ROME — Whatever one’s religious affiliation or belief, it must be argued that the Gods of Glorious Coincidence were at work this week. Just as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was handing out the Oscar statuette for Best Picture to Spotlight last Sunday night, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s No. 3 official, was seated in a dingy hotel event room testifying by video link about the very same sort of systematic clerical sex abuse exposed in the film.
But in what is really an unfathomable disconnect, accolades for breaking the silence and exposing serious clerical sex abuse in the United States seemed completely lost in Rome.
Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat on the Economy, was called to give voluntary evidence to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The 74-year-old spent a total of four very late nights answering a slew of questions about a number of clearly predatory priests in Australia from the time he was a young cleric to when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne. The hearings started at 7 or 8 a.m. in Sydney, which meant they began at 9 or 10 p.m. in Rome. The latest of the hearings wrapped up around 3 a.m. local time.
To whatever extent Pell was negligent, and, make no mistake, it seems a question merely of levels and degrees, it is completely baffling that Pope Francis doesn’t see this as a divine opportunity to put his foot down and show that “zero tolerance on abuse” really, truly means zero tolerance and, therefore, demand Pell resign.
This is especially true given Pell’s admission that, among other things, he knew first-hand a young boy was being abused by a cleric named Brother Edward Dowlan in 1974. “With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” Pell said.
In fact, if he had gone to the police or church officials then, he might have stopped Dowlan. Instead, the cleric went on to abuse dozens of other young children as Pell kept the secret and climbed the church hierarchy, all the while knowing about Dowlan and others like him.
When one of the attorneys for a sex abuse victim pushed Pell, asking why he, then head of an education division of a Catholic school, didn’t do something, he shrugged.
“You didn’t go straight to the school and say, ‘I’ve got this allegation, what’s going on?’” the lawyer asked.
Pell responded, “No, I didn’t. People had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was, and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning it.”
This was a young boy “lamenting” sexual abuse. How could the child even ask for specific help? No doubt he had no clear idea what was even really happening to him or why. Instead Pell brushed it away, insisting, “It was an extraordinary world of crime and cover-ups and people not wanting the status quo disturbed.”
Full transcripts of the hearings are available on the Royal Commission’s website for anyone who questions whether this is a witch hunt or whether Pell holds responsibility.
Pell wasn’t the only priest on duty during the years of systematic abuse in his hometown of Ballarat and beyond, and when the abuse started, he, too, was a young cleric. But he did hold administrative responsibilities, and he was on a committee that made recommendations that ultimately resulted in exposing hundreds of children to known pedophiles.
During his often disturbing testimony, Pell admitted to blatant accusations that he failed to act when he was told about one young girl who was made to kneel between the legs of a priest during weekly confession, and he claimed that the corroborated allegations of sexual abuse of young children against another priest were sad, but “weren’t of much interest to me.” He later clarified that, by that comment he only meant that reading the details of the abuse disturbed him.
In almost every case presented to him, and there were many, he explained away his inaction by victim blaming or offering what became his blanket excuse that “no one asked me” to intervene.
These were children and desperate parents grappling with the reality that the priest they trusted committed the worst violation possible. Wasn’t it obvious enough they needed help? Did they really have to ask explicitly?
Apparently not, and what’s perhaps most disturbing is that Pell still doesn’t seem to get it.
When asked (PDF) if he, in his current position of power, would ever suggest a cleric be tried in front of the Vatican’s new tribunal dealing with sex crimes, like some of the men he knew were covering up abuse or committing it in Australia, he said no. “As a Vatican official, that probably would be less than appropriate,” he told the commission. “That should come from the Australian—or present Australian authorities if they choose to do so.”
Pell is basically saying that, even as a top ranking Vatican official, he feels no responsibility whatsoever to point fingers and name names about people he knew were committing the very crimes the Vatican says it is keen to stop.
On the contrary, after Pell’s first night of testimony, he and the pope met for a private audience in Vatican City during which, Pell told the commission, he did not specifically discuss his evidence with the pontiff. Instead he said he “arranged to have daily briefs sent to the pope” about the hearings. He then arrived in court that night making the proud proclamation, “I have the full backing of the pope.”
Stephen Woods, one of the survivors of sexual abuse by the worst of the offenders, Father Gerald Ridsdale, told reporters outside the Quirinale Hotel on Wednesday that Pope Francis really needs to intervene, not support the cardinal.
“They clearly colluded, and so it raises this very serious question about what is wrong with the thinking amongst the leaders in the church that they don’t want to know what has gone so seriously and tragically wrong that we have to come to the other side of the world to get answers,” he said.
“We are wishing the pope intervenes here, that the pope is willing to meet with us and just hear our concerns, hear the pain of so many thousands of victims in Australia and that this is shedding such bad light on the church and shedding such bad light on everybody who says that the Catholics are good.”
How can the pope—this pope!—back Pell on this issue that has been so damaging and divisive for the Roman Catholic Church? Does he not know that Pell has admitted inaction? Is it enough that Pell said he would not “defend the indefensible” and has regretfully offered that the Australian Church “mucked up” on its handling of abuse under his very own watch? Is the pontiff unaware of the many witnesses who say that they, as young children, went to Pell for help, only to be turned away?
During one phase in the questioning, lead counsel Gail Farness, a sort of Australian Marcia Clark, asked Pell to confirm or deny five points against one priest Pell could have clearly stopped. The first offense she asked the cardinal if he knew about was: “Small group of children shown dead body in coffin.”
Pell’s response: “Yes.”
“Cruelty to an animal in front of young children,” which consisted of swinging a dead, bleeding cat around the school yard in a threatening manner.”
Other points: “Unnecessary use of children’s toilets” and “harassment of children.”
Pell: “That’s correct.”
The same priest apparently wielded a handgun at some of his victims, many of whom have never come forward out of obvious fear of retaliation.
Pell ended his last night of testimony around 3 a.m. Rome time with a brief meet and greet with the remaining bleary-eyed members of the press, many of whom had come from Australia to cover the story. “It’s been a hard slog, at least for me. I’m a bit tired,” he said. “I hope that my appearance here has contributed a bit to healing, to improving the situation.”
He was then asked if his testimony, in any way, hurt his reputation in the Vatican. “I don’t think it hurts it at all,” he said. “And this event might do a little bit of good in Europe.”
The Australian survivors, who came to Rome thanks to a crowd-funding initiative, don’t find that comforting. Pell has agreed to meet with some of them before they return to Australia on Friday, but they have heard enough from their cardinal and want the pope’s ear instead. They sent a letter to the pope to try to get his attention. “This is about children. Children who were abused and damaged in the past. We would like to request a meeting to discuss the commitment to the children of the past and children of the future, to implement systems so that this is never repeated again.”
Pell is now excused from the royal commission’s questioning and will likely live out his final years in relative peace in Rome. Maybe he will even find a common bond with Bernard Law, the disgraced Boston cardinal featured in Spotlight, who also lives in the Eternal City without fear of repercussions for his inactions.
But the victims of these heinous crimes will never find that relative peace. David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests or SNAP, which was featured heroically in Spotlight, told The Daily Beast that the pope should suspend Pell.
“There may be no more powerful step Francis could take, short of defrocking, demoting, or disciplining a dozen complicit, high-ranking clerics,” he told The Daily Beast. “If Francis wants the world to believe he’s serious about reform, about zero tolerance, and about ending cover-ups, putting Pell on the shelf is a solid first step. Otherwise, the pope’s words will continue to ring hollow.”
The question now is whether the deafening silence from the pontiff will continue, or whether Francis will finally give this very serious issue the attention it deserves.