It really has come to something when politicians call on the Vatican Treasurer and Pope Francis’s right hand man to come out from his Vatican sanctuary, and face up in person to allegations of having sexually abused children.
On Wednesday, a Greens motion calling on Cardinal George Pell to return to Australia from Rome to assist police and prosecutors investigating allegations of criminal misconduct against him was supported by the Senate.
Predictably, Pell launched an attack on the Greens, calling them anti religious and characterising the motion as a political stunt, despite the motion being supported by parties other than the Greens.
Pell is well-known for his bellicose self-defence. In 2012 he threatened to sue comedian Catherine Deveny for a tweet she posted that the Cardinal considered defamatory. He also threatened to sue Twitter, but resiled from that threat.
Then there was the church’s prolonged legal battle against complainant John Ellis, who attempted to sue the Archdiocese of Sydney, at the time under the authority of then Archbishop Pell. Mr Ellis spent more than ten years seeking compensation for the five years of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Father Aiden Duggan. Pell later apologised for the “vigorous and strenuous” battle he ordered the church’s legal team to conduct against Mr Ellis with the aim of discrediting him, thus protecting and vindicating the honour of the institution in which Pell was a rising star. During the apology, Pell refused to even look at the frail Mr Ellis, who was sitting across from him.
In 2013, human rights lawyer and commentator Father Frank Brennan commended Pell for “being man enough and priest enough” to publicly apologise for the torment Mr Ellis suffered at the hands of the church’s lawyers. Four years later, Brennan’s comment seems both naive and misplaced.
In 2014 Pell was transferred to Rome to sort out the Vatican’s complex finances, and, many speculated, to get him out of the sewer that is the church’s increasingly sordid and public history of sexual crimes against children.
We are still not done with Pell. He has consistently responded with belligerent denial to allegations of abuse and cover-ups, at one point claiming that the ABC and Victoria Police entered into a conspiracy against him, and furiously demanding an investigation. Pell also claimed that Victoria Police leaked confidential information in order to denigrate him, when it was clear the information in question came from victims interviewed by media. Pell also blamed numerous priests and bishops who he alleged failed to inform him of the rampant sexual abuse of children occurring on his watch over decades.
It isn’t possible to judge Pell on the question of child sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by him, and currently under consideration by the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions. It is possible, however, to form an opinion of the man based on the manner in which he’s conducted himself throughout the years of the Royal Commission into allegations against catholic clergy, and the cover-ups by the church’s hierarchy that made abuses possible, and ongoing.
The Cardinal’s attitude is not encouraging. At every turn he’s resorted to accusation and blame, in an effort to exonerate himself from all responsibility. If we generously give him the most enormous benefit of the doubt, he must at least be held responsible for what can only have been wilful ignorance, innumerable turnings of a blind eye that resulted in horrific abuse of children over decades, abuse he could have taken steps to prevent.
Instead, Pell appears to have prioritised his own career, and the reputation of the institution that sheltered and promoted him, over the awful suffering of thousands of children. Every single act of sexual abuse affects untold numbers of people, as well as the victim: family, other kids who knew and had to hide their knowledge, friends, possible partners, possible children of victims. The scale of damage as a consequence of every act of sexual abuse is incalculable. George Pell is responsible not only for failing to intervene and protect individual children when he had the opportunity, but for the consequences and aftermath of the individual child’s experiences.
Thus far Pell has been neither “man enough” nor “priest enough” to face what he has done and the magnitude of the intergenerational repercussions, instead continuing to enjoy the safety and security of the Vatican’s protection while attempting to obfuscate grievances against him by attributing them to anti religious sentiment and political stunts. The man is a scoundrel. That much is clear. The full extent of his scoundrelly has yet to be revealed.