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Cardinal Pell, the Church or Civil Society: Who’s on Trial?

Guest Post by Frank Golding
Honorary Research Fellow, Federation University Australia
Vice-President CLAN

Cardinal George Pell’s committal hearing is a big story. The international and local media jostle for elbowroom at the committal hearing of the highest-ranking Catholic churchman ever to face allegations of criminal charges. The case is all the more intriguing as there is a suppression order in place over some of the information relating to the case.

Some survivors have him behind bars already, but his supporters say he will never be given a fair trial. Many commentators are sceptical, doubting even that there will be an outcome given the processes that have slowly unfolded so far and are likely to be pursued in the coming months, even years.

Survivors are upset to read that, if the matter does go to trial, “it’s a good bet that Cardinal Pell will win” because of low conviction rates in child abuse cases. Besides, Pell is taking no chances: he has hired high-priced barrister Robert Richter, a man well practiced in separating the professional aspects of his career from the suffering he encounters as part of his trade.

Survivors can’t detach their feelings from the facts so glibly. Many have been scrutinising Pell for years, even before he was spotlighted in the witness box at the Royal Commission—in Sydney in 2014, and by video link from Rome in 2015, and again in 2016.

It is generally agreed that the Cardinal did not acquit himself well because of his inability to show empathy for victims and his lack of personal warmth—indeed, some would say his aggression—even when confronted by family members carrying the deepest grief. So, whatever the nature of the alleged crimes about to be revealed, some Care Leavers see Pell as the perfect villain.

The Cardinal’s qualities are not just a personal matter, however. They are seen to embody the utter failure of the church to put the needs of victims ahead of protecting perpetrators and safeguarding the interests of the church as an institution by reacting to scandals as if it were a large corporation dealing with a massive toxic spill. Care Leavers are acutely aware that governments must re-assert the supremacy of the laws of the land over the laws of the church. Sexual abuse of a child is not a sin to be forgiven by the church, but a crime to be prosecuted by the justice system.

The spotlight on the Pell case, and on clergy child abuse generally, could lead people to forget that not all of the criminal abuse took place in church settings. In fact, nearly half of the survivors who told their stories to the Royal Commission in private were abused in orphanages, children’s Homes, foster care and other out-of-home care facilities. Many Care Leavers say the spotlight should be refocused on to the abuse in these institutions.

Care Leavers who were sexually abused want their day in court too. They hope that a proper proportion of the prosecutions already in train following referrals by the Royal Commission—some 2,575 at last report, with more likely to follow—will include their perpetrators.

The state sent children to these places to provide the care and protection that their parents were deemed incapable of providing. The state assumed complete responsibility for their care and protection—and failed them absolutely. Finding Pell guilty won’t necessarily help Care Leavers. It’s the state that betrayed them. It’s the state that needs to put things right.



  1. The States and the Religious orders and charities that ran these places need to put things right as all these organisation’s etc were responsible for our physical, verbal and sexual abuse and they did such an appalling job. So why then, are they given the option of opting in or out of REDRESS? These churches and charities made a lot of money on the supposed care of us. I have spent many hours of listening to evidence at both the Victorian Inquiry and the Royal Commission in Geelong, Ballarat, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and anyone that say’s that a certain person is just the sacrificial lamb does not know what they are talking about. For this abuse to continue over many decades means that smeone at the top drliberately turned a blind eye. The Ellis defence has only just been ruled as unnexeceptable in Victoria and the law has been changed, is too little too late. So many of us were forced to sign over our legal rights to sue because we had NO other choice for a settlement. The Governments both Federal and the State Governments need to force all of them to pay proper REDRESS or start taxing them. So many lives have been destroyed and a lot of survivors have never been able to reach their full potential and how many suicides? I dread to think. We always new that they would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to pay fair REDRESS and it is not by accident that not one religious order has come forward to join the REDRESS scheme. If Jesus was around he would be the first person to say that you cannot worship both, the cross of Jesus and obscene wealth. Suffer the little children, Jesus would be weeping.

  2. Yes its the State’s and the Commonwealth that failed all of us. Its the system that needs to be fixed. For we are just a Crazy Number in their system. We are not Individual Human Beings, being treated with the same respect of someone who just needed the proper care and treatment with a basic right to a fair upbringing to a Safe Adult life. So the States and Commonwealth need to completly change the way in which they think they know better than a layman. For we know where the cracks are in the system. We know what needs to be done to fix it. So not only are the churches, Ophanages, Special Accomondation Units/Houses,, Schools, and the list goes on. So we need to put those improvements in to stop the cracks, before we can change the system through the National Redress. So we all need to come togeather as one. The Elections will be here shortly. This is when the Goverment and MP’s are at our Mercy, not the other way around.

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