Wednesday, 29 May 2013

**Reflecting on the Cardinal's approach to the abuse crisis...

There is a rather good piece in the Canberra Times today from 'editor at large' Jack Waterford reflecting on Cardinal Pell's appearance at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry.

I don't always (or even often) agree with Mr Waterford's take on Church-related issues, but on this one, though he can't resist the temptation to toss in what I think are some rather unfair attack lines - I for one think the constantly repeated quote about Cardinal Pell's alleged 'sociopathic lack of empathy', for example, is frankly outrageous and wish people would stop using it - I think that overall he has pretty much hit the nail on the head.

Style vs substance

In essence, Waterford argues that the Cardinal's combative style at the Inquiry does the Church no favours:

"It was not a public relations triumph - not even intended to be. One can sense, however, that Pell left thinking he had given as good as he got, and that a few of his hits reached the boundary. He has shown over and over that he simply lacks the self-awareness to know that his every appearance on the subject throws fuel on to the fire - if only because his every facial tic makes it clear that he does not get it.

No one has reached stage one of argument suggesting that Pell condoned or facilitated a culture of abuse in his dioceses. But his combativeness...[my suggested rewording: and perceived lack of empathy] seem to be one of the key factors guaranteeing that an array of public inquiries will continue to embarrass and humiliate the church over the next few years."

In terms of storyline, as Mr Waterford acknowledges, the Cardinal did in fact manage to get across a reasonably convincing account: under his predecessor, Archbishop Little, terrible things occurred; when he took over  he moved quickly to put some kind of process into place, and he took the advice of police and others on what form it should take.  And if in retrospect some aspects of the Melbourne process should have been changed in the light of experience, well the Cardinal has not been Archbishop of Melbourne since 2001.

You can read the official Sydney website's summation here.  And you can read the Cardinal's Submissions to the Inquiry here.

The problem came particularly with the Cardinal's responses at the time - and defended at the Inquiry - in the face of complaints about priests.  Instead of listening actively and considering what he could do to respond, such as instigating a proper investigation, he appeared both to victims and their friends at the time, and to anyone watching the Inquiry as dismissive and impatient, repeatedly dismissing complaints as mere gossip that he could not act on in the absence of clear evidence. Indeed, in one case, it was not until a year ago that the Archdiocese of Melbourne attempted to close the loop on one case by canvassing the parish to see if there were any other complaints about a particular abuser!

History vs the here and now

The most fundamental problem, though, Mr Waterford suggests - and I agree - is the claim that that was then, this is now:

"There seemed a strong and consistent line to Pell's refusal to submit. This seems to be: yes, the abuse was reprehensible beyond measure, and the church, more through ignorance than ill will, seriously and culpably mismanaged its response. But it's ancient history now, and I suspect your motives in continually coming back to it.

It's ancient history, Pell suggests, because church leaders - Pell actually - ultimately addressed the problem with firm leadership, and the problem has more or less disappeared. While there are still ''historical'' cases emerging - of abuse from any time between the 1930s and the 1980s - there have been few cases come forward of recent sexual abuse. So, presumably, the church's institutional response, if belated, is working. Moreover, victims are now getting help, including damages and counselling.

In these circumstances, there's an implicit and aggressive question: so why are you still going on about it? It's bad, yes. Embarrassing, yes. Shameful, yes. We've said sorry, again and again, and we say it again. But surely we can, at least after we ''mop up'' the remaining survivors, move on, as the prime minister might put it? Or are you people harping on this simply so as to have a stick with which to beat the church, the bishops, and loyal Catholics everywhere? In that case we will fight you."

The problem is, though the number of cases occurring may well have fallen drastically (though given the typical time delays in people coming forward that is hard to verify) the number is not zero.

And there is every indication that when cases do arise today, they are often not well handled.  Aside from the cases raised at the Victorian Inquiry, there have been a number of well publicised cases of this in Australia and overseas of late, and I've been told by more than one priest (in different dioceses) that they do not have confidence in that the procedures are actually being properly followed when they raise issues.

Moving forward

The current Victorian and Maitland-Newcastle Inquiries are small beer really, compared to the Royal Commission: they are both strictly time limited affairs, though their effects may be disproportionate.

The Royal Commission is currently conducting private hearings around the country.

But there is still time to get the Churches approach to this right.

As Mr Waterford concludes:

"Those in the church know the church will be judged, here as well as in the hereafter, not by its ‘‘management’’ of the sex abuse disaster but by its humility, its justice to victims, and its adoption of a precept of its founder about manifesting love of God by love of the least in the community."

**Alternative Perspectives?

There are of course different views on this subject.

Over at the Sydney Morning Herald, a poll asked whether they believed the Cardinal's testimony: 77% replied no.

That's extremely unfair - as even his critics in the media acknowledge, despite trying very hard indeed, every claim of his involvement in the cover up has proved to be demonstrably false.

Nonetheless, as Mr Waterford piece makes clear, and indeed the Cardinal himself acknowledged, this is about an issue playing out in the public domain that is all about perceptions and credibility, and in the view of most, the Church has garnered little indeed of that to date.

An editorial in The Australian, however, sees it differently, concluding that:

"In his 4 1/2 hours of evidence, Cardinal Pell was patient, open and credible. He and Archbishop Hart are in the forefront of dealing with the abuse and mismanagement that has undermined the church's credibility. They are part of the solution, not the problem..."

 For the reasons set out in my previous post on the Cardinal's appearance before the Inquiry, the view that any of the incumbent bishops are part of the solution is not a conclusion that is widely shared amongst the laity and clergy of this country.  Yes, the introduction of at least some decent processes is to be commended.  But the reluctance to change the approach in the face of legitimate criticism; the  'better late than never' approach to correcting past errors and perceptions that appears to being driven by the external pressures on the Church at this time rather than any internal fervour for reform; and the failure to address the underlying issues around attitudes to morality and obedience remain festering sores in my view.


Harry Flash said...

Seems to me that Pell's only crime is his determination to defend the church. Instead of presuming to sit in judgement over him, I suggest instead you take a leaf out of his book.

Kate Edwards said...

None of us should be attempting to defend the indefensible Harry, and the sins and coverup, the subsequent failures to act, and the lack of sensitivity to the victims viewpoint are all in that category in my view.

But neither am I , as you suggest, 'sitting in judgment'. I do think the laity have both a right and a duty to step up to the plate on this one, and help the hierarchy to see what needs to change in their approach.

Because in doing that we are ultimately defending the Church.