It’s about a century since Australia experienced a lynch-mob mentality of the kind that has pervaded the debate over Cardinal George Pell’s forthcoming appearance at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Between 1917 and 1921, there was rampant anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia as a consequence of the debate over conscription during World War I. One of the principal targets was Irish-born Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix.
It’s much the same today with Pell, this time concerning the widespread crime of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
As the royal commission has demonstrated, child sex abuse also has been rampant within other religions as well as in secular and government organisations. However, in Australia it seems that Pell somehow has become the central focus of all anger.
This hysteria about the third most senior figure in the Vatican recently has been sparked by Tim Minchin’s abuse-filled song Come Home, which had its debut on Network Ten’s The Project on Tuesday. This depicted Pell as “scum” and a “coward” and alleged that he had covered up child abuse.
However, the fact is that Pell has not been interviewed by police with respect to his activities as a priest, bishop, archbishop or cardinal variously in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. Nor has he been charged with any offences. Moreover, as the Pell haters in our midst like to overlook, he was the first bishop or archbishop in Australasia, Europe or North America to set up a process to handle clerical child sexual abuse.
In 1996, three months after his appointment as archbishop of Melbourne, Pell established the Melbourne Response. In 1997, the other Catholic archdioceses and dioceses in Australia created Towards Healing. There has been controversy about the level of compensation available and paid under both schemes. But, as evidence before the royal commission attests, there has been little clerical child abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia in the past two decades.
Despite this, Pell appears to be carrying the burden for child sexual abuse in Catholic, other Christian, Jewish, secular and government institutions. How else to explain Come Home where Pell is depicted as an evil coward? This despite the fact Pell has already given evidence in person before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry and the royal commission.
In Come Home, Minchin alleges, without a skerrick of evidence, that Pell covered up pedophilia. Yet the song has been welcomed by the likes of Sky News presenters Paul Murray and Kristina Keneally along with Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Moreover, the militant atheist musician makes much of the fact Pell once shared accommodation in a presbytery with notorious pedophile Gerald Ridsdale in Ballarat in the early 1970s. Well, so he did. And, about the same time, so did Ten’s contributing editor Paul Bongiorno. Bongiorno lived in the same house as Ridsdale in Warrnambool without featuring in any of Minchin’s song lines. As Bongiorno told Radio National Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly on May 21 last year: “Ridsdale never came into the presbytery in Warrnambool and said ‘Guess how many boys I raped today?’ They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me.”
Chief royal commissioner Peter McClellan has accepted medical advice that Pell’s heart condition is such that he is not well enough to undertake long-distance air travel. This should cause no particular problems as the royal commission already has taken video-link evidence, even from witnesses residing in Victoria.
Yet McClellan’s sensible decision has led to a renewed bout of outrage among the Pell-haters in our midst. This has ignited a wave of fresh ill-informed statements in the media and elsewhere. A few examples illustrate the point:
On February 5, Jayne Margetts and Michelle Brown reported on the ABC that the commission “has heard from child abuse victim David Ridsdale that Cardinal Pell tried to bribe him to keep him quiet”. This is totally false. David Ridsdale, Gerald Ridsdale’s nephew, told the royal commission on December 7 last year: “I never have said that he (Pell) bribed me; I believe I’ve been clear on that.”
On February 8, when presenting The Drum on ABC television, John Barron asserted that Pell lives in “a palace in the Vatican”, travels “first class” and is “contemptuous” of the royal commission. All three statements are untrue.
On February 12, The Project devoted a segment to this issue. Presenter Gorgi Coghlan asserted that Pell has been criticised “for excusing the clergy for not reporting crimes to authorities” but provided no evidence for this.
On February 13, Fairfax Media’s Peter FitzSimons referred to “the sexual abuse of children in Ballarat while he (Pell) was in their system”. In fact, Pell was a relatively junior priest in Ballarat and was not responsible for the placement of priests such as Gerald Ridsdale. FitzSimons also claimed Pell had decided “to decline to appear on such an important matter”. Not true. He is appearing by video link. The consequences of giving false evidence to a royal commission are identical, irrespective of whether a witness appears in person or by video link.
On February 16, the Nine Network’s Lisa Wilkinson tweeted: “The Vatican is protecting him (Pell) because he knows too much.” This is just undocumented hyperbole.
Then there was Fairfax Media’s Elizabeth Farrelly’s contribution to what passes for “debate” on this matter. On February 11 she ran the line that “Pell shared a house with Ridsdale” but failed to mention Bongiorno. Farrelly wrote about the “allegations of silence money and cover-ups” without mentioning David Ridsdale’s denial that Pell had offered him a bribe. Come to think of it, perhaps Farrelly should become lead singer in the “Pell Haters” band with Minchin on piano and the FitzSimons-Wilkinson duo on drums. Barron would go well as road manager and the gig could debut on The Project.