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Church’s moral failure on trial at the Royal Commission

It is the long-held view of Cardinal George Pell and other senior Catholic officials that the sexual abuse crisis is an issue primarily about the moral failure of individual priests and not related to…

George Pell insists it is individual moral failures that are the root of the Catholic Church’s problems. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

It is the long-held view of Cardinal George Pell and other senior Catholic officials that the sexual abuse crisis is an issue primarily about the moral failure of individual priests and not related to church culture itself.

In other words, the church institution cannot be held responsible for the evil of individual priests.

Observing the Royal Commission

On Friday, I sat in on day four of Case Study 16 at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse being held at the County Court in Melbourne. I’d been there all week – and morality itself appeared to be on trial.

Case Study 16 is investigating the Melbourne Response, the redress scheme that the then Archbishop Pell established in Melbourne in 1996 to deal with the growing number of people reporting child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. After a harrowing first day on Monday listening to three victims read distressing statements detailing their abuse and then their attempts to seek redress, the lawyers managing the Melbourne Response gave evidence and George Pell joined in on a video link from Rome.

Pell caused general outrage when he compared the offending priest to a truck driver who molests a woman he picks up by the side of the road. His analogy: the behaviour of the truck driver is not the responsibility of the trucking company and similarly the behaviour of the offending priest is not the responsibility of the church.

The Royal Commissioner, Justice Peter McClellan, quietly pointed out that parents entrust their children to the care of priests and it is hardly the same thing as a truck driver.

A barrister for one of the victims angrily told Pell that, unlike the church, trucking companies don’t claim to be moral guardians of society. But Pell played his cards here on the position of church responsibility – and this was reinforced by the church lawyers who argued for three days that the Melbourne Response was primarily concerned with moral redress, as opposed to legal and financial redress.

What is appropriate moral redress?

However, it is clear to many people that the church has offered anything but an appropriate moral response to victims. In all three cases presented in the court, victims have spoken about how they have been let down.

For example, the Melbourne Response put a cap on financial compensation - currently a maximum of A$75,000 - that is arguably less than current civil compensation schemes. Payments were made ex gratia - that is, without the church taking legal responsibility for sexual abuse; and until recently victims were required to sign a deed of release which impeded further legal action.

It is also the case that because the church is not an incorporated body, it cannot be sued. This continues to be a contentious issue primarily because adequate financial compensation is actually a moral issue. Indeed, the commissioner asked the lawyers whether the current cap could be in any way sufficient to cover the loss of earnings, life opportunities and legal and medical costs that victims mostly sustain from the devastating personal impact that child abuse invariably involves. The current cap is clearly inadequate and, as a symbolic act of moral redress, insulting to victims.

Who cares?

This scenario – of church officials and lawyers defending redress protocols laced in the theological language of pastoral care – fools few people and has been repeated across Royal Commission hearings that deal with abuse cases by clerics.

The depth of the miscarriage of justice is mind-blowing.

In Case Study Number 8 held in Sydney earlier this year, detailing the sexual abuse of John Ellis by his parish priest, not one church official would accept responsibility for the legal, sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse Mr Ellis clearly suffered. This list includes Cardinal Pell, who blamed his subordinates for the mess that ensued. Some officials apologise, but as pointed out this week, the apology is often sent in uncompassionate formal generic letters that go little way towards healing and understanding.

That the sexual abuse crisis has caused a global calamity and failure of moral responsibility is obvious. It has resulted in a deep betrayal of the central principles of Christian morality.

The church has, for centuries, held a powerful hold on the articulation and definition of the moral guidelines of good society.

Even with increasing processes of secularisation the state recognises that Christian moral principles are those that underpin the basis of ethical citizenship and just social policy. Indeed, we often rely on the church to speak out on behalf of those groups most marginalised and affected by injustice, including of course children. In short, the church has historically acted as society’s moral compass.

The work of the Royal Commission is demonstrating time and again that “moral failures” are much more than just the acts of individuals.

Moral failure is a failure of a community: priests who were abusing children were actively involved in schools and parishes and surrounded by teachers, parents, and parishioners. Some priests abused hundreds of children over decades, others insinuated themselves into families and youth groups. Plenty of complaints were made, and senior clergy responded by moving priests on to other parishes where they continued to offend.

The failure of church leadership to respond properly to the travesty of child sexual abuse, instead protecting its institutions and clerics from investigation, is one of the greatest immoral acts of the modern world.