George Pell loomed large inside the gates of my high school, both physically and figuratively. He was our next door neighbour at St Mary’s Cathedral College for boys during his reign as Sydney’s archbishop, and as the good book commanded, we loved our neighbour.
Australia’s most powerful Catholic was warmly welcomed as a school assembly speaker and, as a guest educator, would teach me for numerous religion classes. Despite going on to rise through the ranks of the Vatican, he always left me a little uneasy — maybe it was his arched gait; maybe it was his quest to win us over with old tales of his boozy rites of passage. Cutting an imposing, 190cm tall figure, this darkly robed man would preach in a cathedral-filling voice about the virtues of celibacy. Now, he’s behind bars for raping two choirboys in the ’90s.
It might sound like his jailing didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, Pell is not the first mighty man to fall from this institution. My headmaster, Brother William Standen, was locked up in 2014 for indecent assault at a NSW boarding school in the ’70s and ’80s. In 2016 my former deputy headmaster, Christopher Rafferty, was acquitted on six historical sex charges. In the ruling, the judge stated “I well accept that the accused did sexually assault the complainant” but asserted evidence did not prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.
Each case involves decades-old accusations and claims of lasting suffering. The surprise with Pell was that the world watched the law catch up with him.
It’s important to note that I was educated well and was not abused, nor to my knowledge were my peers. That said, predators often inflict wounds so deep their prey are left too scared to open them up. Looking back, big questions hang heavy: were there victims among us? Could we have done more to protect them? If we had voiced our concerns, would anyone have listened? Studies show children have a higher awareness of adults who stare at them too long, touch them or venture too close. Conversely, adults downplay this threat.
Thus, in his disgrace, my old teacher Pell taught me one last lesson: trusting my instincts. And perhaps we could all learn something from this. It’s not always the strange man offering candy from his coat. Sometimes it’s the sibling, family friend or swimming instructor. Sometimes, there’s no red flag at all.
I’m not proposing we throne kids as the presiding judges on clergy abuse. But for too long we have brushed aside their judgement. Their bad impressions from adults — especially those wielding almighty power — could hold the key to unmasking them before it’s too late.
In spite of the latest damning revelations, prestigious Australian Catholic schools like mine are reportedly fielding more applications than ever before. And a plaque of Pell tellingly still stands on my old stomping grounds, where officials vow it will remain until his appeal is dealt with.
Until the Church embarks upon radical reforms, it’s time to listen to its most vulnerable followers.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000.