It has become common for the Church’s modern detractors in Australia to assign to Cardinal Pell unscrupulous motivations, or even to accuse him of a lack of empathy. Unfortunately, there was little in Pell’s testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to persuade them otherwise. But it seems to me that what has emerged over the course of the public hearings into the Catholic Church’s dealings with John Ellis is far more disturbing.
John Ellis is a formerly devout Catholic lawyer who had been sexually abused as a child by Father Aidan Duggan between 1974 and 1979. Like many hundreds of other survivors, John Ellis came forward in 2002 in the wake of a rolling series of reports of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal mismanagement that emerged from places such as Boston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Louisville. In June of that year, Ellis presented himself to the Church’s Towards Healing process, seeking help with the “emotional and spiritual dilemmas” he was facing. The personally devastating and morally reprehensible series of events that followed had less to do with flaws inherent to Towards Healing itself than it did with failures in implementation (especially on the part of John Davoren, then director of the Professional Standards Office, Monsignor Brian Rayner, then Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney, and finally Cardinal Pell), unacceptably long delays, episcopal inconsistency and, whether intentionally or not, a cold disregard for the stated needs of John Ellis himself.
John Ellis had the right to expect that the Church would comport itself compassionately, penitently and according to the canons of divine justice – a justice brimming with self-sacrifice, a preparedness “to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage,” as Pope John Paul II put it in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. What John Ellis confronted was a Church intent on pursuing its legal defence as though there was no divine judge.
These pastoral failures would see Ellis’s claims of abuse successively dismissed by Davoren in December 2002. Ellis was informed in a letter signed by Cardinal Pell, which he received on Christmas Eve, no less. Then, after a proper assessment had been conducted in November 2003, his claim was upheld, only to be minimised in the course of a snail paced facilitation that took place between May and July 2004. Ellis recounted to the commission that the reason given by the facilitator, Raymond Brazil, for the meagre amount of the ex gratia payments proposed by the Archdiocesan authorities was “they only look at the seriousness of the conduct and not on how you are affected … they don’t consider your abuse to be that serious.” Finally, when the matter proceeded to litigation in August 2004, it was disputed by the Archdiocese.
That John Ellis’s complaint did proceed to the Supreme Court of New South Wales was precipitated, in large part, by the insertion of patently inappropriate quasi-legal elements into the pastoral process itself, in the form of a deed of release which would indemnifying the Archbishop and Trustees of the Archdiocese against further claims. This effectively forced Ellis, more out of desperation than malice, into civil litigation; although, even then, Ellis repeatedly made overtures to the Archdiocese expressing his desire to settle the matter through mediation. By this stage, however, a certain prejudice had hardened in the minds of Monsignor Rayner and Cardinal Pell, among others, that John Ellis (in Pell’s own words) was “a brilliant lawyer” who would not have opted for “this path [of litigation]” unless he was after “serious money.”
It is at this point that what can charitably be described as the Church’s abject failure compassionately and consistently to implement an otherwise sound process descended into an outright denial of the Church’s very principle. In order to “preserve the patrimony of the Church” and “protect the role of the Trustees in particular,” Cardinal Pell endorsed an aggressive legal strategy that would dispute John Ellis’s claims of abuse, defend against any extension of the statute of limitations or suggestion of vicarious liability on the part of the Archdiocesan Trustees, resist “excessive damages” and deny Ellis himself access to a spiritual advisor. Throughout the course of the litigation and subsequent appeal, Cardinal Pell insists that the “defense was not conducted improperly in a legal sense” but that its express intention was to “discourage Mr Ellis and others like him” from pursuing litigation – to make, in other words, an example of John Ellis.
That Cardinal Pell did so on the advice of Church lawyers is, finally, no defense at all. In the words of George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading commentators on religion and public life put it, “A bishop whose lawyers advise him not to meet with a victim of sexual abuse or with the victim’s family because of possible legal implications needs different lawyers – lawyers who understand what a bishop is, and who have the legal wit and skill to make sure that when the bishop exercises genuine pastoral care and responsibility, he does not end up compromising his legal position or his diocese’s. A bishop who truly believes that he is what the Catholic Church teaches he is – a successor of the apostles who makes present in the Church today the living headship of Christ the Good Shepherd – does not behave like a corporate executive managing a crisis in which he has little personal involvement beyond the protection of his own position.”
In the wake of the mismanagement of this criminal behavior, I believe Patrick Parkinson is correct in stating that, “in Australia at least, it may be that the crisis of confidence and trust will not pass until the present generation of leaders, who are tainted by their handling of matters earlier in their careers, have passed the baton on to a younger generation.”
This blog entry is based on an article that appeared in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics section entitled, “The Religion of the Humble? Cardinal Pell and the Peril of Institutional Atheism,” by Scott Stephens.