Saturday 15 June 2019

Australia's Dreyfus?

Subscription link: 

Here is my latest article for the British magazine Salisbury Review. The piece is titled "Australia's Dreyfus?": 

Cardinal George Pell, until recently the Vatican’s Treasurer, is the most senior official of the Catholic Church ever to be convicted of child sex abuse. On December 11, 2018, a jury found him guilty of sexual misconduct involving two thirteen- year-olds, pseudonymously ‘The Kid’ and ‘The Choirboy’. On March 13, 2019, Pell was sentenced by the judge to six years in prison. Many Australians, not all of them progressives, believe the unanimous 12-0 jury decision against Pell is something to celebrate. Hetty Johnston, chair of Bravehearts, an organisation she founded following her young daughter’s sexual assault in 1997, was greatly encouraged: ‘Nobody gets to harm a child because they’re richer or more famous than everybody else. So, to all survivors everywhere: don’t be frightened of the person who has done this to you. Take your complaints to the police, and justice will be served.’ But has justice, in the case of Cardinal Pell, been served?

George Pell’s alleged crime was to sexually assault two choirboys in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral after Mass one Sunday morning in 1997. We have not been provided with the details of the assault given in court by the surviving claimant, but Louise Milligan’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (2017, revised edition 2019) contains some of the address to the jury by the Victorian Crown Prosecutor. The accusation is that the two choirboys left the procession at the end of the morning’s Mass and detoured to the sacristy, a small open room at the back of the cathedral, to help themselves to some communion wine. They were, according to claimant, discovered by the archbishop, who warned them they were in serious trouble if they did not comply with his desires. George Pell ordered them to kneel and then exposed his erect penis. He commanded The Kid to perform fellatio, directing him through the process until ejaculation was achieved after two minutes. The Choirboy, perhaps too startled to raise the alarm, mutely observed the whole disagreeable spectacle, until instructed to pull down his trousers and underpants so that Archbishop Pell might fondle his genitals. 

This unverified story has a certain implausibility even from a technical perspective. The sacristy, for instance, is an open room and any number of people could have found their way in there unannounced. The recently appointed Archbishop of Melbourne, with likely ambitions to rise even higher in the Church, behaved not only criminally and malevolently that Sunday immediately after Mass, but with a recklessness and imprudence that seems absolutely out of character for such a disciplined and aspiring high-flier. Milligan, unable to make any psychological sense of it, weakly describes the encounter as Pell’s ‘last slip-up’. There is also the problem that a Church dignitary in Pell’s position that morning would not have been left unattended by the auxiliary clergy before, during or after Mass. Additionally, throughout the period of the assault, Archbishop Pell claims he was, as usual, at the other end of the Cathedral – that is, the building’s entrance – seeing out the congregation. There is, besides, the practical matter of George Pell not being able to perform his misdeed, as reported, in full archiepiscopal garb. Finally, communion wine at St Patrick’s is always locked. 

New evidence has emerged since the sentencing alleging that the narrative told by the claimant was in fact borrowed from an American account of abuse in the September 15, 2011, edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Keith Windschuttle, writing in Quadrant magazine, refers to an article that contains an almost undistinguishable storyline, including two young victims caught drinking communion wine in the sacristy after Sunday Mass, kneeling before the priest, sexual abuse in the sacristy, fellatio, fondling of genitals, and no corroborating witnesses. The Victorian Police, according to their own testimony, had been searching for crimes committed by Cardinal Pell for two full years before The Kid came forward with their story in June 2015. Their tale, according to Windschuttle, is ‘so close to being identical’ with the American one in Rolling Stone, that the notion of the Australian version being original is ‘most implausible’. The Choirboy died in 2014, although not before disavowing his accusation against Pell. 

Nevertheless, the claimant’s unsupported testimony, from the general public’s point of view and obviously from the jury’s deliberations, remains within the realms of possibility. This could have something to do with some Catholic priests, along with other religious and non-religious societal leaders, being identified as abusers in the landmark 2017 Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse within Australian Institutions. Paradoxically, perhaps, Pell’s criminality occurred in the same time frame at he was initiating ‘Melbourne Response’, a world-first initiative to report sexual abuse of minors. We should also mention that at the launch of the Royal Commission, in 2012, Cardinal Pell himself was under no suspicion of having committed sexual crimes and welcomed a wide-ranging investigation into the abuse of minors. The Royal Commission was the catalyst for a storm of previously unheard accusations against religious leaders from the past and, in the case of the 77-year-old Cardinal Pell, former archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney, the Vatican’s Treasurer between 2014-19 and a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, 2013-18, not to mention a possible successor to Pope Francis, was an Australian religious figure without rival. Louise Milligan’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell touched on other rumours and hearsay about George Pell’s past, but it was the horror story of the two choirboys that attracted the public’s attention and resulted in Cardinal Pell being summoned back from Rome to stand trial. 

The November 2018 guilty verdict, for many of those who have experienced the consequences of sexual abuse, was a godsend. Hetty Johnston, of Bravehearts, was greatly encouraged: ‘The message that it sends is that nobody is out of reach of the law.’ She requested the sentencing judge jail Cardinal Pell for a lengthy period: ‘When these offenders are found guilty and not punished appropriately, it just lets everybody down, including this generation of children.’ Sydney academic Dan Dixon, as an example of our leftist professoriate, concurred with Johnston, although his retributory theme is informed less by justice than crypto-Marxist social justice. Any argument in support of Cardinal Pell’s innocence, insists Dixon, is an attempt to ‘secure the power structures as they are’ and maintain ‘a world in which old white men can dine with one another in peace, safe from resentment and safe from the law.’ Putting Cardinal Pell in jail for six years was proof that ‘very occasionally’ the ‘armour of privilege does not provide total immunity’.

At the risk of safeguarding power structures and promoting white male supremacy, it strikes me, and many a sceptic, that the jury’s verdict is dubious at best. As John Silvester, an investigative crime writer and columnist with The Age newspaper, wrote: ‘Pell was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behaviour or a confession. It is a matter of public record that it is rare to run a case on the word of one witness, let alone gain a conviction.’ Cardinal Pell, then, has ample reason to believe he will win his appeal against the guilty verdict. Pell would not be the first Australian archbishop of late to have a conviction overturned. In August 2018, Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson was found guilty of not passing on allegations of sexual abuse against the priest Jim Fletcher. Fletcher, charged with committing sexual assault on a New South Wales boy in the 1990s, died in prison in 2006 with the reputation of a notorious paedophile. There were, without doubt, Catholic and other authorities who did not respond as they should have done morally to complaints about sexual abuse. Hetty Johnston’s Bravehearts organisation did not come into existence without cause. Nonetheless, the charge against Archbishop Wilson seemed more like a case of scapegoating, considering that he was a junior priest, still in his twenties, when a claim was made to him about ‘Father Jim’. This was 1976, a world away from what we today call ‘mandatory reporting’. Philip Wilson made a wrong call, as many did in those days, but only through the prism of hindsight and present- day rules and sensibilities, did he deserve to be jailed over forty years later. Wilson won his appeal, but not before his health and life were ruined and he resigned from the priesthood in disgrace. 

Philip Wilson, like George Pell, garnered a reputation as a reformer in the field of addressing and preventing child abuse. That is some of the irony in the persecution of these two men. They have not been the beneficiaries of the ‘armour of privilege’ – quite the opposite. A scourge of sexual abuse descended upon the children and adolescents of Australia, mostly between the years 1960-80, but that is no reason to incriminate innocent men. Some Catholic priests were guilty of unspeakable crimes, and yet it just adds one injustice to another injustice and serves no good purpose to engage in collective condemnation. Something to be said for their Catholic faith, however, is that sacrifice and suffering have always been part of the long game. On Easter Sunday, to their great surprise, Pell’s visitors at the Melbourne Remand Centre found him in good spirits and determined to cheer them up by reflecting on the Christian significance of the day. 
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.