the jury found these arguments unconvincing.
Tellingly, that nobody save the jury had access to the critical evidence seemed immaterial to most replies. Brennan himself only attended a portion of the trial and had no misgivings about shaking hands with Pell while it was underway. Now, having rejected the guilty verdict, by the conclusion he moves to discredit an appeal before the process has even begun.
In a similar vein, Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher warned against ‘hasty judgements’. In the context of an appeal this is an unsurprising comment but it does not diminish the force of a conviction. Nor does it prohibit discussion of Pell’s much criticised Melbourne response or his questionable handling of abuse claims against the Church.
It is in no way a neutral act to campaign for a convicted sexual predator. Brennan and Fisher’s responses are typical of a hierarchy whose first reflex is to evade criticism to safeguard the power of an institution. The reputation of the Church, then, is not tarnished by the abominable actions of a few so much as by the intransigence of its leaders.
A shallow analysis of Pell’s conviction shows that it is anathema to the comfortable narrative of a just world. Child sex abusers are sewer monsters in our imagination. How could a good man do such a thing?
In this way, though, apologists have assured themselves of Pell’s innocence based on little more than their inability to imagine a world where a powerful man could abuse his power.
The real tragedy in this unhappy affair is how profit-driven voices displaced survivors. This moment was an opportunity for reconciliation, reform and healing. Even recognising that an appeal might exonerate Pell, leaders and pundits ought to have extended basic courtesies to survivors and owned up to some hard truths about clerical abuse.
Instead, the interests of survivors took a back seat as commentators centred themselves and diverted all our resources onto the perpetrator. The victims of systemic abuse are many and the need for reform urgent. If we can glean any lesson from this saga it is that the voiceless are often the most deserving of our attention and the least likely to receive it.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.