IN evidence at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse on Monday this week, Cardinal George Pell talked about "gossips" and how he wasn't one.
If he had been, and if other Catholic Church leaders had been "gossips", maybe they "would have realised earlier just how widespread this awful business was", he said, referring to the Church's child sex abuse crisis.
He seemed to be saying that if only the cardinal and a few brother bishops had had a nice old chin-wag in the tearoom after formal proceedings at, say, the twice-yearly Australian Bishops Conferences, the Catholic Church might have acted much sooner to arrest a national tragedy.
If only they'd traded the latest rumours about priests A, B and C and their tendency to invite young children to their private quarters with the doors shut at odd times, maybe the penny might have dropped, Pell seemed to be saying.
"I think the bigger fault was that nobody would talk about it, nobody would mention it," he told the inquiry, and presumably the "nobody" he was referring to was confined to clergy or Church representatives.
"I don't think many, or any, persons in the leadership of the Catholic Church knew what a horrendous widespread mess we were sitting on."
I phoned Victorian woman Chrissie Foster on Tuesday morning to talk about Pell's evidence. Foster and her husband Anthony have attended the majority of the Victorian inquiry's sessions, and were there on Monday to hear Pell.
Two of the Fosters' primary school-aged daughters were repeatedly sexually assaulted by Catholic paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell. One daughter died of a drug overdose. The second was left severely disabled when she was hit by a car after binge drinking.
The Fosters are the couple who were denied a meeting with the then Pope Benedict during his Australian visit in 2008, and whose public statements about the Church during that time led to the notorious "[victims] dwelling crankily . . . on old wounds" comment from an Australian bishop.
I asked Foster what it was like to listen to Pell give evidence on Tuesday, and she immediately raised the cardinal's "gossips" reference. I said it was the line that jumped out at me because I'd heard it so many times before from other members of the Catholic clergy.
"Gossip" reduces reports of child sexual abuse to the level of rumour, hearsay, and petty, ill-informed tattle that can be disregarded. It neatly reframes the person making the reports to the level of rumour-mongerer who should be silenced.
"You've got to analyse 'gossips' and how it serves the Church," Foster said.
"They label reports of child sexual abuse as 'gossip' and it's their excuse to not act.
" They get up there and say reports of child sexual abuse are 'gossip' and then the person making the report has to try and disprove it.
"It was a tool to silence us with. It silenced all of us, and that's what they wanted."
In her book, Hell on the Way to Heaven, Chrissie Foster wrote about a meeting with Pell in 1997, during which the Fosters showed Pell a photo of one of their daughters after she attempted suicide.
"He was the first person we'd shown the image to," Foster wrote.
"It was too distressing for anyone we knew to see. But it did not disturb the archbishop. Not a grimace or a frown."
During the inquiry on Monday Chrissie Foster only had a side view of Pell. She noted that he didn't lose his temper despite four hours of questions, but the absence of emotion was disturbing, and the questioning of Pell left her dispirited on Tuesday.
"Where's the emotion from these men of the Church about the enormity of what's happened?" she said. "Where's the sense of shame at the destruction and heartbreak and deaths?"
Foster and I talked about Pell's statement that the Church leadership didn't know about the "horrendous widespread mess we were sitting on".
Foster picked up on Pell's use of the phrase "we were sitting on".
"Yes, they have sat on it, on purpose," Foster said.
I noted Pell's concession that the child sexual abuse crisis was a "horrendous widespread mess". At what point did he reach that conclusion, and where is that conclusion reflected in his public statements made up until this week?
"It's only been victims coming forward and exposing the truth that has got any of these men in prison," Foster said. "The Church has never lifted a finger, and they never would have if it was left up to them."
I had planned to fly to Melbourne to sit in on Pell's evidence to the Victorian inquiry, but thought better of it and stayed home. I pulled weeds from my garden instead. Chrissie Foster laughed when I told her.
The woman whose book is a damning indictment of the Catholic Church's treatment of victims and their families liked the metaphor.