Today’s sentencing hearing, and the taking into custody of George Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Catholic church, marks the end of a career marked by financial and political backing at the highest levels, despite years of otherwise disqualifying controversy and scandal. It is a spectacular fall from grace for a man who once held one of the most prominent positions in Australian public life. Pell is in prison tonight, and will most probably die there.
But this is the story of one errant man, not that of the church where he worked.
At 77-years of age, Pell has finally been convicted, his successful prosecution in the end reliant solely on the testimony of one man, who said that Pell forced him and another boy, then both 13, to perform oral sex on him. The other boy was not able to testify, having died from a heroin overdose (aged 31) in 2014. The parents of that child now say they plan to sue the Catholic church, claiming Pell’s actions destroyed the boy’s life.
Pell is the latest in a seventeen-year litany of paedophilia that has rocked the Catholic church and its followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that the Catholic church itself is an organisation given to paedophilia.
George Pell built his career preaching about the sex lives of others. He practiced a form of muscular conservatism, happy to challenge any social progressivism with vituperative vitriol. Although brutal in his assessment of homosexuality, few others were spared the lash – drug takers, single mothers wishing to conceive a child, women seeking an abortion, divorcing couples, even those wishing to use contraception were condemned for their moral laxity, or more precisely for their profound immorality, in light of what Pell called ‘the hard teachings of Christ’.
However, although Pell raped children and was a senior member of what appears to be the leading organisation in the world when it comes to the institutional rape of children, it would be a mistake to condemn the Catholic church itself.
When a wreath was laid outside a Melbourne church as a tribute to gay students driven to suicide, Pell blamed homosexuality rather than the factors that led to people taking their own lives. Homosexuality, Pell explained, was a ‘much greater health hazard than smoking’, reasoning that if gay people would stop recruiting new ‘members to the subculture’ there would be less gay people who might consider suicide.
Despite this, it would be wrong to suggest that the Catholic church bears any blame when it chose to promote Pell following these words.
When Pell took over the Ballarat branch of the Catholic church it was a hotbed of paedophile abusers. This was not by chance. Ballarat was notorious for attracting paedophiles, for silencing child victims and for moving paedophiles on to new pastures when the rumours and innuendo became too much. Pell was at the very centre of this culture, yet testified that he never saw or heard anything serious enough to cause him to raise the alarm. Hundreds of children were sexually abused on Pell’s watch, and nothing done to stop it. Despite this, in 1987 Pell was promoted to the second highest Catholic church rank in Australia.
However, this was another time, and it would be unfair to suggest that the Catholic church bears some responsibility for promoting the head of the most notorious paedophile branch in the land.
Now based in Melbourne, Pell’s seniority meant that credible reports of paedophilia were unavoidable. Parents, teachers, authorities and children told Pell of harrowing and appalling actions by church employees, yet Pell has claimed that the stories lacked credibility and detail, and that he didn’t have the authority to do anything whatsoever to curb these horrors, or even to report them to the police.
To be clear, despite a senior employee covering up the institutional rape of children, the Catholic church bears no blame whatsoever for these matters.
This came at a time when Catholicism was on the march, gaining in following, influence and political and financial might across the world. The Vatican’s position on contraception and homosexuality has since softened, just a little, but at that time the war on sex (as it might be called) and the assault on homosexuality in particular, was at its zenith.
Pell was a member of several councils and doctrinal assemblies, which gave him a worldwide network and the power to project his moralising to a wider audience. Pell called homosexuality a ‘psychological problem’ that was ‘against the social fabric’. The church gave Pell a megaphone with which to broadcast his moral dictums.
The subjugation and opprobrium heaped on homosexuals, over years and years and directed right from the top, led inexorably to the hidden lives, beatings and suicides that plagued the gay community. Intolerance wielded by those with power is deadly.
Pell was perhaps the leading Australian in this fight. He hobnobbed with the great and the good, and was often consulted before new social policies were considered. Tony Abbott called Pell a ‘fine man’, the former Prime Minister clearly feeling a cultural affiliation based on shared beliefs. John Howard provided a character reference during Pell’s trial, saying Pell was an ‘exemplary’ person. Both have a lot of explaining to do. They have protected a paedophile.
However, the Catholic church is a charity, so it would be wrong to question why it continues to claim tax-free status, and paid no tax at the same time as a now-convicted paedophile in their employ held such a sway over Australia’s leading politicians.
As the rumours and innuendo began to swirl around Pell, the Pope, faced with a choice between examining Pell’s conduct or protecting him, chose the latter. Pell moved to Rome, and effectively became CFO of world Catholicism. Now Pell’s power was at its peak, wielded from overseas and afforded enormous influence over millions of people. Pell shored up an existing modus operandi, fighting off victims of abuse with the most expensive lawyers available, pouring scorn on those who alleged this abuse and pulling strings to stymie or halt inquiries into child abuse by Catholic church employees.
As you will be aware, a rolling scandal of worldwide paedophilia has engulfed the Catholic church since 2002. Seventeen years on, it has claimed its highest profile victim, but there appears very little sign of true institutional change within the organisation, nor that a culture of robust defence has been replaced by an ability to listen, learn and understand.
That said, no blame should be apportioned to the Pope (current or former) for promoting Pell to such a senior position, nor should the Pope be held accountable for the culture of paedophilia that has been exposed.
For many years, Pell resisted even the notion of giving evidence in relation to his accusers. Despite the fact that Pell’s defense team during the recent trial is rumoured to have cost $50,000 a day (tax-free, of course), Pell told authorities that ill-health prevented him from travelling to Australia, especially as he could only afford a Premium Economy seat.
A legal claim of abuse made during the early part of Pell’s career was not proven, but not dismissed, and Pell was able to continue. This time, the courts have finally caught up with him. George Pell is likely to die in prison. His legacy is one of vitriol and hatred, spewed towards anyone different, people not like him. Homosexuals, single women, people seeking reproductive control, the marginalised.
But we’re not like him. George Pell is a paedophile, and a man who has defended and covered up for other paedophiles across decades. He is directly responsible for covering up the rape of hundreds of children.
However, whilst all of this took place within the Catholic church and by an employee of the Catholic church, and although the Catholic church promoted and protected Pell with all its might, one should not forget that the Catholic church itself is a fine organisation that helps the poor and offers our society moral guidance, based on a hotline to a man who lives in the sky and the teachings of a 2000-year old Middle Eastern textbook. It is for that reason that the Catholic church is afforded such a high place in public life, and why our society chooses not to tax the Catholic church.
Sure, senior Catholic church employee George Pell forced young boys to suck his penis, but to suggest that the Catholic church itself is an evil organisation is unfair. No actual change needs to take place. This orchard is littered with rotten apples, but it’s not a bad orchard.