Cardinal George Pell charged: what a mess

In December, the Australian Royal Commission into child sex abuse in institutions will make its final report.

But already enough has been revealed in interim reports to suggest that it will make very challenging reading for Catholics not just in Australia but worldwide.

And a recently published book has focused on victims, responses by Church authorities and the central role of Cardinal George Pell.

The royal commission set out to examine the way institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs, police, community, and government organizations have historically responded to allegations of child sexual abuse.

The raw statistics tell a sorry tale.

The royal commission – a top-level official inquiry with the power to force witnesses to testify and produce evidence – has found that between 1950 and 2010 a total of 4,444 people made complaints of child sexual abuse to 93 Catholic Church authorities concerning 1880 perpetrators.

The context is important: the Catholic Church educates over 25% of school-aged children in the country and has been significantly represented in the provision of children’s services through its social welfare networks – orphanages, youth programs and hostels, parish-based groups, etc.

In Australia, the average age of victims was 10.5 years for girls and 11.6 years for boys.

Some 7 percent of Australian priests working during those years had complaints made against them to the Church.

In Melbourne Archdiocese, the number was 8.1 percent. Among the teaching order known as the Christian Brothers, it was 20 percent.

Child sexual abuse is not an evil unique to Australia but elsewhere in the world, the accepted figure is 2 per cent.

A cause of deep sadness and even deeper shame is the Church’s response.

Throughout most of the 60-year period the royal commission analyzed, the Church did nothing to help.

It denied, it covered up, it shuffled priests from parish to parish to push the problem away. And even though Church authorities had knowledge of serious crimes, they failed to alert the police.

Good people did become involved and individual priests, bishops, and nuns helped victims. But there was no formal action until well into the 1990s when Cardinal (then Archbishop) Pell started a program called the Melbourne Response.

It was followed quickly by a national assistance scheme known as Towards Healing.

Cardinal Pell has become the focal point of the whole controversy over child sexual abuse in Australia through a mixture of circumstance, personality, his own words and actions – and accusations by others.

The Cardinal has become a lightning rod to which people attach their anger (and sometimes without real justification). Continue reading

  • David Armstrong is an Australian semi-retired journalist and editor resident in Thailand.
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