It is not possible to divorce George Pell’s acquittal from the Catholic church’s history of child abuse

The Guardian

Francis Sullivan

The bishops should end their obsession with Pell and take up their moral responsibility to victims

‘The abuse scandal has broken the hearts of Catholics and the only real impetus for change has come from public shaming.’ Photograph: James Ross/EPA

Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal was legally the correct decision. His relief and that of his family and many supporters will be palpable. He – not the Catholic church – was on trial and the high court has seen fit to ensure justice was served.

But it is not possible to divorce the acquittal from the broader context of the Catholic church’s history of child sexual abuse.

With the matter concluded the Catholic bishops should end their obsession with Pell and take up their moral responsibility to the victims of church perpetrators and those who obfuscated and concealed on their behalf.

Context is everything and perspective even more so. The Catholic church has a shameful and confronting history of the sexual abuse of children. The royal commission made that clear.

By 2017 nearly 5,000 people had made allegations of abuse against church personnel. The largest number for any single institution. Sadly, those numbers have likely grown by now.

Often the compensation they received was a pittance. The situation has only improved because of the public scrutiny. Often the commission heard that victims were not believed by the church, rather they were interrogated by lawyers and subjected to psychiatric assessments to justify their claims.

Sexual assault crimes on children usually occur in secret. There are rarely any witnesses. This leads to their claims being doubted as one word is pitted against another. For decades victims of the Catholic church have chosen to settle outside the courts knowing that the alternative was virtually useless.

Until the royal commission those settlements were shrouded by confidentiality clauses designed to conceal the details of the abuse, the abuser and the money exchanged. Little wonder there is a general perception the church is more concerned with its image than the welfare of the victim.

As the stories mounted and the details of abuse and its concealment became public the disillusion, mistrust and anger within the Catholic community escalated. The rhetoric of church leaders about their concern for victims was hollow and patronising.

The pronouncements that the church was committed to child welfare and victim support were too often found wanting. There was extraordinary evidence that some church authorities expended far more money defending abusers than compensating their victims.

It was the hypocrisy of the way bishops and church leaders dealt with abuse cases that eroded its standing, not a prying media or an aggressive legal fraternity. Yet, even now there are elements within the church that see public inquires, the media reportage and the legal actions as an attack on the church.

They close ranks, become defensive and hypersensitive. They shy from accepted levels of accountability and transparency and they take cover behind an antiquated view that somehow the institution is exempt from contemporary standards.

The only real impetus for change has come from public shaming. The knee-jerk reaction from some church officials was to circle the wagons and revert to a defensive, passive approach; to air out the critics in the vain hope of eventually somehow restoring the image of the church.

However, this will only be a reality when the church’s integrity becomes inextricably linked with a just and compassionate treatment of its victims. That means believing them. It means walking with them as they slowly restore their lives. It means placing their welfare before the interests of the institution.

It also means changing practices, like the sacrament of confession, to ensure that children are safe to disclose about their abuse and are confident that what they communicate will be acted on.

Frankly this type of reform is doomed without a change in how the church governs itself. Clericalism has rendered the church a rump of entitlement for some and a culture of submission for the rest.

How power is exercised in the Catholic church needs public scrutiny. The abuse scandal was presided over by clerics for clerics. The advice provided to leaders was primarily by clerics about clerics. It was a closed shop. Now the shop is losing customers, even the most loyal.

The abuse scandal has broken the hearts of Catholics. Our bishops have floundered in steering a course of reform. Rather they appear to have been paralysed while the Pell conviction was addressed.

Meanwhile a uniform independent scheme for complaints handling of abuse cases is still not in place. Consultative committees that determine the appointment of priests still exclude lay involvement. The curriculum in the seminaries has not been modernised to address the culture of clericalism.

Adequate supervision of priests on the job, let alone a greater role for women in governance are still pipe dreams. Even simple changes like parish communities having a say in who their priests will be, or even their bishop, has not been given serious consideration.

Any wonder that the prospect of married clergy and female deacons is resisted by a complacent episcopacy.

Cardinal Pell is now free to go about his life. Can we dare to dream that the future church will be shaped by the lessons of the abuse scandal?

As a consequence, the inordinate number of victims of the church can also experience freedom, which comes from validation and atonement.

  • Francis Sullivan is the executive chair of Mater Group Ltd and the former chief executive of the Catholic church’s truth justice and healing council

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