In the mid-Nineties I had a friend called Pat. He was a Christian Brother. This was about the peak of the time it was the Christian Brothers’ turn to be the most hated people or organisation in Australia. I asked him what the heck had happened. His reply was that their investigations had led them to believe that a large number of the complaints were without foundation. Certainly their legal advice was that if they contested the claims, they would win almost every case.
However, they had also reached that view that at least some of the claims were likely to be true, and that it was not easily possible to tell which were true and which were not. They would rather accept every claim than run the risk of denying justice to a single person who had genuinely been abused. I thought then, and still think, that this view, while noble, was naive.
If you were at a Christian Brothers school twenty, or thirty or forty years ago, and you knew all you had to do to get a $60,000 payout was claim that Brother Fred, or Tom or whoever, now deceased or in a nursing home, had gone the grope in the change rooms … well, many people would be, and apparently were, tempted.
That is not justice. Firstly, it ran the risk of utterly and falsely ruining the reputations of men who had given up any kind of sexual relationship over their life-times, who had given up the right to make choices about where they lived or who they lived with, who were paid nothing, or mere pocket money, in order to serve and work with boys who were often difficult or disadvantaged, and who did so faithfully all their lives with little thanks. And of course, who were now not able to defend themselves.
That is not justice. Nor is giving money away. That was not the Christian Brothers’ money to do with as they pleased. It was raised through hard work, dollar by dollar, by ladies at cake stalls, by children at car washes, by gifts from working people so that many would have a fair chance at a decent education. Giving it to anyone who made a claim was not fair to the people who raised it, and it was not fair to the people who missed out on educational opportunities because there was no money left.
That is not justice. Nor was it just to the schools and communities where Christian Brothers had worked, which were now looked at with disdain or suspicion.
That is not justice. Nor was it fair to those who had been genuinely abused, who deserved to be heard, to be recognised and helped.
I thought this was wrong. And I suspect that Cardinal Pell thought it was wrong too. Justice based on untruth, no matter how well meant, is not justice. At the time, Fr Pell was a priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, he had no authority over anyone else, nor was he in a position to make rules or issue guidelines. Yet somehow, he is being treated as if he were responsible for child abuse that occurred within that diocese. That he must have known, and should have done something about it.
It is even being pretended that he has tried to avoid giving evidence to the Royal Commission. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pell, who has never been accused by the Commission of any wrongdoing, has given more hours of evidence than any other witness — having so far appeared twice, once in person, once via video. Giving evidence via video is nothing out of the ordinary. About one-third of witnesses in Australia have done so, for reasons that include distance and work commitments.
Former Catholic priest Paul Bongiorno, now an ABC journalist, shared a house with that despicable creature Gerald Risdale, as did many others. Bongiorno says he had no idea what Risdale was up to. He has noted that paedophiles won’t normally come home in the evening and boast about how many boys they have raped. He is right, of course. Paedophiles are secretive and sneaky. There is no reason to think that Bongiorno or anyone else knew what Risdale was doing.
As soon as George Pell was in a position to know what had been happening, and to do something about it, he did. Just three months after he became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he set up the first protocols for dealing with child abuse in any church group in Australasia, Europe or the US. The Melbourne Response, as it was called, was widely hailed by police and victim groups.
Essentially, anyone who had a complaint could discuss it in a non-adversarial environment. Counselling and other forms of support were offered. In many cases, financial compensation was offered. It is important to note that this was not meant to replace a victim’s right to go to the police. Victims who talked to the Melbourne Response were told of all their options, and could make a complaint to police at any time, including after their case had been heard by Melbourne Response, and financial compensation paid.
As well as being highly emotional, these were very often complicated and confusing situations, with unclear or conflicting evidence, with justice being dependent, of course, on what was the truth. What seems clear now, and justice now, after many years, and further evidence and cases, was not always clear at the time. Yet somehow in spite of all of his work over many years to stop child abuse within the church, and to make processes for victims as supportive and comfortable as possible, and to ensure outcomes were what victims needed, Pell is made out to be the bad guy.
For example, ABC TV News last week ran an interview with Chrissie and Anthony Foster as they departed Melbourne Airport for Rome, so as to be present when Cardinal Pell gives further evidence to the Royal Commission, as he is set to do tomorrow morning (February 29). Two of the Fosters’ daughters were sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest in Melbourne before George Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne. This is what Mr Foster had to say, as reported by ABC TV:
We want to hear the truth. And he’s worked his way right through the hierarchy right up to the top of the Catholic Church. So, we really want to hear the truth about what happened. And it’s about time we saw some action out of the Catholic Church. So maybe hearing the whole truth from him – we might actually start to see some action.
You can certainly understand the parents being upset and angry. But there are a couple of things to note, things the ABC did not note. Firstly, the assaults on their daughters took place before Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne. He did not know, and could not have known, what was happening. Secondly, the Foster family made use of the Melbourne Response, set up by the Archbishop Pell for exactly that purpose. Thirdly, even though he was not Archbishop when the Foster girls were assaulted, as part of the Response process, Pell personally apologised to the family “for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered.”
Fourthly, and finally, in November, 2005 the Foster family accepted $750,000 in compensation from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, plus payment of their legal costs and an indemnity in respect to any payments to the Health Insurance Commission. (See the Royal Commission’s Report of Case Study No 16: The Melbourne Response, July 2015, page 19.)
Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars! So what on earth does Mr Foster mean when he says, “We might finally start to see some action?”
And why blame Pell?
Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman who now runs an IT consultancy business on Kangaroo Island in South Australia