CARDINAL George Pell has failed as a moral leader. Abysmally and absolutely.
He failed in 2004 and 2005, when he accepted John Ellis’s allegations he was sexually abused by a priest were true, but instructed lawyers to ‘‘vigorously’’ and ‘‘strenuously’’ defend the matter in court.
In Pell’s own words this week to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, from a ‘‘Christian point of view’’ the Church did not deal fairly with Ellis.
He failed again as a moral leader, repeatedly, when the Archdiocese of Sydney issued statements over the years defending the ‘‘key facts’’ of the Ellis case, while failing to mention its ‘‘mean’’ and ‘‘grotesque’’ initial offers of compensation to him under Towards Healing, its rejections of his offers to mediate and settle the action, and pursuit of Ellis over a $500,000 legal costs bill for several years, despite knowing of his fragile emotional state.
Pell failed as a moral leader again this week, when he blamed and minimised, justified and waffled his way through answers to the most basic of questions about what he did and did not do when Ellis turned to the Church with its ‘‘commitment to justice and compassion’’.
As Ellis sat in the front row of the public gallery at the royal commission, the cardinal could only manage ‘‘regret’’ over the Church’s, and his, handling of Ellis’s complaint – made because Ellis wanted to know that someone in the Church cared about what had happened to him. Disputing in court that Ellis had been sexually abused, and allowing him to be cross-examined for four days on the basis of that strategy, was something he had been advised was ‘‘not only proper, legally, but not unusual’’, Pell said.
‘‘What about morally, cardinal?’’ counsel assisting Gail Furness asked.
‘‘Well, I have explained my moral doubts about it, but the lawyers – no one has accused them of acting – well perhaps – anyhow, I did not believe they would suggest anything to me that was improper,’’ he replied.
Asked whether he now knew, ‘‘from your learnings in the area of the effects and impacts of child sexual abuse’’, the impact on Ellis of having the abuse he suffered disputed by the Church in court, the cardinal answered: ‘‘I do.’’
‘‘And what do you have to say about that?’’ Furness asked.
‘‘I regret that,’’ the cardinal replied.
‘‘Only regret it, cardinal?’’ said Furness.
‘‘What else could I say? It was wrong that it went to such an extent,’’ said Pell, his use of the word ‘‘could’’ demonstrating more than anything else that for the cardinal this matter is in the past. Rome beckons.
A moral leader would have turned to Ellis, sitting only metres away, and apologised without equivocations or delays, in public, with compassion, and in all humility.
But that takes empathy and courage. As noted by Anthony Foster, whose two young daughters were raped by a priest, and who has been sitting at the royal commission with wife Chrissie, alongside John Ellis: ‘‘We’ve seen a sociopathic lack of empathy this morning from this man.’’
Pell’s evidence showed why we needed a royal commission. It exposes the truth.
It also demands responses, even at this stage before commissioner Peter McClellan releases the first interim report.
Church men – and, in the case of the Catholic Church, the leaders are all men because women, apparently, are not capable of leading – have failed as moral leaders. That much is clear so far.
In Pell’s case, he demonstrably put his moral obligations to a very vulnerable man second to his desire to protect the Church’s trustees, and, thereby, the Church’s assets, from legal responsibility for the actions of the Church’s paedophiles.
The excuses he gave for that prioritising were challenged and exposed.
It is for Catholics to work out what that means for their Church, now that Pell is an anointed Vatican senior member, under a Pope whose only comments about the child sex crisis have been worryingly similar to his predecessors.
It is for the rest of us to consider the bigger-picture messages. No organisations or institutions, including churches, are above scrutiny, particularly where the most vulnerable are left in their care.
Relying on the integrity of those organisations to avoid oversight, particularly when questions have been raised about their treatment of the most vulnerable, shirks our shared moral responsibility.
Government silence about the treatment of asylum seekers is the most obvious, and pressing, immediate and current moral issue demanding a sustained community response.
The Hunter community recognised its responsibility to child sexual abuse victims earlier than most, and campaigned for a royal commission. Pell’s evidence this week showed, sadly but inevitably, the moral rightness of that stand.