The status of Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney, seems to differ according to the issues in which he is involved. When Pell expresses scepticism about human-induced climate change, there is invariably a rush to computers and microphones to declare that he is not head of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Last month, Bishop Pat Power, a long-time critic of Pell, declared the Cardinal”s position on climate change was not in the tradition of “mainstream Australian Catholicism” and was contrary to the position of Pope Benedict XVI.
Yet when Pell is involved, however indirectly, in a controversy about sexual abuse or any other scandal, there is a tendency to depict him as managing director of Australian Catholicism, responsible for all its sins of commission and omission.
This is not the case – as ABC producers and presenters should know. The formal head of the church is the president of the Catholic Bishops” Conference – Archbishop Denis Hart.
Pell should never have appeared in the Four Corners program “Unholy Silence”, by Geoff Thompson and Mary Ann Jolley, which aired on ABC1 on July 2. These days the ABC should be regarded as hostile territory for Catholics who follow the teachings of the Vatican. The ABC is replete with disillusioned current or former Catholics. Also, it provides a cheer squad for the same-sex marriage cause, which is opposed by the Catholic Church – along with some other Christian churches, Islam and the majority of Hindus.
What Four Corners failed to make clear is that Pell is not responsible for dioceses other than the one over which he presides – Sydney. Moreover, no archbishops or bishops are responsible for the activities within religious orders of priests, sisters or brothers. They have provincials who report directly to Rome.
Four Corners raised two serious allegations of sex abuse by men against boys. One involved a Father F who moved from the diocese of Armidale to the diocese of Parramatta. Pell is not responsible for either diocese. Moreover, when the alleged offences occurred, Pell was based in either Ballarat or Melbourne.
The second allegation involved Father Julian Fox, a priest of the Salesian order, who is based in Rome. Pell said on Four Corners that if there is credible evidence against Fox, he should return to Australia to face his accusers.
There is no doubt that, over the years, the Catholic Church – in Australia and elsewhere – has performed poorly in handling sexual abuse cases. However, in recent times the church in Australia set up the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing schemes. Most importantly, complainants are advised to go to the police in the first instance.
Four Corners and some other journalists have bagged the church, and the church alone, for the case of “”F””, but overlooked that this former priest has been known to the NSW police for about three decades. In “Unholy Silence”, Thompson and Jolley reported that F had a charge of pederasty thrown out by a magistrate in 1988. What”s more, under cross-examination on a different matter before the NSW District Court in 2004, F admitted to sexually abusing boys.
Which raises a point completely missed by Thompson and Jolley. What action, if any, did court officials take when F admitted crimes in relation to another case in front of a judge? And what action, if any, did NSW Police take in following up these admissions?
The fact is that the Catholic Church sacked F in 1992 after a meeting initiated by the Bishop of Parramatta, Kevin Manning, and conducted by Frs Brian Lucas, John Usher and Wayne Peters. There is a disagreement about what F said at this encounter and an independent investigation is being set up by the Bishop of Armidale, Michael Kennedy. But there is no doubt F was dismissed from public ministry and prevented from saying Mass, hearing confession and carrying out other church duties in 1992. Formal laicisation followed years later.
Not all commentators were unfair to, or ignorant of, the Catholic Church in the wake of “Unholy Silence”. The psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed appeared on the ABC News 24 program The Drum on July 3. He said that sexual abuse is “one of the most under-diagnosed mental issues that we have”.
Dr Ahmed acknowledged that he had treated victims of Catholic priests but added that sex abuse by priests would be a “tiny proportion” of the totality of this crime. The recent conviction of football trainer Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University and 7.30“s reports of rampant paedophilia within the indigenous community in Toomelah demonstrate just how prevalent this crime is.
The special focus on the Catholic Church turns on the fact it is being targeted by disillusioned Catholics along with anti-Christian secularists.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.