Barney Zwartz

Some Catholic commentators have described David Marr’s elegant account of Cardinal George Pell’s record on tackling sexual abuse within the church as “the case for the prosecution” and unfair. It may well be the former, especially given the obstacles raised when the subject refuses to be interviewed, but that is far from implying the latter. Marr is generally scrupulously fair. A better epithet is unsympathetic. But if he portrays the cardinal as unsympathetic, it may be because it is true – Pell is one of the least sympathetic people I have encountered in forty years in journalism. (Not that we have shared many intimate conversations. Catholic bishops are the most remote and shielded of any religious leaders I have dealt with, far more so than their Anglican counterparts, let alone those of other faiths.) Marr builds his picture case by case, anecdote by anecdote, detail by detail – much of it from evidence given to formal inquiries – and it is compelling. 

Marr is right, I think, that Pell sees himself as a prince of the church. He surrounds himself with deference and is comfortable, in a way that most Australians are not, with those who are obsequious to him. With one exception, of which more below, I think Marr’s analysis is penetrating and insightful. 

There are some signs that the new era introduced by the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, who explicitly says he wants pastors rather than princes, has disconcerted the cardinal. I was highly entertained by two recent titbits in the Catholic press in which Pell responded to the pope – they were in the Catholic media presumably because the cardinal does not give interviews to those he thinks might ask awkward questions (and certainly not to this reporter). But in an interview with Gerard O’Connell of the Vatican Insider in Rome to mark the pope’s first hundred days, he noted that Francis was an old-style Jesuit who took his vow of poverty seriously. “Most of the rest of us haven’t taken a vow of poverty,” he said. Indeed! Then, in September, he felt the need to issue a statement “clarifying” that the pope’s remarks did not mean the church’s position had changed. This might be seen as a breathtaking piece of impertinence, given that Francis is a superb communicator and Pell rather limited, but it attests to the discomfort many of the highly authoritarian and conservative bishops appointed by John Paul II in particular are feeling. 

Marr highlights the ambiguous nature of Pell’s response to the clerical abuse crisis. The cardinal has always painted himself as a determined opponent of the abusers, who appal him, and this rings true. He also insists that he is entirely on the side of the victims, and here the evidence is mixed. Victims such as Melbourne’s Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose daughters were repeatedly raped from the age of five by Kevin O’Donnell, a priest the church hierarchy was first warned of thirty years earlier, found him bullying and intimidating. Anthony Foster told the Victorian state inquiry into how the churches handled child sexual abuse that Pell showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy” when he met them. Pell has replied that he is sorry he has been unable to persuade the family of his good intentions, but claimed that no matter what he said or did, it seemed to make things worse. 

The cardinal is proud of the fact that his Melbourne Response, the formal protocol for dealing with abuse allegations he set up in 1996, was one of the first in the world and that it introduced a system and a degree of procedural fairness. Again, the jury is still out on the benefits of the Melbourne Response. It certainly introduced a system where there had been chaos, and gave victims an avenue for help and redress – especially in cases where the police and courts could give no satisfaction, as when the perpetrator was dead. It ended the temptation to bury the files about paedophile priests and just move them on to the next unwitting parish. But, on his own admission, he did this because he was threatened by the Victorian premier Jeff Kennett that if the church didn’t fix the problem, the state would. Moreover, by introducing that protocol for a single diocese just weeks before the launch of the national protocol, Towards Healing, Pell undermined the national response. Further, victims’ advocates claim, by designing its own protocol that it would run with church-appointed personnel, the Melbourne archdiocese was able to keep matters in-house and away from the police, to silence victims with confidentiality agreements and, above all, to cap payouts to victims. It has been estimated that this cap – $50,000, later rising to $75,000 – has saved the church $200 million in potential payouts in the seventeen years since. In other words, as Marr charges, in this as in other areas Pell proved a perfect “company man,” giving the institutional church a higher priority than victims of abuse.

I do not doubt Pell’s sincerity in considering that he was part of the solution, not the problem, or that he is right to claim that the church is much better placed today than thirty years ago. But sincerity does not guarantee accuracy, and Marr’s view that Pell proved a hard-nosed company man is justified. The Melbourne protocol was driven by lawyers, not pastoral concerns, and the lawyers were happy to play hardball if anyone had the temerity to try litigation. The Fosters, again, provide a striking example. As Marr writes: 

The Fosters decided to sue rather than accept the $50,000 offered to their daughter Emma for her repeated rape by Father Kevin O’Donnell. The toll on them had already been appalling. Now they were made to fight every inch of the way. Despite O’Donnell’s confessions and prison sentence; despite admissions to the Fosters by the Melbourne Response; despite the written apology they had received from Pell, the church now denied any “physical and/or sexual and/or psychological abuse” by the priest. Their lawyers compelled the church to produce documents that showed the archdiocese had known about O’Donnell’s crimes for over forty years … Rather than risk a trial that might bring down the walls, the archdiocese of Melbourne settled with the Fosters for $750,000 plus costs after a nine-year battle.

How the church’s leaders and lawyers could reconcile this with the church’s mission is hard to fathom. It seems despicable. 

The law firm Slater & Gordon has suggested to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, now sitting, that the Catholic Church should follow the Commonwealth and state governments in adopting a “model litigant” policy, which protects vulnerable people making claims against a large adversary with deep pockets. It requires “the highest possible standards of fairness, honesty and integrity – going beyond the required ethical or professional standards of lawyers appearing before a court or tribunal.” I wish them good luck with that. 

Another motif Pell likes to employ that Marr rebuts is that the Catholic Church is the victim of hostile smear campaigns from journalists who refuse to recognise the positive steps the church – and particularly Pell – has made in reducing abuse and dealing with abusers. I certainly have some sympathy for the cardinal here, because elements of the media (especially social media) have been intemperate, inaccurate and vindictive. But the mainstream media have never suggested the Catholic Church is “the only cab on the rank,” to use Pell’s memorable phrase, and have reported on the steps the church has taken. They have asked, as I do here, whether the Catholic leadership’s motives are unmixed and the measures adequate, but that is not irresponsible. On the contrary, I am utterly convinced that were it not for the mainstream media giving publicity to victims, the advances we have seen would not have happened. After all, as the Victorian inquiry’s deputy chairman Frank McGuire elicited from Catholic leader after Catholic leader, they knew from 1962 – not only by the law of the land, but only by direct edict of the Vatican – how serious a crime child sexual abuse was. So what finally brought about change? Publicity. Shameful, shaming publicity, accompanied by the threat of outside intervention. Of course, courageous victims who fought for years to get any acknowledgment rank first when credit is being given, while police and courts – eventually – also played essential roles. Politicians were shamefully slow to get on board, but that too is changing, and I think the Victorian MPs, helped by former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, who have been conducting the Victorian inquiry have treated the task with the utmost seriousness. As I write, they have yet to report. 

There is one point, and an important one, at which I think Marr’s own particular concern has led him to overstate matters, and that is the role of celibacy. Pell’s presumed celibacy is central to Marr’s analysis. I say “presumed celibacy” because it is widely accepted that well over half the supposedly chaste priesthood lead active sex lives, at least at some point (very little of which is paedophile behaviour or exploiting vulnerable adults). Like Marr, who says he has no reason to believe that Pell is other than one of those rare priests who is totally celibate, I have no idea whether Pell has been sexually active as an ordained priest, and no good reason to suppose it. Rumours have swirled around him over the years, but this is inevitable when an influential figure takes a strong public stance, as he has done on many sexual and social issues. As a journalist, I have no interest in following these up, and I certainly do not suggest they are true. But Marr’s claim is that Pell has paid a terrible price for abjuring sexual activity: 

… he has had to gut himself to stay that way. … I wonder how much of the strange ordinariness of George Pell began fifty years ago when a robust schoolboy decided, as an act of heroic piety, to kill sex in himself. The gamble such men take is that they may live their whole lives without learning the workings of an adult heart. Their world is the church. People are shadowy. Pell is one of these: a company man of uncertain empathy.

I cannot say that Marr is wrong about Pell. I can say that I know many Catholic clerics whom I presume to be celibate who are warm, convivial, concerned and pastoral. Indeed, large numbers of ordinary people lead sexually barren lives, through choice or circumstance, without the cost to personality Marr attributes to Pell. Obviously sexual fulfilment contributes to emotional fulfilment – and its absence can damage emotional fulfilment – but it is not a necessary condition of emotional fulfilment, as Marr implies. Serious psychological studies have been made of celibacy and its effects. I am told that it is possible to sublimate sexual instincts in a healthy way. And of course, as Marr would accept, sexual fulfilment does not guarantee empathy. There are many sexually active but emotionally cold and unempathetic men – heterosexual and homosexual. That Pell is deficient in empathy seems certain, but the psychological causes are likely to be complex. 

That aside, to call Marr’s essay the case for prosecution may be wishful thinking. Those who think Marr is the most Rhadamanthine prosecutor may get an unpleasant surprise when the cardinal eventually appears before the royal commission, as I hope and expect that he must. 


Barney Zwartz has been the Age’s religion editor for the past twelve years. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 51, The Prince. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation.


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