Friday, 11 October 2013

Blind Faith

David Marr is an exceptional journalist, a compelling writer and a man of conviction. His previous submissions to the Quarterly Essay have focussed on Kevin Rudd (QE 38) and Tony Abbott (QE 47). Now, with the latest Quarterly Essay (QE 51 - September 2013), Marr turns his sights on Cardinal George Pell and the role he has played in the Australian Catholic Church's response to child sexual abuse in The Prince - Faith, Abuse and George Pell.

Marr traces the life of George Pell from his early days in Ballarat as the son of a publican raised to be devout by his Catholic mother and his early religious instruction. It shows Pell's climb through the church ranks from parish priest to bishop to archbishop to cardinal, achieved largely through his connection to Rome and his deep conviction in Catholic doctrine. Also evident is how Pell did not have universal support from Australian Catholics in the church hierarchy - many of whom thought this uncharismatic man was unable to manage contemporary issues.

At all points in his career the scandal of sexual abuse was never far away, but Pell was seemingly blind to it. It beggars belief that Pell could have lived and worked alongside predatory clergy, often grooming their victims in packs, and he somehow knew nothing of what was going on.  Worse than this though was his response once abuse was identified - as the Church moved to protect the perpetrator and silence the victims. The Church's Towards Healing protocol would ultimately cause more victimisation but save the Church a fortune in legal costs and payouts to victims. 

There were several points during reading this essay where my blood boiled with anger: the way in which paedophile priests were moved from parish to parish, the way victims were bullied into silence and the way some police and politicians maintained a stance that the Catholic Church should handle these matters with prayer rather than prosecution. What is clear is the devastating impact the acts and omissions by Pell and his Church have had on victims: drug abuse, alcoholism, criminal activity, self harm, broken relationships, mental illness, suicide. This tragedy affects individuals, families, communities and generations. 

Across Australia there are currently several investigations into child sexual abuse. In 2012 the NSW government announced a Special Commission of Inquiry into police handling of abuse by the Catholic Church in the Hunter region. At the same time the federal government created the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse which has been hearing evidence from victims and alleged perpetrators, institutions and experts with the goal of providing an initial report in June 2014. Each evening on the nightly news we get snippets from revelations of the devastation caused by the church and other institutions. There is no way to repair this damage.

Ultimately, this essay reveals Pell as an ambitious man of blind faith who put the Catholic Church ahead of the children and families in their care. Despite his apologies and claims of cooperation, Pell has done serious damage. If only he had been a better man - one who saw that the best interests of the Church would have been served by rooting out evil, punishing perpetrators, protecting victims and thereby restoring the faith.