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Church honours market over Gospel in abuse cases

  • 03 April 2014

Cardinal Pell was often described as the leader of the Australian Church. What he said and did was taken to represent the Australian Catholic Church. That sometimes annoyed Catholics from other states who saw their church as superior to the Sydney variety, and certainly did not recognise the Cardinal as their leader.

It does explain why his appearance at the Royal Commission was awaited with such interest and received such publicity. But in the event the hearings on the treatment of John Ellis were of far deeper significance than for what they revealed of the Cardinal's own role. It exposed a set of priorities and strategies until recently adopted by many Australian bishops, church bodies and leaders of religious congregations. They reflected an unwitting subscription to neoliberal ideology at the expense of the Christian Gospel.

In the Catholic Church, bishops and, in a more limited sphere, other religious leaders have three interlocking responsibilities. They are teachers of their people, encouraging them to appropriate the Gospel deeply and faithfully, and helping them reflect on its significance today. They are pastors of their people, providing for their spiritual needs and reaching out to the needy and the lost. They also administer the patrimony of the Church, ensuring that its personal and financial resources serve its mission.

These responsibilities are complex and rich in their scope, but can readily be reduced to something more manageable. Teaching can be reduced to enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy; pastoring, to maintaining order; administering the patrimony, to protecting and extending financial reserves. And the rich relationships involved in these responsibilities can be reduced to control, that unlovely amalgam of fear and power.

The story of Ellis' encounters with the Catholic Church suggests that, with a few notable exceptions, Sydney Church leaders did not see him primarily as a vulnerable person to whom they should reach out in compassion. They viewed him as a threat to the financial wellbeing of the Sydney Catholic Church. Even though it was recognised that he had been abused by a Catholic priest, the callous treatment he received was inspired by the desire to avoid large compensation payments.

The disturbing consequence of this strategy, adopted widely in the Catholic Church, is that Catholic leaders effectively accepted that human worth can be measured by economic price. They accepted that the priority of the Church lay in the market where its task was to preserve and enhance its financial resources. They accepted