The cardinal was floundering. “I don’t think we should be scapegoated. We’ll answer for what we’ve done, for … what we’ve done. We’re not trying to defend the indefensible. But let’s …” He paused. “Right across the board … let’s see.” By turns he was weary and defiant. He complained. He wandered off into the far reaches of Catholic history. Once mentioned, the victims were all but forgotten. Journalists crowded into that plain room in Polding House could not believe what they were seeing. This man had been a bishop for twenty-five years, a cardinal for ten, archbishop in turn of Australia’s two biggest cities and a big figure in Rome since the time of John Paul II. He had faced tough press conferences before, but the day after Julia Gillard announced a royal commission into the institutional abuse of children George Pell was falling apart in front of the cameras.
He had suffered a mighty defeat. For twenty years, in the face of growing public anger about paedophile priests, political leaders had backed the Catholic Church. Despite protests from victims, their parents, Anglican bishops, lawyers, academics, child protection advocates, a number of Catholic priests, newspapers and police, the business of cleaning up the mess of child abuse had been left to the churches themselves. When Pell provoked an outcry by walking the paedophile Gerald Ridsdale into court in 1993, Jeff Kennett hosed down calls for a royal commission. When Pell was accused himself of abusing boys, John Howard blocked calls for a royal commission. When the former archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, was forced to resign as governor-general – his fall provoked by his muddled response to paedophilia in Anglican ranks – his own church called for a national inquiry. Howard again refused. Pell concurred: “It is not at all clear to me that we need a royal commission.” He never saw the need for the state to investigate the churches, particularly his own. When a nine-year inquiry uncovered the rot in the church in Ireland, Pell was on hand to claim nothing like it was needed here. “Ireland is not Australia.”
But after Ireland the political protection offered the churches in Australia began to falter. How such old understandings, taken for granted for so long, begin to break down is all but impossible to track. A few cracks appear, a floor sags, and then one day the whole house collapses. The appalling record of the church in Ireland entered the local imagination. This was not Belgium or Spain but the mother country of Australian Catholicism. The crimes were not all in the past and their concealment was contemporary. In July 2011, a week after the publication of a report on the church in Cork, the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, delivered a blast heard around the world:
The revelations of the Cloyne Report have brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture … because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or “managed” to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and “reputation.”
Seven months later, the premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, received a report on protecting vulnerable children by the retired Supreme Court judge Philip Cummins. He had not been asked to investigate the role of the churches but suggested it was time someone did: “There is a strong public interest in the ascertainment of whether past abuses have been institutionally hidden, whether religious organisations have been active or complicit in that suppression, and in revealing what processes and procedures were employed.” Six weeks later, the pressure on the Baillieu government to hold an inquiry became irresistible when the Age published a confidential police report accusing the Catholic Church of protecting paedophiles and showing little sympathy for their victims. Victoria Police linked forty suicides in the state to abuse by half a dozen priests and brothers alone. Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson wrote: “It would appear that an investigation would uncover many more deaths as a consequence of clergy sexual abuse.”
Baillieu was moderately brave. He announced not a royal commission but a parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Pell said he was willing to appear. As the inquiry was about to begin public hearings in October last year, Victoria Police accused the Melbourne archdiocese of the Catholic Church of hindering investigations, protecting priests, silencing victims and failing to “proactively seek out” offenders. They also attacked the process Pell had put in place in Melbourne in the 1990s to inquire into abuse and compensate victims:
Victoria Police has serious concerns regarding the terms of this inquiry process and its appearance as a de facto substitute for criminal justice. As noted on its website, the Melbourne Response has made a number of ex gratia payments to victims. In spite of this, it has not referred a single complaint to Victoria Police.
This was damaging. That police in Victoria were no longer willing to protect the church – as they had, vigorously, for a very long time – was a key to the breakdown of old understandings across Australia that the Catholic Church could be left to look after its own. Pell was affronted by this volte-face. He shrugged off calls for his resignation. Then a disgruntled detective chief inspector from Newcastle, Peter Fox, turned on the church in New South Wales. On 8 November last year he published an open letter to the premier, Barry O’Farrell:
I have investigated so many sexual assaults in my thirty-five years of policing I’ve lost count. Having spent most of those years at the coal face I have seen the worst society can dredge up, particularly the evil of paedophilia within the Catholic Church …
I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church. None of that stops at the Victorian border … the whole system needs to be exposed; the clergy covering up these crimes must to be brought to justice and the network protecting paedophile priests dismantled. There should be no place for evil or its guardians to hide.
When O’Farrell announced a modest inquiry into police work in the Newcastle region, there were frustrated cries from all sides for a royal commission. Pell counter-attacked, first in a feisty interview he gave the Australian and then next day in his weekly column in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. That morning in St Mary’s Cathedral he preached against royal commissions, and on the steps afterwards he told the press such things weren’t needed to bring justice to victims. Hadn’t the church apologised and set up procedures for redress? “I think it needs to be demonstrated that there is maladministration and corruption on a wide scale before there is any general royal commission.”
Julia Gillard was with world leaders in Bali the day Fox published his letter. The prime minister told a press conference at Nusa Dua she was concerned and might have something more to say about it when she got home. On her return a couple of days later there was “an avalanche of calls from Labor backbenchers and independent MPs for a commission,” reported Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald. Malcolm Fraser and the independent MPs Tony Windsor and Nick Xenophon were among the people urging an inquiry. This was the Sunday of Pell’s frantic counter-attack. Gillard talked to her senior colleagues next morning. “There was no resistance,” wrote Coorey. “Everyone was in furious agreement.” Gillard planned to make the announcement once cabinet met that afternoon.
Pell had spoken to Tony Abbott. What passed between the leader of the Opposition and his spiritual adviser is not known but Abbott would not mount a last-ditch stand on behalf of the church. About 3.30 p.m. he put out an eloquent statement:
Wherever abuse has occurred it must be tackled and it must be tackled vigorously, openly and transparently. It’s clear that for a long period there was insufficient awareness and insufficient vigilance when it came to predatory behaviour by people in positions of authority over children. A lot of terrible things have been done, and a lot of people have suffered deeply.
For these reasons, if the government were to propose a royal commission to investigate the sexual abuse of children, it is something the Coalition would be prepared to support.
Half an hour later, Gillard took her plan to cabinet. There was no dissent. She called Pell. “She said this wasn’t an anti-Catholic move but more general and I said I acknowledged that. I said I wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t anti-Catholic and I was grateful.” The press conference she called at 5.40 p.m. was perilously late for television news crews. She began: “I will be recommending to the governor-general the establishment of a royal commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.”
The cardinal was beaten. Next day, 13 November 2012, he called the press to Polding House, the headquarters of the church in Sydney. Everyone in that room knew this was a remarkable occasion. Pell wore on his dark suit insignia of both church and state: a cross and the gold pin of a Companion of the Order of Australia. An incongruous kiss-curl fell on his forehead. He was pale and fleshy. On the ring finger of his right hand he wore a heavy sheath of gold. Once he had settled and the cameras were running, he began to read from a typed sheet of paper. What had to be done had to be done. In the louche talk of the press and the police, it’s called eating a shit sandwich:
The Catholic bishops of Australia have welcomed the royal commission, which was announced by the prime minister last night. We think it’s an opportunity to help the victims; it’s an opportunity to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction. The first thing I would like to do is to repeat what I and the church leadership have said for the last sixteen years, which is that we are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church. We object to it being exaggerated; we object to being described as the only cab on the rank; we acknowledge, with shame, the extent of the problem and I want to assure you that we have been serious in attempting to eradicate it and deal with it and one of the reasons why we welcome the royal commission is that this commission will enable those claims to be validated or found to be a significant exaggeration. Obviously we shall cooperate with the royal commission, we’ll cooperate fully.
Under questioning, the carefully crafted good work of his opening rhetoric fell apart. The cardinal was unrepentant. He was there to defend his patch. The real victim in all this was the Catholic Church and its enemy was the press.
There is a persistent press campaign against the Catholic Church’s adequacies and inadequacies in this area that does not necessarily represent the percentage of the problem that we offer. In other words because there’s a press campaign focused largely on us it does not mean that we are largely the principal culprit …
I certainly very much regret the general smearing [that] “The church is covering up, the church has done nothing.” Because that’s not the case, it’s demonstrably not the case.
Pell had a point about the media: very little of this scandal would have emerged but for newspaper and television investigations. Over thirty years, beginning with scattered reports of apparently isolated outrages, paedophile abuse and its cover-up by the religious had become one of the biggest stories in the world. But Pell had long thought it was time for the media to abandon the issue – in the interests of the victims themselves.
One question I think that might be asked is just to what extent the victims are helped by the continuing furore in the press over these allegations. The pursuit of justice is an absolute entitlement for everyone. That being said, to what extent are wounds simply opened by the rerunning of events which have been reported not only once but many times previously?
His detachment was astonishing. So was the undercurrent of anger as reporters grilled him about his own record of dealing with paedophilia in Catholic ranks. For the most part he was lofty and cool but once or twice under fire showed real passion. “The seal of the confessional is inviolable,” he said, rolling the word on his tongue. “Inviolable.”
Pell had done himself great harm. He couldn’t help it. As a man of the church he fought back when the church came under fire. The impact on television that night was terrible. Catholics were appalled. Old political allies distanced themselves. O’Farrell told his parliament: “I struggle to understand why, if a priest confesses to another priest that he has been involved with paedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to the notice of police.” Next day in Brisbane, quizzed about the secrecy of the confessional, Tony Abbott said: “Everyone has to obey the law, regardless of what job they’re doing, regardless of what position they hold.” And did that include priests? “Indeed.”
Pell’s faith that he had the public onside proved a delusion. The Fairfax/Nielsen poll was in the field in the nights following publication of the Fox letter. In all his years as a pollster Nielsen director John Stirton has never seen such a result: 95 per cent support for a royal commission. Somewhere along the line, perhaps a long time ago, Pell and his church lost the support of the people. The politicians were merely catching up. On the night she was toppled by Kevin Rudd, Gillard listed the commission among the many achievements of her embattled government. Extravagant claims were never her bag. But as she was leaving her last press conference, she allowed herself a big prediction: “This royal commission is now working its way around the country. I believe it will have many years of work in front of it. But it will change the nation.”
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY