I don’t want to spend a lot of time delving into the intricacies and contradictions of this topic, but I do have a few thoughts I want to express about Cardinal George Pell, his child sex abuse conviction, and the influence he’s had on Australian political direction. Until his downfall, Pell embodied that dangerous mix of religion and “rightwing conservative” politics.
It has now been revealed in Australia, that the nation’s highest ranking Catholic was found guilty in December 2018, of sex offenses against children. The verdict had been suppressed here until two or three days ago, even though it was revealed elsewhere in the world.
I remember local newspapers expressing a grievance for being prevented from reporting about a prominent Australian’s conviction of serious offences. They were prevented by a court order from reporting on the case and its outcome.
Now the news is out.
Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of engaging in forcible sexual acts against two choir boys after mass in the 1990s. Pell is one of the Pope’s most senior men. I recall something about him being the third most important person in the Roman Catholic Church.
Of the two victims, only one took this case to court, the other had died of a drug overdose many years ago. His family now say they finally understand why their son had such a troubled life, spiralling into a fatal relationship with drugs; although throughout his life he had always denied he’d experienced any sexual abuse.
The case against Pell therefore relied on the testimony of one man who gave evidence on behalf of himself and his childhood friend. While not intending to defend Pell or discount the validity of the guilty conviction, I find myself troubled a little by that. How much actual evidence was there apart from that one person’s testimony? I assume there was a lot more than that single thing, but I’ve come across nothing yet in the news reports I’ve seen.
My unease is exacerbated by the many cases I’ve read and heard about recently, where there have been clear miscarriages of justice and the innocent have been given long prison sentences on very flimsy evidence, or have had their lives ruined by false claims against them that they were never allowed to challenge in court. For various reasons the courts, and the media, do get things wrong, particularly when evidence is sparse and circumstantial.
On the other side of the equation, if Pell is innocent, it astounds me that his defence team tried to minimise the sentence he’d be awarded, by trying to underplay the seriousness of the crimes of which he’d been found guilty. Describing the crime as a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”, didn’t seem to be the tactic of a genuinely innocent man.
In the many cases of wrongful conviction that I referred to earlier, there was an ongoing insistence of innocence, with no desperate backing down, in the hope of getting leniency in sentencing.
One of the complicating factors of this case is that Pell was a senior member of an organisation with a woeful record of sexual abuse against minors committed by its leaders. Equally woeful is the response taken when the abuse has been exposed. The response primarily sought to protect the RC Church and its guilty clergy rather than bring about justice for those who had been abused.
Cover-up was the chosen course. And that ongoing history places some guilt upon ALL of those in leadership who enabled it. Whether they personally abused a child or not, if they actively played a part in that cover-up they should share the guilt.
Pell himself gained a reputation for making things harder for those who sought some kind of recognition and recourse from the church. Is Pell a good man, innocent of the sex crime but reaping what his church had sown? Some are suggesting that’s the case.
After the revelation of the guilty verdict, some of the more rightwing commentators of the local Murdoch press have spoken out against the court’s decision, claiming that Pell is a scapegoat. Additionally some of the more rightwing Government ministers have expressed similar views. And two former prime Ministers have expressed their support for Pell. John Howard (PM from 1996 to 2007) wrote a glowing character reference for Pell after the conviction and before sentencing, describing him as “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character“. (my emphasis – onesimus)
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Pell continues to maintain support from those people. He has been a strong voice of right-wing conservatism, and his influence on the political paths of a few domineering members of Australia’s current government is evident, in particular the climate change deniers who have crippled Government climate and energy policy since they came into power in 2013.
Some time ago, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (a Pell supporter) gave a speech decrying those who sought action to address climate change. His speech was a barely disguised repetition of one previously given by Pell. (see below)*
Now that Pell’s conviction has been made known, it will be interesting to see whether his political influence, enacted by his polictial acolytes, will gradually be undermined.
Pell said some of the “hysteric and extreme claims about global warming” were “a symptom of pagan emptiness, of Western fear” of the “immense and basically uncontrollable forces of nature”.
“In the past, pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods,” Pell said. “Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”
This week, Tony Abbott made a curiously similar speech.
Addressing the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation in London, Abbott returned to his own scepticism about whether climate change is occurring to worrying degrees. He adopted his private confessor’s argument and his style.
“Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause,” Abbott said.
“Primitive people once killed goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect.”
Also of interest, a dissenting right wing commentator’s view.
Broadcaster Ray Hadley criticises Howard and Abbott for supporting Pell.