GEORGE PELL IN THE BOX: SCANDALOUS BUT CONFIRMING WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW, By Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Received by email from Tom Doyle.
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GEORGE PELL IN THE BOX: SCANDALOUS BUT CONFIRMING WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW
Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.
George Pell, outgoing archbishop of Sydney and incoming overlord of Vatican money, has been in the witness box of the Royal Commission in Australia for the past few days. The reaction of most decent people to his testimony probably runs from revolting to infuriating to disbelief. In his statement he said that “sexual abuse of children by clergy is particularly abhorrent.” True, and equally abhorrent is the way Pell and his lawyers treated victims. The sentiments he expresses about concern for victims, justice and healing would sound almost believable were it not for the harsh reality of how John Ellis and other victims were viciously mistreated because they had the audacity to challenge the almighty archdiocese in court.
Pell’s testimony is valuable because it was subject to cross-examination by attorneys for the Royal Commission who were obviously not in the slightest bit awed by his cardinalatial rank. He revealed details about how he approved the legal strategy used against victim John Ellis and others, a strategy that Pell claimed was “a legally proper tactic” but which he admitted he regretted. True to form, Pell blamed his lawyers for the horrific way Mr. Ellis was treated but he explained this by telling the commission that the “vigorous defense against abuse victim John Ellis was seen as an opportunity to show future claimants they should think twice before litigating against he Catholic Church.” He actually had the temerity to characterize Ellis’ claim as an “attack on the trustees of the Catholic Church by people who were not entirely reasonable.”
Pell publicly apologized to John Ellis, a perfunctory act that gave off no vibes of sincerity. The apology was done from the safety of the box. Pell did not meet Ellis face to face. Was he afraid of the man he had come close to destroying?
Pell and the archdiocese’s role in the Ellis case is a glaring example of the darkest and most destructive dimension of the clergy sex abuse phenomenon. The Royal Commission has forced into the open what has happened countless other times in dioceses around the world. The Commission has the power to bring otherwise hidden and privileged documents to light and this it did in the Ellis case. As David Marr said in his excellent article on TheGuardian.com, “They show the evolution of a pitiless strategy to defeat Ellis.”
What we see in the Ellis case is the rule and not the exception though the circumstances may differ from case to case and there certainly are exceptions to this degree of legal violence and abuse. Yet this is why victims and those who support them cannot help but view the institutional Church as an evil empire. Pell admitted they believed Ellis had been abused yet he and his lawyers mounted a brutal campaign against him to protect the archdiocese’s assets but also to punish him for standing up to them. Pell was asked to explain why he directed such a bloodthirsty campaign against Ellis if they actually believed he had been abused. His response was beyond repulsive. It was chilling in its lack of humanity. Pell thought Ellis would see this simply as an exercise in disputing his claim: “We were dealing with Mr. Ellis as a senior and brilliant lawyer. I think he, as a lawyer, would have understood the distinction.” So, in Pell’s mind the dishonest, vindictive and abusive campaign to reduce Mr. Ellis to human rubble is just an exercise! The story goes on and in legal terms, gets more complex but in the end although Ellis did not succeed at the level of the supreme court because of a legal technicality, Pell, the episcopacy in general and the institutional Church lost because the entire saga, exposed to the light by the Commission, revealed what Jimmy Breslin wrote about in 2002, The Church that Forgot Christ.
Pell and company probably would have won, at least in the short run, were it not for one simple yet powerful fact: today’s victims are not going to take it any longer. They, coupled with a power the Church can’t control, the civil legal system, are changing the Church’s history.
It was no surprise when Pell described the Vatican’s attitude in similar terms. “The attitude of some people at the Vatican was that if accusations were being made against priests, they were being made exclusively or at least predominantly by enemies of the church to make trouble and therefore they should be dealt with skeptically…there was more of an inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant [cleric] rather than listen seriously to the complaints.” In spite of Benedict XVI’s assurances to victims, this fundamental attitude remains and it won’t change as long as the church is a monarchy and priests and bishops believe themselves to be the privileged ones with immunity from real accountability. No commission imaginable will make a serious difference until its members and the powers they answer to begin to recognize that underlying the Church’s history of destructive responses to victims is a motivation that is totally devoid of the spirit of Christ.