The sexual abuse crises in Catholic dioceses from the USA to Ireland have created great distress and fomented considerable media attention. It is a sickening tragedy and grave injustice, always and everywhere, when adults in positions of trust take advantage of vulnerable children and young adults under their supervision. However, it is also a tragedy and injustice when the reputations and lives of the innocent are ruined by false allegations, and also when organizations which provide significant support to the community are tainted by scandal, with the ongoing contributions of the majority of their members overlooked.
The Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world, and also in Australia, providing vital healthcare, educational and social services every day. At the same time, the 2016 census found that, for the first time in Australian history, there are now more people identifying as non-religious than Catholic. Meanwhile, the media has fudged the statistics to make levels of historical abuse appear higher than in actual fact. In reality, priests are less likely to commit sexual offenses than the average male (for example, in the USA, 4 percent of priests active between 1950 to 1992 were accused of sexual misconduct, and it is estimated that 10 percent of American males commit sexual abuse; as George Weigel notes, the Church is probably the safest place for a young person today). David Gibson of The Washington Post reasons:
“Part of the issue is that the Catholic Church is so tightly organized and keeps such meticulous records – many of which have come to light voluntarily or through court orders – that it can yield a fairly reliable portrait of its personnel and abuse over the decades. Other institutions, and most other religions, are more decentralized and harder to analyze or prosecute.”
The charges against 76-year-old Cardinal George Pell in particular have occasioned significant media frenzy, in Australia and overseas. His case is unique, because he is the highest-ranking Australian Catholic and highest representative of the Universal Church to be charged. Pell was ordained in 1966 and served as the Archbishop of Melbourne (1996–2001) and eighth Archbishop of Sydney (2001–2014) before becoming the first Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (2014–present), in charge of managing the Vatican’s finances. He is the third most senior official in the Vatican.
Cardinal Pell was not obliged to return to his homeland to face the charges, as the Vatican has no extradition treaty with Australia. However, he said: “Court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome to work.” Pell has willingly cooperated with the entire legal process, beginning with an interview with three Victorian police in Rome last October. His legal bills will not be funded by the Archdiocese of Sydney.
On 26 July, Pell appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court for a filing hearing and entered a plea of not guilty, even though he was not obliged to do so, and had to walk through a massive media scrum including reporters who had flown in from other countries. Pell has thus demonstrated his complete willingness to engage with the proceedings against him.
Pell’s forthrightness is unsurprising, given that he established the Melbourne Response in 1996 to handle allegations of clerical abuse, six years before The Boston Globe broke the scandal which became the premise for the 2015 movie Spotlight. The Melbourne Response was the first Catholic redress scheme addressing child abuse. It was only last year that the Australian federal government introduced a national compensation scheme. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been holding inquiries into various Australian organizations and state institutions, including the Australian Defence Force. Child abuse is a horrible scourge in Australian society, now increasing with technology.
Let us pray not only that the truth will be uncovered and justice be done, but also that the wounds of all involved, and all those affected by the media coverage, will be healed.