Quarterly Essay, Issue 51, 2013
Black Inc., $19.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
The police had, writes David Marr in his Quarterly Essay on paedophile priests in the Catholic Church in Australia, “vigorously, for a very long time, protected the church”, leaving the clergy’s sex crimes to be looked after in-house. This entirely suited the clerical child abusers until the international tide of Catholic sexual abuse revelations engulfed Australian shores and sparked police of conscience into action.
In 2012, police whistleblowers in Victoria and New South Wales linked dozens of adult suicides to clerical child sexual abuse and accused the church of protecting paedophile priests, hindering investigations, destroying evidence, silencing and discrediting victims, and moving guilty priests to fresh pastures and fresh crimes.
Community outrage prompted the then Federal Labor government to call a Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse, a judicial inquiry of which even Tony Abbott, the then Liberal Opposition leader and Catholic hard-liner, approved, noting a poll showing 95% popular support for a full-throttled inquiry.
For Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s No. 1 Catholic, deserted by his political and police allies, the challenge was immense. His failure to rise to it is no surprise, says Marr, of the young Ballarat Catholic who fell under the 1950s spell of B. A. Santamaria, the anti-communist, anti-Labor, anti-union, Catholic extremist. Pell’s subsequent seminary training established his reputation for rigid orthodoxy, unquestioning obedience to Rome, and ideological and physical bullying.
Pell’s loyalty and conservatism impressed the Pope, who promoted Pell up the clerical career ladder. Priests raping trusting and defenceless altar boys did not disturb the Catholic moralist’s gaze which remained fixed on the Vatican-ordained sex crimes that really mattered - homosexuality (‘a much greater health hazard than smoking’), masturbation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, abortion, contraception, ‘mail-order divorce’.
Where sexual abuse by priests could not be ignored, it could be ‘treated’ by prayer, or, in a display of Christian virtue, forgiven. Offending clergy, wrapped in the protective mystique and aura of the priesthood, were deemed scared persons, Christs on earth, and not, therefore, subject to secular law or police handcuffs.
Secular justice was not the only temporal trouble that Pell, the Vatican’s man in Australia, had to repel. Second only to the threat of communism was ‘secular liberalism’. In Australia, and from his powerful Vatican posts, Pell opposed a charter of human rights, heroin injecting-rooms, ‘the climate change bandwagon’, the Greens, gay adoption and other ‘progressivist’ transgressions.
One merit of the earthly world, however, was its public treasury coffers from which Pell, heading the Catholic education business, demonstrated a remarkable talent for extracting money, winning federal funding for sectarian higher education institutions.
The High Court of Australia, too, gave its lay blessing to the Church, deeming the Church’s property trusts, where it had parked its immense, tax-free wealth and assets, as unable to be held responsible for the sexual conduct of Catholic priests. Australia thus remains “the only country in the common-law world where the Catholic Church cannot be sued” because it is “just an association of believers with no corporate entity, rather like a mothers’ club or a bridge circle”, its legally-quarantined riches off-limits to potential litigants.
Pell’s non-spiritual concern for Church finances had earlier been on miserly display, whilst archbishop of Melbourne, with the so-called ‘Melbourne Response’, a private church tribunal with all the trappings but none of the power or independence of a royal commissioner. This process catalogued 304 proven complaints against sixty priests in Melbourne but not a single case was referred to police.
The victims, in return for secrecy, received payouts averaging a mere $32,500, the only compensation alternative being a long and financially exhausting battle through the real courts. Compared to an average Catholic child sexual abuse settlement of $1 million in the US, Pell saved his church in Australia hundreds of millions of dollars.
If the sex crimes, their cover-up and bargain basement hush-money had not trashed the Catholic brand by now, Pell’s stumbling attempt to deflect blame in response to the announcement of a Royal Commission would. Pell’s contempt for the media and its ‘disproportionate and repetitious’ reporting of the sex crimes of the clergy surfaced in spades with Pell portraying his Church as the victim of journalists.
Marr’s case against Pell is convincingly, and elegantly, made – he communicates ideas and anecdotes clearly and concisely, with his moral tone set to coolly incandescent. Marr, however, could have been more analytical. His focus on Pell, and on enforced priest celibacy, as the root of Church paedophilia, tends to subordinate a broader and more theoretical examination of the role of Catholic Church material interests, authoritarianism, democratic unaccountability and theology in the criminal behaviour of the powerful men of religion.
Marr is right, however, to warn of the danger posed by the current conjunction of the two most powerful and reactionary Catholics in Australia, both ‘Movement’ men from the Santamaria tradition – the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his spiritual adviser and close friend, Cardinal George Pell. What further Catholic abuses and scandals lie in wait?