For this month’s JPIC blog article, I offer you a homily delivered at St. Dominic’s parish, Camberwell, Melbourne, on Sunday the 3rd of March this year by Fr. Peter Murnane OP. It pertains to the sex abuse scandal in our Church, particularly how we respond to all this following the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is not easy reading, but so important to ensure we act with integrity. Peter’s homily is as follows:
I apologise that this homily is a little longer than usual. I think you will agree with me that the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual offences, has brought us to a unique point in the history of the Church and of Australia, and raises huge questions for every Catholic Christian.
We have come together to worship the risen Christ in our midst. Perhaps Jesus has something to tell us, through this gospel that we read and love, about how we can each cope with this difficult situation. He says here that the quality of each person is known by their fruit. He is backed up by the Book of Sirach, from which we took our first Reading. “An orchard is judged on the quality of its fruit.”
What applies to persons and orchards must be said of institutions, such as our Catholic church. This weekend Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane sent his people a letter in which he reassures them about the good work that our church has done and is doing every day… fruits that show what we are as a church.
Archbishop Coleridge writes that everywhere we turn we see stories about the Church’s failures with child sexual abuse. We have to accept that. The Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area. We will continue to do all we can to help and heal those who have been abused and their families. ‘We have much to atone for. But today I want to say a word about the Church that’s almost never mentioned in mainstream media. It’s the Church that is you’. The church that works with refugees to find accommodation and fight for their permanent stay; on the frontline with domestic violence victims; with Australians who have a disability; with people on the poverty line; with the homeless; those living with dementia; to protect our environment and to provide pastoral support to prisoners. It has educated millions of Australian children over generations and has provided first-class medical treatment in our hospitals. This is not an exhaustive list, the archbishop stated, of what you do from day to day in the Catholic Church.
All that is very true. But doesn’t Jesus warn us, quite strongly, that his hearers – that’s us! – are quite skilled at noticing the splinter in the eye of another person, while they do not notice the plank in our own. This morning, let’s dare to look for the plank.
Archbishop Coleridge was right to say that the Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area of uncovering sexual abuse. But we are doing this only after a five year Royal Commission on the subject has forced us to. This is what the Royal Commission uncovered. I am quoting directly from its Report, and I apologise that this can be hard to listen to.
In the 36 years from 1980-2015, Catholic Church authorities in Australia received complaints of sexual abuse from 4,444 persons. Of those who abused them:
- 32 % were religious brothers; 5 % were sisters
- 30 % were priests
- 29 % were lay people.
Through 60 years (1950 – 2010) 7 % of all Catholic priests in the survey were alleged to be perpetrators.
Many senior Catholic Church officials knew about allegations of child sexual abuse but failed to take effective action. We have learned a lot more about sexual abuse since the 1980s, but it is clear that many Catholic Church leaders knew a lot long before then, but did not act effectively.
Over many decades Catholic Church authorities catastrophically failed to help children. Their failures caused much suffering to them, their families and communities. Much of it could have been avoided had Catholic Church authorities acted in the interests of children rather than in their own interests.
Survivors were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and in some cases further abused. This happened mainly because Catholics wanted to avoid public scandal, to maintain the Church’s reputation, and be ‘loyal’ to priests and religious.
Most complaints were not reported to police. If they had been, it could have prevented further sexual abuse of children. Sometimes police also refused to act, for the reasons given. Some alleged perpetrators were allowed to continue in ministry in the same position for long periods. Others were moved to new positions, where they continued to abuse children. Sometimes lies were told about why the abuser had gone. Sometimes no warning was given to the new place about the risk they posed. Some of the above can be excused because we lacked knowledge. For example leaders can hardly be blamed for hoping that psychological therapy or counselling could ‘cure’ alleged perpetrators; or that abusers could be controlled by imposing restrictions on their ministry. Nevertheless, there is much that is worthy of serious blame.
Nearly four and half thousand abused children. Over many decades. And now we have an archbishop, a cardinal, himself convicted of abusing. A cardinal in jail. He is suffering. He is our brother. He urgently needs our prayers. Is he guilty? Or was his conviction unjust, another terrible wrong? The Catholic community is divided on this. Some journalists and even some lawyers – including Jesuit Frank Brennan – claim he must be innocent. But do we have a plank in our eye? Do we still think that the church can do no wrong? I hope what I am about to say will help you to move nearer to the truth.
Cardinal Pell has done much good in his life, and I respect him for that. I attended eight days of his trial, and I can confidently accept the jury’s verdict of guilty. The journalists – and lawyers – who claim his innocence say that he was condemned by only one witness, who claims that Pell raped him when he was 13 years old. There were actually two choir boys, on scholarships that paid their school fees at St Kevins. They loved going to choir… but suddenly stopped loving it, and wanted to quit. They did not tell their parents why. Most victims don’t tell, at least for many years afterwards. If it took them a year to leave the choir, it was because they could not reveal the reason. If they left, their poor families could not afford full school fees: they depended on those choir scholarships. But they did leave, and by about 16 years of age both boys were taking heroin. One eventually died of an overdose.
If the survivor’s story is true, can we consider for a moment what he must have suffered. If his story was not true, why would he come forward 22 years later, with such an unlikely story, to take on the might and wealth of the Catholic church and the highest-paid lawyers in the land? Might he have been trying to save his own sanity by coming out with the truth at last, to get justice? Recall how many victims we have re-abused by not listening.
And the QC, Robert Richter, grilled him thoroughly, challenging his story. The court was closed for the two and a half days of his evidence, so no one except the jury knows how genuine the young man appears, nor all the details of his case. Not me, not the journalists; not Fr Frank Brennan. If we Catholics assume that the appeal must and will declare that the jury was wrong, can we be sure that we are not making another enormous mistake? If the appeal wipes out his whole story, how great will the young man’s suffering be?
If you doubt his story, I suggest that you read the book by Louise Milligan, who listened to him at length. It is on sale again now. Read at least the last chapter. I have met Louise Milligan, and she impresses me as a truthful woman, not at all sensationalist. She assures me that the young man is also genuine and truthful. If Richter QC brought out small inconsistencies in his story, do we expect a traumatised 13 year old to have perfect recall after 22 years?
Pell’s supporters claim that the crime could not have been committed in the cathedral sacristy after high Mass because there were too many people around. Many witnesses were called: the choir master, his assistant, the organist, sacristan and master of ceremonies. But they all had to speak in probabilities: ‘people were coming and going; there were people with work to do; the archbishop always followed this routine’. But they could not rule out exceptions. No one could swear to seeing the archbishop all the time. After every Mass, in the cathedral as in any church, people eventually drift away. There are moments of quiet. The sacristy is empty. No one noticed two choir boys missing from their places, but that doesn’t mean that they never went missing to trespass naughtily in the room where, it is claimed, Pell found them pinching the altar wine.
Please forgive me this distasteful detail; it is a necessary part of the argument of those who think Pell is innocent. I was astonished, in the trial, that Richter spent so much time trying to prove that a bishop dressed in a full length cassock with an alb over it could not possibly expose himself for the purpose of rape. It is a stupid argument. In my 53 years as a priest, if I wish to answer a call of nature when vested for Mass, it is a simple matter to lift the hem of the multiple garments or vestments I might be wearing. End of story. It is astonishing too that Fr Brennan is still spreading this foolish argument.
Then – the QC claimed – priests who abuse boys must first groom them over a time, winning their trust. Pell did not do this. But that is only one kind of abuser. There is another kind, like Jimmy Saville of the BBC, and Rolf Harris. They were powerful and wealthy men, who mixed with royalty and Prime Ministers. No one would dare challenge them. They would abuse suddenly and recklessly; hit and run, even when other people were present. Jimmy Saville would abuse children in their hospital bed. He abused an 11-y.o. girl in the sacristy during Mass. When such revered public figures were eventually accused, many could not believe they could be guilty.
Cardinal Pell is accused of a violent act of sheer power. He has at times admitted that he has a strong temper. The young boys were powerless. The actions might have been very risky, but he would have felt confident he could not be caught: even if his totally powerless accusers dared to accuse him, no one would believe them.
Pell’s defenders claim that the action was completely out of character. Was it? Sadly, the archbishop does not have a clean record. On at least three other occasions he has had to face accusations by individuals or groups. A judge once decided that his accuser was telling the truth, but that so many decades had passed, there was not sufficient evidence to bring the matter to court. The same happened recently with the men who said that as a young priest he had often abused them in the swimming pool at Ballarat. The case was about to go to trial, but last week was dropped because once again, after four decades, the evidence was legally inadequate.
And how has he treated those complaining of sexual abuse. Chrissy and Anthony Foster’s two daughters were raped when very young by their Oakleigh parish priest, Fr Kevin O’Donnell. If you read their very fine book you will be saddened to see that Archbishop Pell treated them abominably. So too was John Ellis, the Sydney survivor of abuse, whom Pell almost destroyed by legal trials.
I watched Cardinal Pell give evidence to the Royal Commission by video link from Rome. Like the Commissioners themselves, I could not believe him when he claimed not to know about several cases of abuse that he must have known about. Those who think Pell is innocent – and he himself – boast of his Melbourne Response to abuse. But that plan was in fact designed to limit compensation and tended to gag those who accepted its limited payouts. It was not a wonderful, original initiative, but was launched in haste before the other Australian bishops could finish their combined plan.
Bishops and cardinals can do wrong. Three eminent cardinals of Philadelphia, in succession, lied to grand juries about the huge amount of abuse in that diocese. Just last week Cardinal McCarrick of Washington was reduced to the lay state – stripped of his priesthood – for sexual abuse.
Cardinals are called ‘princes of the church’. One of the psalms that we use in the Prayer of the Church says: God pours contempt on princes… They diminish, are reduced to nothing… But God raises the needy – the suffering – from distress. Was it a bad mistake, way back in our history, ever to have allowed such rankings to be part of our church? Likewise with other fancy titles, bishops’ palaces and elaborate vestments? Jesus did not tell us to use titles and privileges: he positively forbade them. In today’s gospel he tells us: the disciple is not greater than the master…who died penniless, murdered for loving and defending others.
Our church as it is today is sick. Was it the structure of our church – the way power is not shared; the clericalism that puts the clergy before others – which let all this happen, or made it easier? Some of our church’s fruit is rotten. We need urgently to pray for its recovery, which will only come about by deep reform. Jesus has not left us; the risen Christ in our hearts, in our Eucharist. Many agree that it is the form, the shape of the church that went astray, centuries ago.
How to change it is a huge question, and possible solutions will be discussed at the coming Plenary Council. Our parish urges you to take part. There are forms at the back of the church for you to have your say. Many parish members have already put in their suggestions. We urgently need to hear your ideas for reform. Please do not miss your opportunity.