Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Cardinal Pell, Safe Schools and the personhood of children


A feeding frenzy is afoot over the review of Safe Schools. This minimally funded public program is designed to prevent bullying in schools, which is notoriously severe for kids whose sexual orientation or identity makes them easy meat for sorting out hierarchies of informal power in the playground.

We learn that the PM caved in when a 'concerned Christian' MP started reading out detailed from a non-Safe School website about genital tucking, representing the program as perversely sexual propaganda.

Pell appears at the Royal Commission via video linkClammy hands are already at work on the completely unrelated plebiscite on same sex marriage after the expected Coalition win in this year's federal election.

Last Monday's Q&A revealed how spokesmen for Christians feel that both are insidious challenges to the family, mother-baby bonding, and the appalling liberalisation of anti-homosexual and discriminatory criminal and civil laws.

Coincidentally poor old George Pell is under attack for failing to observe that his Ballarat colleagues were prolifically enabling Ridsdale and other pedophiles to sexually abuse little boys — though it seems Bishop Mulkearn thought it was about 'homosexuality', not pederasty.

The prurient desire to control the sexual interests of others on the one hand, and on the other the gross failures by institutions to protect vulnerable children in their care, are sadly linked to an unwillingness to face the truth about human sexuality. It's easier to judge, than to seek to understand.

The Bible can easily be read to find a self-serving interpretation. That's why we study it properly, as well as reading and meditating upon it. 

It is enriched by its context at the time of writing and the time of reading. No 'originalist' imagination can limit its meaning to that of the 'founding fathers', as Justice Scalia tried to insist was the only way to approach the American Constitution. Context and relationships among people at the time of creation and as we continue to be created in our relationships with others are integral parts.

Our 2016 context is a secular society which has become far more sensitive to the varieties of religious experience, human sexuality and the expression of both.

We are wounded by a royal commission into the self-appointed leaders of morality who turned a blind eye and failed to listen to the screams and complaints of abused children, because they were not particularly 'interesting'. Let alone powerful. That was the Catholic Church, until right now.

We were then, and are even more today, informed about sexual exploitation of children and its life long consequences. We also know the self-deception and cruelty of phobic responses to sexual orientation and development and the link to children being bullied sometimes to death.

Let us engage in a private, not public, discussion about sexuality and the personhood of children.

I am reminded of the very clear gospel warning in Matthew chapter 7 verses 1-3: 'Judge not, that you be not judged.'

It was pretty much what Pope Francis answered journalists, just months after being named pontiff, when asked whether gays and lesbians could be good Christians. He said 'Who am I to judge? They shouldn't be marginalised. The tendency (to be homosexual) is not the problem. They are our brothers.'

It reminds me of a story about the founding father of monasticism, St Anthony, recounted by author and theologian Bernard Bangley in his book By Way of the Desert.

In it, a brother approached Anthony and told him two monks were living together in a homosexual relationship. Anthony summoned the two monks. That night he prepared a pallet where they could sleep together, and gave them one blanket. Anthony commented, 'They are sons of God, holy persons.'

Then he instructed a disciple to send the complainant to a cell by himself, saying 'He is a victim of the very thing he projects on them.'

I am more frightened of the self-righteous, the judgmental, the hard-line in-principle opponents of education about the varieties of experience of childhood sexuality, than of 'social engineers', because I trust the humanity of boys and girls who can walk in the shoes of other children, and leave them alone.

How good it is to teach that childhood is a time for working out what this culture of sexual excess and its links to misuse of power is all about, for all children's personal sense of self and soul.

I could go on, and preach. If God created us all, he loves unconditionally and universally. I cannot imagine a 'Jesus' who would — as apparently, in an institutional context, Pell said he did — fail to pay attention to the pain of abused children caused by someone using his name because he had other priorities. We are expected to behave as Christ did, not as haters.


Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Royal Commission, sex abuse, child abuse, Catholic Church, Safe Schools



submit a comment

Existing comments

Sometimes the truth hurts. Exposing "unSafe Schools" for what it is and exposing the same sex agenda is a good thing because it shows that our human desires (sin?) cannot override reality, but rather reality overrides our desires. For some people to try to undermine the family unit and create the illusion of "moral relativism" which destroys society (as my example above is just one example) is creating discussion and critical thinking. The more, the better. Is our biological sex determined by nature or nurture?....it's obviously the former. Is our gender different to our sex?....nope!....it's only  the subjective, post-modernist person of the "progressive" gay mindset who thinks that redefining words can somehow change reality. Since when is "progress" always a good thing anyhow? It's all just tricky word-smithing and targeting the naive young children of our society (without parental approval) because they are easy pickings. Make-believe "medical" reports just facilitate the illusion.

Neil Aitchison | 02 March 2016  

The separation of "sex" (male/female biology) and "gender" is the latest attempt to trick people - because the biological make-up of a man and a woman is so obvious, the same sex lobby has conceded that your biology (your anatomy) has either man parts or woman parts. QED. .....but now you can have "gender" which is the male/female/other that you "feel" you want to be - this is what the "unSafe Schools" program is ultimately teaching. So you can feel like you are a "man" (gender) in a woman's body (sex) or a "woman" (gender) in a man's body (sex).....or you can be both "man and woman" (fluid gender) in a man or woman body (sex).....or a "man" in a man or woman body but dressing in a woman way or visa versa.....or a "both gender" in a body that needs added hormones and body parts snipped off.....or a tuck and nip penis/breast body adaptation in a fluid-trans-intersex-hetro/homo gender. Can you imagine how totally screwed up in the head these poor children will be as they grow up through their teenage years and then have to actual "decide" what "gender" they feel like for the rest of their lives - that's right.....once the physical anatomy has been changed in their young, immature years, their bodies cannot be reversed back when they wise up and make a mature decision to be heterosexual in a God-given way.

Neil Aitchison | 02 March 2016  

If the sole aim of the Safe Schools program was to prevent bullying and to support young gay people, few would object. But when teachers are counselled that it is “heterosexist” to refer to students as “girls and boys” there is clearly another agenda. The architect of the program, Roz Ward, admits that it is part of a broader Marxist agenda. At the 2015 Marxist Conference, Ward lauded the sexual revolution introduced by the Soviet Union in 1917. However that sexual revolution proved to be a disaster for ordinary people. The liberal divorce laws drafted by wealthy bohemian, Alexandra Kollontai, saw women abandoned without support for children, millions of orphans, venereal disease in epidemic proportions, waves of brutal rapes, and more prostitution than under the Czar. By 1926 Kollontai’s sexual revolution was effectively ended by the introduction of new divorce and marriage laws. Our own sexual revolution of the sixties has led to a pornography-fuelled culture which devalues women and treats them as objects to be exploited. So why introduce policies proven to create societal chaos? In 2012, Roz Ward also bitterly opposed the Victorian government’s introduction of guards on railway platforms designed to bring order and safety for commuters.

Ross Howard | 03 March 2016  

Pell didn't say he didn't pay attention to the pain of abused children, or that their complaints weren't "interesting". He said that when he learned the full facts about Ridsdale's offences in 1976 from an article in The Age in 1994 he had no reason to go into the details of Ridsdale's abuse. (Ridsdale had by then been convicted and jailed.) But it's clear the Ridsdale story and no doubt other incidents of which Pell had by then become aware affected him - immediately he became Bishop in 1996 he set up the Melbourne Response, the first attempt anywhere in the world to address the scourge of child abuse by clergy.

Damian | 03 March 2016  

Can I suggest that we should stop using the term Jesus which I understand is the Greek translation of Yeshua.

Lee Boldeman | 03 March 2016  

Fantastic article Moira.

Anne Hilton | 03 March 2016  

I listened to Fr Corapi say that he did not condemn people with gay orientation, but they must be the same as himself, that is , celebate

R Andreas | 03 March 2016  

Ironic that there is outrage at Pell and little at the explicit sexual material proposed to children. The material in the Safe Sex is explicit to the point of abuse of young children. It is also factually wrong in many aspects. 3. SSCA material presents gender transition treatments to children as a valid, safe choice when in fact experts recommend that gender dysphoria should be treated with counselling not surgery or hormone therapy. It omits the high suicide rates after gender transition, omits the co-morbidity of mental health conditions that are not treated in transgender issues. The Safe Schools program is anything but safe. The existing anti bullying programs in the state schools are very good - have worked there many years and know this is the case. This Safe Schools program is pornography and sexual engineering masquerading as a 'safe' program.

Alice Larkin | 03 March 2016  

"poor old George Pell"? Cardinal Pell along with all those entrusted in positions of power who turned a blind eye, didn't ask the difficult questions, dismissed the weak and vulnerable, didn't seek the truth and a result failed to protect innocent children resulting in lives and faith destroyed. There is nothing 'poor' about Cardinal Pell except his conscience, which he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

Anna Summerhayes | 03 March 2016  

Thank you Moira! Your comments reflect the spirit of a Catholic College that I was privileged to work at during its establishment. I, too, believe that childhood is a time to learn about and respect other people as friends - to walk in their shoes for a while, rather than to be shielded from them and to be encouraged to judge them according to other's prejudices. For the record, the school was, at the time, regarded as a failure. Thankfully, that initial spirit still exists in that college over forty years later.

Jim Slingsby | 03 March 2016  

Thank you Moira for another excellent article. I especially liked your use of the bible as the people who seem most threatened by the 'Safe Schools' program seem to follow that text. The link to George Pell was also an interesting one I had not considered but well worth further reflection. Why religious people see the need to interfere in sexual issues is perplexing to me and especially if they have chosen a celibate lifestyle, as 'unusual' as that is.

Tom Kingston | 03 March 2016  

Attacks on the Safe Schools program remind me of the attacks on certain trade unions in the 1950s. Some of them had Communist officials, therefore they were bad, a threat to security, manipulators of the Australian Labour Party. No further argument needed. It seems to be a tactic of the conservatives to damn any progressive organisation or movement because a tiny outlier minority, indeed even one person, supports or is a member of it. In the summer of 1950 I witnessed the bullying of a hermaphroditic boy at the Kew public baths. It is an incident I have never forgotten. Nor have I forgotten the only thing I had the courage to do at the time was to leave the pool, get dressed as quickly as possible, and rush away. I agree with Moira's first paragraph entirely. I also agree there is a need for a more thoughtful and sympathetic approach to helping children come to a sense of who and what they really are and encouraging them to become the best person their talents allow them to be. Parents are the first enablers but school teachers are a close and very important second.

Uncle Pat | 03 March 2016  

Thank you Moira. I have felt absolutely sickened, aggrieved, angry and despaired once again this week as Pell reminds us all of the dangerous power, wilful blindness, arrogance of prestige. Emptiness. The sacred has again been violated. Every life is sacred. The Vatican must prosecute, ACT to uphold its own law. Cannon law has been broken, those with managerial Magesterial authority -a lot to answer for, and the rights of the child must be higher than any cardinal. No credibility, no respect. "Safe schools" is only chance to make this happen.

Catherine | 03 March 2016  

"The Bible can easily be read to find a self-serving interpretation." Interestingly, Leviticus, the often quoted source of fundamentalist biblical Christian condemnation of homosexuality, was essentially a writer of health ordinances for the ancient Israelites, rather than an Earthly mouthpiece for God. Apropos bullying, which was rife when I was at school many years ago didn't result in suicide - such seems to be a modern day created response. As with the sexual abuse issue all those years ago, parents expected their children not to be "sooks" and to get on with it. Somehow the children managed to survive. Unfortunately such a response relieved the abusers of fear of being caught and punished and indirectly promoted such abuses. Society is equally culpable as the Church or any other institution that turned a blind eye. Fortunately we have evolved into a more caring and just society in some areas. Unfortunate\y, however, evolution is a process that exists only towards the future and cannot change the past.

john frawley | 03 March 2016  

An excellent article with a brilliant conclusion. These are my thoughts exactly.

Wendy Rae | 03 March 2016  

It is about time the catholic church got rid of the ruling of celibacy. It is an antiquated idea that does not work in 2016.There are many forms of sexuality within the church and they need to be addressed before looking after the community. Contraception is mainly a female requirement and the present ruling is devastating especially for the third world . Women are needed to share in the Vatican conclave or it is no better than politicians who are wanting to build walls between people.This is a great article and thanks for writing it.

marlene bracks | 03 March 2016  

Thank you for a brilliant, considered article. Reading through the comments makes me realise how far we still have to go as a society when it comes to fully accepting, including and respecting people who vary from the gendered expectations and standards imposed by what is slowly becoming a minority of deeply conservative, angry reactionaries who are deeply out of touch with human diversity and compassion - those culture warriors who are, still, all too ready to ignore or trivialise the systemic monstering of children by institutions and the subsequent victim-blaming/disbelieving and covering-up of abuse.

Barry G | 03 March 2016  

I am one who is disgusted with the current Child Sex Abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and elsewhere but not wholly convinced that the Safe Sex Program is a wonderful thing. My suspicion is that I am not alone here. To exchange the inflexible (and often hypocritical) approach to sex and life of the Church in the 1960s for the Brave New World charted by the likes of Roz Heard is not something I would want. To my mind they are both flawed.

Edward Fido | 03 March 2016  

"We are expected to behave as Christ did, not as haters." Wow - it's wonderful that Moira has lived so long and still expects to meet people behaving like Christ. Perhaps we can expect that people should try to behave like Christ - but I wouldn't expect even a Pope to succeed. If only the Church would realise that even most people raised as Catholics think the Church is entirely, weirdly and nastily wrong about sex. A period of silence and reflection is prescribed.

Russell | 03 March 2016  

Oops! 'Safe Schools Program'. My apologies.

Edward Fido | 03 March 2016  

Anyone who did not sit through every day, hour and minute of the testimony of George Pell, has little right to comment whatsoever. Having sat through the entirety of the 4 days, it became abundantly clear to all and sundry, including the media and I think, the judge, that George Pell has indeed been disgracefully and incorrectly vilified. It became clear that the system failed, it failed as it did in schools, the YMCA, the boy scouts etc., No-one understood the concept of pedophelia until "interfering" with children was named as padophelia in the 80's. Children did not have rights until then. In fact, Georg Pell was swift in putting the whole subject on the table and dealing with it. He ought to be commended. Despite the spewing forth of bitter vitriole from the likes of David Marr, Kristine Keneally and their comrades, it appears that the media have understood, but, they watched and listened. Those who did not are simply ill-informed.

Michelle | 03 March 2016  

I am an Anglican and a priest. I just want to say (again) that the ACL does NOT speak for me, or for most of the people I know and minister to. I feel offended by their presumption to call themselves the Australian Christian Lobby. They are at best "some fundamentalists, charismatics, people-outside-the -major denominations, who presume to take a universal nomenclature." In my opinion they do NOT represent the mainstream Christian.

Stephen Clark | 03 March 2016  

George Pell is as much the victim of his own personality as he is of the system under which he has been raised. He was schooled in a system that he himself admits rejected the complaints of the child in favour of the ordained and this fault is further compounded by a personality that, to the viewer, is seemingly void of mercy and compassion. His advisors should tell him to avoid further public statements on the matter of pedophilia and stick to finance which is an area where compassion is seemingly absent from any calculations and or considerations.

Peter Hunter | 03 March 2016  

The story of the hermit (not recorded as St Anthony) is not as recounted above by Moira. What is left out is the sentence: "The hermit was certain a demon was misleading the brother (who had made the allegation-HH) and summoned the two monks." ... So, the hermit was certain the monks were NOT living in a homosexual relationship, which explains why he allowed them to sleep on the same pallet.

HH | 03 March 2016  

It would help discussion if critics of the Safe Schools program were specific in their criticisms of the program. I read through the website, including some of the associated links, and while I can see that some of it could be challenging, I did not find anything to justify the over the top comments of George Christensen or Cory Bernardi others. It is a rational and sensitive program addressing a serious concern for the welfare of young people in our schools. As for "poor old George Pell", yes, he was a product of his times and protecting his church might have been the priority over protecting the children. But he has not really (really) addressed the failure of individual church leaders (not just George) who had a duty of care for the children in their charge and let those children down.

Brett | 03 March 2016  

Very informative article by Moira Rayner. Love the quote of Pope Francis: 'They are our brothers.' Do not understand George Pell's personality at all. Would like to know more about his childhood, family (did he have brothers and sisters, a 'normal' upbringing?). I find him totally mystifying.

Meredith langford | 03 March 2016  

I second Michelle's comment.

AO | 04 March 2016  

Re literary genre of the desert naratives re eg SaintAnthony "The original texts of these desert writings are in Coptic, Greek, and Syriac. Most of the remarks and anecdotes began as oral tradition and evolved over time into a mixture of legend, quote, and sources unknown that makes a scholar’s work difficult. Many sayings remain anonymous, while others may be attributed to several speakers." Bangley, Bernard (2012-02-01). By Way of the Desert: 365 Daily Readings (Kindle Locations 56-59). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 04 March 2016  

We are all living in a sick world together. The tendency to either withdraw from it or embrace it for what it is, comes like the tides of the ocean. Faith comes amid the schools of parishioners holding hands united—I am in awe! Georgina Zuvela

Georgina Zuvela | 06 March 2016  

What has clerical criminality and episcopal maladministration (in a tiny minority of all the clerics and all the bishops of the Church) got to do with a school program that could be taught in such a way as to lead children to believe that homosexual practice is morally neutral, except that, in one case, some of the adults could have been homosexually-inclined children and, in the other, some of the children could be led to become homosexually-practising adults?

Roy Chen Yee | 06 March 2016  

Brett - were you looking at the Safe Schools Hub or Safe Schools Coalition site? Here is a link from each site aimed at the same age group: http://safeschoolshub.edu.au/for-students/5-8/safe-schools and http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org.au/all-of-us. I have a son in Year 8. For the content of the Safe Schools Hub unit there is no need, in my opinion, for parent consent. For the other, in my opinion, there is but I doubt parents are given the option.

Cathy | 07 March 2016  

God chastises those whom he loves and the Bride of Christ is supposed to be without stain. If God believes a little yeast leavens the batch, the odium that the whole of the Church is receiving because of the actions of a few may be deserved. However, to use this episode to change ancient Church teachings on the purposes of sexuality is to go overboard. After all, another Moira Rayner could easily have written another article about the failure of the powerful to protect the weak called "Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Robert Hughes, Roman Polanski, safe societies and the personhood of children."

Roy Chen Yee | 07 March 2016  

It's a shame to see this knee-jerk reaction against any query about this important program. Asking for a review, as Corey Bernardi did, isn't necessarily part of an unhealthy interest in the sexuality of children. School programs are always about helping parents to pass on commonly held values, in a way suitable to the age and needs of the child. If Safe Schools is about passing on the values of a small and non-representative group, in a way that 's age-appropriate, I'd like to know about it. I can't find the program online, either. There's a lack of transparency about all this that worries me.

Joan Seymour | 07 March 2016  

Michelle, I totally agree with you regarding the perspective you were left with after spending the whole 4 days watching Pell's testimony. I did just that and came away with the same conclusion - or perhaps lack of conclusion - that this is not about Pell. And when I watched 2 or 3 of Pell's comments replayed on the evening news, especially the one about his disinterest, I understood the problem. I am not a fan of conservative Catholicism and regard myself as progressive Catholic, but in the spirit of justice I just could not agree with the condemnation of this man.

AURELIUS | 07 March 2016  

John Frawley, are you sincerely suggesting that if someone doesn't kill themselves then everything's rosy? If you are serious about following the ordinances of the health advice of Leviticus, or whatever the ordinances given the evidence and wisdom of the day, surely you must admit that psychological consensus and the lifting of homosexuality as a crime and mental disorder is not just some leftist or modern conspiracy.

AURELIUS | 08 March 2016  

As a Christian, my awareness of Creator God is as real as the computer in front of me - just because non-Christians have not experienced the same thing doesn't make it less real, it just means that they are missing out on part of life that is available to them, but they don't want it. God's Word, the Bible is important because it provides us with the knowledge of reality as the Creator God created it and gives us insight into human nature by explaining good from bad - it's a reference point to determine "right from wrong", "good from bad", "moral from immoral", "lust from love", etc....without a reference point, you can't determine these things other than "what you make them up to be". The logical implication of making truth whatever we want it too be ("progressive moral relativism"), is that we all contradict ourselves - we all believe that "my truth is better than your truth". This is the best proof yet that a Creator God exists and that His Bible is truth (Ontological Argument). As creator, God has the authority to do what He wants with His creation including laying out the rules for living our lives.

Neil Aitchison | 12 March 2016  

Neil, I'm not sure who you regard as "un-Christian", but I don't think fundamentalist Christians have a monopoly on "the Truth", and many of their beliefs are downright delusional. That sad - I'm glad you agree that sexuality is about expressing love rather than lust, as this is something all sexual orientations have in common. It's all about loyalty and faithfulness in a relationship, not your gonads. Also in the bible I read Jesus said, "I am the Word." Not the other way around (the word is not God)

AURELIUS | 14 March 2016  

Thank you Moira, from the bottom of my heart. Yours is the voice of truth, intelligence & compassion crying in the wilderness.

Mari Broussard | 16 March 2016  

Here's a question for everyone, including Moira. How would you react to a child (someone under 18) saying they were sexually attracted to older men/women/whatever and wanted to act out that attraction?

Homonorm | 21 March 2016  

I would like to see Cardinal Pell back here in Australia to answer charges against him personally. He needs to be made accountable for his indifference and negligence.

Syd Collins | 28 October 2016  

Similar Articles

Cultures of accountability for clergy and celebrities

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 09 March 2016

If we are to make institutions safe for children, we need not only hold to account people who have presided over unsafe places, but also to address a culture that protects silence at each level of organisations, preventing complaints being made and being reported. Clergy and celebrities must not be treated as different from others, entitled to have their bad behaviour ignored. They must be held accountable to the officers and regulations of the organisation in which they work.


Abuse survivor reflects on Cardinal Pell's 'sad story'

  • Paul Coghlan
  • 06 March 2016

'It was a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.' Pell's brutal response to a question from the royal commission has provided an important point of organisational, personal and cultural reflection. As a survivor of child sexual abuse I understand the disbelief, shock and outrage that such a comment has provoked. And having conducted many organisational reviews, I know that in trying to find the origins of such responses, our understanding of how the world works expands exponentially.