Australia

Mar 24, 2014

Pell brushes up on humility but points fingers elsewhere at royal commission

George Pell started his day with contrition at the royal commission into child sexual abuse. But he's not taking responsibility for the Church's failure to help victims.

Margot Saville — <em>Crikey</em> Sydney reporter

Margot Saville

Crikey Sydney reporter

It was a packed house at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this morning. After months of speculation, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal George Pell (pictured), was finally in the witness box, and emotions were running high. The hearing room was packed with abuse survivors and their supporters, and there was a faint air of the guillotine. Outside the Sydney hearing room, victims' support groups maintained a vigil, setting up banners exhorting the Catholic Church to show mercy. Pell entered the building an hour early with his lawyer, slipping quietly through the group of photographers, his head down. It's a far cry from the Cardinal's preferred haunts, the boardrooms and living rooms of the wealthy and powerful, where he has held court since being appointed in 2001. One of his first edicts upon his appointment was to require all Catholic schools to display his photo in a public place. Such was the local resistance to his elevation, many of the schools hung it next to the bathroom. This morning, instead of wearing one of his tailored suits, hand-stitched to fit his tall, imposing frame, Pell was wearing simple clerical garb. He started off in a Kindly Old Duffer mode, apologising for taking his time to answer questions, saying that "when you get a little bit older, sometimes things come up slowly". His air was of one trying to help, but having a little bit of trouble remembering exact names and dates. Counsel assisting Gail Furness took him through a detailed series of questions about the Church's response to allegations of abuse. At one point, Pell described a meeting in which Catholic officials referred to child sexual abuse as "special issues". By mid-morning, he was starting to get a bit testy, disputing various assertions made about the extent of the issue. Referring to complaints made in Catholic schools, he said "many of [them] are found not to be validated". When Furness called for the data to support such an assertion, the public gallery applauded. The current hearing involves the Church's response to a complaint made by a man called John Ellis. It is closely examining the Church's protocol for handling complaints about abuse, called "Towards Healing". Since the Cardinal was appointed in 2001, he has overseen 204 claims of sexual abuse, although most pre-date his arrival. Some 55 ordained priests are named in the complaints, the earliest of which date to abuse occurring in 1952. Almost $8 million has been paid out in compensation. Ellis' attempt to sue the Catholic Church for abuse suffered as a teenager went right through the legal system. As a result of the final judgment, Australia is the only country in the common-law world where the Church cannot be sued, as it has no corporate entity. However, Pell has said publicly in the past few weeks that the Church will cease using this defence and lift the corporate veil. In a statement tendered to the royal commission, Pell expressed contrition for the treatment of Ellis:
"I acknowledge and apologise to Mr Ellis for the gross violation and abuse committed by Aidan Duggan, a now deceased priest of the Sydney Archdiocese. I deeply regret the pain, trauma and emotional damage that this abuse caused to Mr Ellis."
He went on to acknowledge mistakes had been made that had driven Ellis and the archdiocese further apart: "Also, certain steps were taken in the litigation that now cause me concern and that I would not repeat." The Cardinal's other responses encompass the usual range of reactions from powerful figures in the judicial spotlight -- I don't recall doing that, I delegated that to someone else (who was incompetent), I'm really sorry about that, it won't happen again. Since it began in September last year, the royal commission has held public hearings into the responses to allegations of physical and sexual abuse by institutions around the country, including churches, Scouts Australia, government-run children's homes and the YMCA. Pell's evidence is continuing.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “Pell brushes up on humility but points fingers elsewhere at royal commission

  1. leon knight

    Once more Diddy, I am in awe of your work…what a priceless quotation.
    Pell could have said it personally at any point in his career.
    No wonder Abbot reveres the man – twin consciences..!!

  2. Electric Lardyland

    I see, so poor old George is now having a bit of trouble recalling details, is he? So, what is the new job that George will soon be off to? Why, it’s absorbing and overseeing the intricate details of of the Vatican’s vast financial holdings.
    You’d think that would need a sharp eye for minutiae and excellent recall, wouldn’t you?
    Oh well, perhaps George is just like the rest of us; our minds tend to work a fair bit better, when they’re concerned with things that we’re interested in. The extended suffering of the vulnerable and innocent?…ehh, not so much. Immense wealth and the opulent trappings of power?…oh look, it’s all five senses working overtime.

  3. Electric Lardyland

    Also, that folder in George’s hand does seem a bit thin for 204 abuse cases, doesn’t it?

  4. DiddyWrote

    Thanks LK, it is a remarkable quote. I came across it in Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece, Darkness at Noon which is a fictional account of an Old Bolshevik who runs afoul of Stalin purges and his Show Trials.
    Koestler quite correctly spotted another Totalitarian regime which would stop nothing in the Roman Catholic Church.

  5. UTS LIBRARY

    Pell makes it clear in his witness statement, his attitude to the RC.
    paragragh 63
    “Like other bishops in Australia, I am answerable only to the Holy Father”
    Watching the examination, what I saw was a man of exceeding vanity and arrogance, without the slightest trace of humility, assuring us that he would not accept any responsibility unless it reflected well on himself,and….deary me, this questioning is tedious.

  6. The Old Bill

    My phone ring tone is a sound byte from Q&A a year or so ago

    When I was in the UK recently preparing some young boys____

  7. Margot Saville

    Great quote. thanks.

  8. MJPC

    Pell is a liar and will not raise any veils on the Catholic Church. He can say what he likes to the commissions but, in a months time, he will be residing in the Vatican so anything he says will have no validity with any newcomer to the position.
    The only solution is for all churches to become incorporated entities; I notice that Pell has not raised this possibility.
    For the victims we do not want another James Hardie compensation fiasco.

  9. Venise Alstergren

    George Pell didn’t look remotely sincere. He might as well having been brushing off crumbs from his dishdasha (Omani version of a clerical get up/caftan)I wouldn’t ask that man for a street direction.

    I second and third PADDY.

  10. Wynn

    Despite his protestations that he now knows better, various of Pell’s answers expose his true attitude. The spluttering and apparent disbelief that victims do not immediately disclose, his assertion that victims should receive compensation, but not damages, and the odd little rant about the separation of church and state and church not being held to higher standards than a sporting club. Not to mention the comment about Mr Ellis already quoted above by Paddy.

    It must be beyond infuriating for victims to sit through.

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