THE Roman Catholic Church in Australia will have to change in the wake of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for child sexual abuse, the author and former seminarian Thomas Keneally says. He questions, however, whether its bishops are capable of initiating the change.
Speaking at the weekend, Mr Keneally express doubt whether the Church was capable of empowering the “good men”, whom he defined as priests who were close to the people and who knew what to do.
“The Church can’t get by on the letter of the law any more — the idea that the Church is a fortress to be defended by warriors who have, at best, enabled [abuse], and, at worst, themselves abused children,” he said.
The bishops “have to free up the good men, or else, because we can’t be peasants any more, bowing down to bishops”.
Mr Keneally’s 2016 novel Crimes of the Father dealt with clerical abuse, its effects, and its subsequent cover-up (Interview, 16 June 2017 and review, 23 June 2017).
He described Cardinal Pell as an arrogant and narcissistic warrior who had not evinced any sympathy for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and spoke of being “profoundly shocked” by the Cardinal’s conviction on five counts of abusing two choirboys in the 1990s while holding office as Archbishop of Melbourne (News, 14 December 2018).
The verdict, reached at a trial in the Victorian County Court in December, has only just been made public after the lifting of a suppression order (News, 1 March).
Cardinal Pell, aged 77, whose bail was revoked after the pre-sentence hearing last week, is being held in solitary confinement, for his protection, in the Melbourne Assessment Prison. He will be sentenced on 13 March. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has announced that it will begin its own investigation into the Cardinal, whose three years in the post as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See expired last month.
Another victim announced this week that he would start civil proceedings against the Cardinal, after the authorities decided not to proceed with the second trial, the reason for the suppression order. The man, now aged 50, says that he was abused by George Pell and a nun when he was a resident of a boys’ home in Ballarat, in the mid-1970s.
Cardinal Pell’s Melbourne legal team is launching an appeal against the County Court verdict, and there is talk of acquittal in the Court of Appeal. The RC Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Revd Anthony Fisher, speaking at Sunday mass in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, urged the faithful not to be too quick to judge Cardinal Pell. “If we are too quick to judge, we can end up joining the demonisers or the apologists, those baying for blood or those in denial,” he said.
Mr Keneally remarks: “None of us knows enough to know whether he is actually guilty or innocent — but he did have the best trial that money could buy.”
Mr Keneally is “amused” that “neo-conservatives are speaking as if this court decision is only temporary, and that the appeal will be the real trial.” These conservative commentators, “people who see mortal sins everywhere”, are “unwilling to move on what is a huge crime both in legal and theological terms”, he said.
If Cardinal Pell’s conviction is a blow for the conservative wing of the RC Church, it is also a blow for political and cultural conservatives in Australia, Mr Keneally says. “He has been a leading figure for the commentariat in the Murdoch press, at a time when neo-conservatism is going out of fashion in Australia, thank goodness.”
He “stood against gays, stem-cell research, the ordination of women, and divorcees”, and raised only a “muted” response to the Australian Government’s “heinous” asylum-seeker policies, besides supporting climate-change denial, Mr Keneally says.
Among the evidence presented to the court during the pre-sentence hearing were character references from two former Australian Liberal Party Prime Ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, both conservatives. In his reference, Mr Howard said that Cardinal Pell had “frequently displayed much courage, and held to his values and beliefs, irrespective of the prevailing wisdom of the time”. In his view, the Cardinal had “dedicated his life to his nation and his Church”.
This reference, which has attracted much public criticism, showed that the Cardinal was seen by conservative forces as a national political figure, Mr Keneally says.
The current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has, however, said that he was “deeply shocked” by the court verdict, and, if Cardinal Pell lost his appeal, would take steps to have him stripped of his Order of Australia award. Cardinal Pell holds the highest rank in the order, that of Companion, awarded in 2005 for “service to the Catholic Church in Australia and internationally, to raising debate on matters of an ethical and spiritual nature, to education and to social justice”.
Since the court verdict became public, various institutions have been distancing themselves from the Cardinal, including his former school, St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, and the Richmond Football Club.