As published in 10 daily
Cardinal Pell is in jail. What a seismic shock for the Australian Catholic Church. Until recently, the third most powerful Catholic in the world, and for decades, the face of Catholicism in Australia. A confidant and confessor to Australian Prime Ministers. A companion of the Order of Australia. A guardian of traditional conservative values. A staunch opponent of homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
He was the stern face of the church’s unfeeling attitude to the survivors of clerical abuse. His Melbourne Response, although one of the first attempts at remediation in the world, was miserly in its compensation for survivors. The $1 million plus spent on the so-called Ellis defence, ensuring the Roman church could not be sued by complainants, was a monumental blunder – emblematic of a church placing its own image ahead of the welfare of innocents.
Many will recall Pell’s complaints of the press exaggerating clerical child abuse. They will recall him accompanying Gerard Risdale – convicted of assaulting 65 boys – to court in order to help minimize his sentence. They may recall him standing aside in 2002 for the Catholic Church commissioned Southwell Report into a complaint made against him of sexually abusing a boy at Phillip Island, (the complaint was neither proven or dismissed). They’ll recall his evasions at the Royal Commission over why he failed to prevent violent criminals from being reported to police.
Now, to see him convicted of child abuse, his dramatic fall is complete. He has been removed from the Pope’s inner circle. His reputation is shattered beyond recovery. The luxury of the Vatican replaced by a cold cell.
Australian Catholics have greeted the news with sadness, dismay and disbelief. Long-time defenders conjuring a fantastical conspiracy of angry progressives determined to cut down Australia’s most celebrated Catholic. But most will see this is another blow to a flawed institution; a church disembodied from its own creed.
To that end, Catholics around the world are distancing themselves from their own church. A recent US poll showed only one third of US Catholics think priests are honest and ethical, down from nearly half in 2017. A Gallup poll showed only 44% expressing confidence in organised religion.
The continual publicity surrounding child sexual abuse is hastening the fragmentation of religious communities and accentuating the nominal nature of belief. While 20% of Australians still identify as Catholic, they are less connected to the institution than ever before. Few attend church, pray, or hold to biblical strictures on sex, and most support legalising assisted dying. None could fail to see the glaring juxtaposition between the church’s behaviour and its stated mission.
In coming days, many will reflect on what the Pell verdict means. How does someone so flawed climb so high and fall so far? Die hard supporters and religious apologists will offer the usual platitudes. They’ll say this is a chance for renewal, a new beginning. That this is not a failure of doctrine, but of management. The church has faced scandal before and will again in the future.
And I guess that’s the point. There have always been scandals. Church history is a procession of lurid and abhorrent behaviour. It’s difficult to pinpoint one key source of the rottenness: is it the obsession with sex, the notion of infallibility, canon law, celibacy, the seal of the confessional, or the rules prohibiting exposure of impropriety? It’s much more difficult, however, to imagine that this is not an endemic failure.
But the church is nothing if not resilient. As the richest private institution in the world, it is virtually invulnerable. Tomorrow, it will still own the hospitals, it will still run the schools, it will still curate the artwork and still oversee its immense real estate portfolio. While Pell languishes in jail, the church business will keep kicking along, proceeding from scandal to scandal, from one tight-lipped apology to another, whilst occasionally lecturing society at large on morality.
To me, what should be more troubling to Christians is the crisis of faith. The church has deliberately covered up heinous crimes and protected their own at the expense of children. How could they do so whilst earnestly believing their own creed? This is beyond compartmentalisation. How could they engage in such calculated evil whilst still believing a judgmental God was assessing their deeds? How could anyone, possibly?
This is beyond hypocrisy. Hypocrisy was George Pell refusing communion to those wearing rainbow sashes, or claiming sexual abuse was a media beat-up. This problem goes to the heart of belief itself.
The church needs new ideas, a renewal of faith, and a new leadership. Someone to tip over the money tables, and remind them that their creed is about protecting the weak and vulnerable, not about cosying up to the strong and powerful. It needs to figure out what it believes in and what it stands for. For now, that amounts to very little.