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Call off the Cardinal Pell witch-hunt


Witch-hunts are not just a feature of the past. Justifiably, people are upset about the Catholic Church's failures to deal with child sexual abuse.

On Monday, I was doing my best to answer questions upfront about all manner of things from Indigenous constitutional recognition to child abuse when ABC presenter Ian Henschke from Adelaide questioned my right to deliver the homily at the funeral mass for the ex-Keating Minister Bob Collins in Darwin Cathedral eight years ago. He said 'a lot of people wonder at why you did that'.

He wanted to know if I had spoken to any of Collins' victims. When Collins died, nothing was proved against him. No one then or since has ever approached me saying they were a victim of abuse by Collins. Henschke's producer later defended the question as 'appropriate within the context of the interview and the climate we find ourselves in'. The climate is one of witch-hunt.   

I told Henschke's listeners that Collins, like anyone, was entitled to Christian burial.

In my homily, I had said, 'God alone is our judge, and God alone is Bob's judge. This is not a day for judging Bob, his political opponents or his accusers. There have been plenty of splinters and logs in evidence these past days. Putting aside the splinters and logs, we come to the table of the Lord, all of us sinners and all of us praying, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you. Say but the word and I shall be healed." We pray healing for all who have spoken for and against Bob these days.'

I doubt that Henschke would have been so brazen but for the 60 Minutes story the previous night when Peter Saunders, one of Pope Francis' hand-picked 17-member Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, expressed very adverse personal judgments about Cardinal George Pell. Many Australians are baying for Pell's blood. It's time for a dispassionate consideration of the facts.

Let me be very upfront. I am no fan of George Pell, and he is no fan of mine. It got to the stage a few years ago that he published a gratuitous defamation of me and the Jesuits. He said: 'Part of the key to understanding Brennan is that he's really not well educated in the Catholic tradition — in Catholic theology' and that with the Jesuits, Jesus 'has been almost displaced by (their) enthusiasm for social justice'.

I asked for an apology. Not only was none forthcoming, he wrote to me saying, 'I am afraid that your letter confirms my worst fears about your judgement and about the absence of a proper sense of respect for, and understanding of, things Catholic. This has nothing to do with post-graduate credentials, no reflection on your integrity, but touches on your Catholic sensibilities.'

It is time for those of us in the Church to stop paying undue deference to those who exercise ecclesiastical power in a fashion at odds with contemporary notions of transparency and equality. It's also time for all commentators to play the ball, and not the man.

George Pell's career spans three distinct periods when it comes to child sexual abuse.

Prior to 1987 when he was first made a bishop in Melbourne, he was a priest in Ballarat when Fr Gerald Ridsdale was abusing children constantly. There is no evidence that Pell had any more idea of what Ridsdale was up to at the time than did any others in the church, including journalist Paul Bongiorno who was then a priest in Ballarat.

Last week the Royal Commission sitting in Ballarat heard sworn evidence from some of Ridsdale's victims claiming that Pell later came to know of the abuse and did nothing. Pell quite rightly has indicated his willingness to return to Australia and to answer any questions under oath. We all await his evidence and the findings of the commission.  

Between 1987 and 1996, Pell was an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Frank Little in Melbourne. Pell has constantly claimed he knew nothing of abuse in those days and was therefore in no position to do anything about it. No evidence has been produced proving that Pell knew anything at that time.

If the Royal Commission concludes without turning up any such evidence, the Catholic Church needs to accept that its mode of governance until 1996 was so opaque and operated with such disregard for the wellbeing of vulnerable children that not even a cleric as senior, clever and worldly as Pell could be expected to have known what was going on.

From the first day of his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Pell went into overdrive seeking a means for dealing promptly and efficiently with abuse claims. There have been many hindsight criticisms of his efforts, but no one can fault his commitment to address the issue in a pioneering fashion when other institutions and other parts of the Church were still playing catch-up.

Pell's supporters like his Sydney successor Archbishop Anthony Fisher constantly point to Pell's achievements since 1996. But these achievements provide no answers to the questions outstanding about Pell's first two periods of clerical power.

The Catholic Church still has a long way to go in cleaning up the mess, and the Royal Commission can help. However, not even the commission is infallible. For example, what possessed Justice McClellan to put Gerald Ridsdale on public display in the witness box where he provided absolutely no credible, probative evidence, simply further traumatising his victims?

Pope Francis has set up the independently minded 17 member pontifical commission including Peter Saunders, one of two survivors of abuse who sees his role as representing the interests of survivors. Here in Australia, the bishops have ceded at least some control to the laity with Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council being able to speak fearlessly and truthfully for the Church.

We await Cardinal Pell's appearance before the Royal Commission. He should drop all threats to sue any member of Pope Francis' commission. While he calls off the defamation lawyers, his enemies should call off the witch-hunt. Let's await the findings of the Royal Commission and implement fully those findings which will justly assist past victims and all children entrusted to institutional care.

Frank Brennan SJ is the author of No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia (University of Queensland Press). This article first published in The Australian, 3 June 2015.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, George Pell, Royal Commission



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Why is it that there are none of these passionate pleas for support for the victims by the likes of the bishops - ones we can believed that is? And what's with the bishops of Australia banding together to support Pell. In doing so, they are saying that Pell is telling the truth and the victims (and Saunders) are lying. Wouldn't it have been a nice turn of events if the bishops turned around and stated their support for the likes of David Ridsdale or some of the others. No, when it comes to being brothers in Christ, some are more 'brothers' than others. All this article above does is confirm that the clericalism of the church is still living in a state of deep epistemic disadvantage, incapable, unwilling and even frightened to even begin to try to walk in our shoes, the shoes of those, as Morris West called it, who live "in the bloodied dust", you know, the ones that Jesus mixed with. Frank, you were given an invitation on another Catholic web site - I think it would be good for you to take it up. If you think Pell is being hounded, try living in the mind of an abuse victim - hounded by nightmares, psychological and financial problems, relationship problems, people rejecting them, not believing them, hating them even and bishops saying they will all die off one day and 'our' church will live on in spite of you, if they say anything at all. That's being 'hounded'. Pell's a big boy, I am sure he can take care f himself. He has the scaffolding of the mighty and wealthy church and lawyers to help as well.

Ed | 04 June 2015  

This really is about power. The church prefers victims who fit their stereotype, the ones that those in power in the church feel they can feel sorry for, can be pastoral to, thereby maintaining their position of power - the perfectly constructed victim according to THEIR definitions. Along comes some educated, strong, empowered and angry victims who (like the women in the church who are like this) threaten the very basis of clerical power to which the cleric has given up his life. These victims do not fit the stereotype; they don't bow down, they challenge and accuse and this threatens the whole psychological persona of those who have given up their lives to be in those positions of power. It threatens to disturb them to their core and they then band together against the perceived enemy. The irony of it all is that they have created those 'enemies' in the first place. And then they cry "unfair; Leave me alone". You know, we probably would if we felt we were being heard, believed and our lives were seriously being restored to some semblance of what life could have been, should have been, had we not met the abuser, and his defending church. Yes, my TH reps said they thought Pell was nice, too. God preserve us from 'nice' Catholics.

Ed | 04 June 2015  

For example, what possessed Justice McClellan to put Gerald Ridsdale on public display in the witness box where he provided absolutely no credible, probative evidence, simply further traumatising his victims? Gerald Ridsdale played a role. Justice McLellan quite rightly raised the possibility he had been coached. Certainly as Francis Sullivan has observed the Ballarat hearing produced more questions than answers.But they were extremely pertinent questions.

margaret | 05 June 2015  

Bravo, Frank! Mind you though, if I had received that letter, I think I would have been inclined to reply with a damned good clip in the ear!

john frawley | 05 June 2015  

Father Brennan's piece is timely. It is too easy to ignore fairness to all involved.

Brian Doyle | 05 June 2015  

A comment on a minor point of Fr Frank's article: The ABC journo who questioned his right to deliver the homily at Bob Collins funeral was probably not really questioning his right, but was saying "How did you have the courage to stand up and say 'This man was, and still is my friend', when every one else in Darwin was running and hiding, and pretending they had never met, let alone bent an elbow, with Bob. I have read that homily several times. We should all be grateful that there are one or two people in the Church of the courage, understanding and erudition of Frank Brennan.

Vin Victory | 05 June 2015  

Ed The Australian Bishops announed in 2012 stated in an extensive media release. "The Bishops and the religious leaders of the Catholic Church acknowledge the pain and suffering experienced by victims of child abuse and their families. Our hearts and prayers are with them and with those charged with the responsibilities of serving on the Royal Commission".

Father John George | 05 June 2015  

Frank, is the weight of adverse publicity for the Cardinal so heavy that it could constitute a legal defence on the grounds of prejudice?

John Kelly | 05 June 2015  

Brian, could you please define what you mean by "fairness to all involved".

Ed | 05 June 2015  

'It is time for those of us in the Church to stop paying undue deference to those who exercise ecclesiastical power in a fashion at odds with contemporary notions of transparency and equality. It's also time for all commentators to play the ball, and not the man.' Frank expounds on the second of these sentences but is silent about the first. George Pell, with the resources he commands, is in no risk of being burned at the stake. It's the powerless who nevertheless refuse to defer who should be the subject of Frank's concern. Pell is quite capable of looking after himself.

Ginger Meggs | 06 June 2015  

Reading the transcript of evidence from the royal commission on 28 May 2015, I continue to be very uneasy about Gerald Ridsdale having been displayed on national television over two days in a prison jump suit. See pages 8719-8721. Ridsdale had a private hearing with the chief commissioner Justice Peter McClellan. It’s not as if he was just being proofed for evidence by a member of the royal commission’s staff or by one of the counsel assisting. It would seem that Ridsdale must have given answers that surprised His Honour or which did not measure up to what he was expecting. So why was he being called? Perhaps it is my misunderstanding. But I thought the principal reason for giving the royal commission the power to conduct private hearings was to give victims, family members and their supporters the opportunity to tell their stories away from the glare of the TV cameras etc. It is an altogehter different matter for the royal commissioner to conduct a private hearing with a gross perpetrator and to then call the perpetrator before him again to give public evidence. I would have thought in the interests of natural justice and in the interests of producing probative and credible evidence from a perpetrator that it would be essential that any private questioning, investigation or discussion with a witness perpetrator NOT include the royal commissinoer who will preside at the public questioning. This may help to explain the odd questioning that then ensued. We have moved into very uncertain terrain. Here is the relevant evidence: THE CHAIR: Q. Mr Ridsdale, just before Ms Furness continues, I want to ask you this: during your life in the church and offending, did you tell lies about your conduct to people who asked you about it? A. Well, I don't remember anybody asking me about it but, if they had, I certainly would have told lies about it or minimised what I was doing. Q. Are you familiar with the principle of mental reservation? A. The principle of what, Your Honour? Q. Mental reservation? A. I can't really remember what it - I think it - I think it was something we used to talk about in priesthood, but I can't remember what it is now. Q. You used to talk about it, did you? A. I think it was part of - it's an expression that I know from the past but I can't think what it is. Q. Do you remember that it might have something to do with justifying you not telling the whole truth when asked a question? A. No, I didn't know that. Q. What do you remember the principles of mental reservation being? A. I don't know. I remember the term, but I can't remember what it was about. Q. Answer this for me: you spoke with me in a private hearing some weeks ago, didn't you? A. Yes, in Ararat when we had the private closed hearing. Q. Had you spoken to anyone about the evidence you might give in that hearing before you came to that private hearing? A. No, I've spoken to no one about it. I was told not to. Q. Since that private hearing, have you spoken to anyone about the evidence you might give in this public hearing? A. No. Again, I was told not to say anything about it. Q. Have you had any phone calls with anyone when you might have discussed the evidence? A. No. Q. Not at all? A. No, I haven't. Q. Do you have people who make phone calls to you in the gaol? A. No, no one can make a phone call to me, I have to phone out. Q. Do you have people who you regularly phone out? A. The one I would phone most regularly would be one of my sisters. Q. Who else do you phone out to? A. Occasionally I phone Father Brendan Davey. Q. Yes. A. And my solicitor, Michael de Young, when I have to. There's a Father Pat Kinnard in New South Wales that I might phone about every three or four months. My sister, [REDACTED]. Q. Since the private hearing, when you spoke with me in the private hearing, have you had visitors in the gaol? A. I forget what date - was that - could you remind me how long ago that was, Your Honour, please? Q. Do we know exactly? A. Would it be two months? Q. It would be in March some time. MS FURNESS: 17 March. THE CHAIR: Q. 17 March. Have you had any visitors in the gaol since then. A. I think the only visitor I've had since then would be a Father John McKinnon. Q. Anyone else? A. No. I don't know whether my sister [REDACTED] was here in that time; I don't think so. She was due to come last weekend but we put it off. Q. Where does Father John McKinnon come from? A. He's retired, he lives in Hamilton. THE CHAIR: Yes, Ms Furness. MS FURNESS: Thank you, Your Honour. THE CHAIR: By the way, you'll appreciate there will be a record of the people who have been to see you in gaol, don't you? A. Yes, and also the people that I've phoned. The Attorney General’s second reading speech on 13 February 2013 could not have been clearer about the intended purpose and restricted scope of the power to conduct a private hearing. No one countenanced that this would include a private session with a gross perpetrator with the royal commissioner before the commissioner then examined him in public. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told Parliament: ‘The bill will allow the chair of the commission, the Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM, to authorise a fellow commissioner to hold a private session to receive information from victims and others affected by child sexual abuse. A traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally serve as the best way to facilitate participation in the royal commission by those people affected by child sexual abuse. For many, telling their story will be deeply personal and traumatic. While we cannot know at this time how many people will wish to participate, sadly we know that this crime has affected many in our community. In order to carry out its inquiry, the private session mechanism will give the royal commission greater flexibility to directly hear from a potentially large number of people. Participants will not need to tell their accounts on oath or affirmation. These private sessions will not be open to the public and participation will be voluntary. Acknowledging the distressing nature of these personal accounts, the commissioners will be able to authorise support people to attend with witnesses giving information at a private session. Importantly, the bill will also establish protections for those giving information at a private session. These protections are in essence the same as would apply when a witness is giving evidence at a hearing.’

Frank Brennan SJ | 06 June 2015  

Could not agree with you more on the above comments. I also am not a fan of Cardinal Pell but your balanced comments are spot on....as usual....well done cheers. Michael Murray

Michael Murray | 07 June 2015  

To ‘Ed’, Margaret and Ginger Meggs, I respond: My concern is not justice for Ridsdale (though even his human dignity needs to be respected by any instrument of the state). Rather my concern is with the commission being able to adduce credible, probative evidence able to assist past victims and able to enhance the protection of all children in the future, and in a compelling manner convincing for all citizens satisfied that due process has been followed even in emotionally demanding circumstances. On the uncontested evidence, we the public are told that Ridsdale was instructed to speak to no one before he had a private session with Justice McClellan and then he was told to speak to no one after his private session with Justice McClellan and before his giving of public evidence to a commission hearing chaired by Justice McClellan. And at the public hearing Justice McClellan reminds Ridsdale that the commission has the power to investigate whether Ridsdale has received any visits in the meantime. The judge then intimates that Ridsdale has not come up to proof. Not a good look for due process, and no credible probative evidence has been produced. Not a procedure to be repeated. Private hearings for the royal commission were intended to allow victims to tell their stories safely and away from the public spotlight, and with supportive persons in attendance. I daresay the commissioner will NEVER again use this questionable legal power for a purpose so ulterior to that intended by Parliament. For the good of past victims and to maximize the prospects of winning community acceptance of his recommendations to protect vulnerable children in the future, I hope he doesn’t.

Frank Brennan SJ | 08 June 2015  

'Frank', in the context of the overall case, one which included a psychiatrist (who gave very valuable insights into the minds and realities of both victims and abusers), having an abuser appear before the public was for me, at least, an attempt to 'teach' society more about the whole structural elements of institutional, and in this case Catholic institutional abuse. As such, it was a worthwhile decision except that Ridsdale didn't give what I think many were hoping for, and perhaps the commission was hoping for - an insight into the cover-ups, the machinations of the hierarchy and its handling of abuse. I don't understand what your problem is about all this except that it must have something to do with legal machinations as well. Most of us have no insight into such a powerful body with, like the church, a power language all of its own, one which insists on its own definitions being the only ones that everyone must obey even though most don't even know what the are 'obeying' because of how such things are couched in language beyond most to understand. This is why lawyers and hierarchs need to try a different stance, one which takes the standpoint of those who have a knowledge, experience and language of their own - the victims, those with true inside information. In regards to Ridsdale being 'paraded' in prison garb, gee, I've got a windcheater just like that - I didn't even realise it was prison garb until it was pointed out. Oh yes 'Frank', you may well know that once I tried to forgive my abuser - I sent my letter via a certain other man - my attempt was completely ignored - I received no response whatsoever. I too sincerely believe that even perpetrators need to be afforded some dignity given that their perpetration is in itself an expression of the damage of sexual abuse they experienced. Thing is, because all this has become so legalistic, there is no room whatsoever for restorative justice - my abuser was kept well and truly away from me when I requested meeting him, not to attack him but to try some restorative justice. Of all human institutions, I would have thought the church would be into restorative justice, healing, and the truth being allowed to set people free. But, again, I was wrong. It's about what they accuse us of being about - money. To Fr John George - as you know, words are cheap.

Ed | 09 June 2015  

Frank, I wasn't suggesting that you were defending Ridsdale or arguing that he wasn't being treated justly. I was talking about your attitude to Pell. The headline to your article says 'call off the Cardinal Pell witch-hunt' which I interpreted to mean seeking a cessation to any 'witch-hunt' directed toward Pell. The simple point that I was making was that Pell, with the resources at his command, is in no danger of being 'burned at the stake', literally or figuratively. He has demonstrated that clearly through his implied threat to silence his critic Saunders by resort to legal action. You referred to his action as 'threats', a description with which I concur. You call on him to call off his defamation lawyers, but even if he did that wouldn't negate the intended effect of his threat already made. Pell is a bully, and that is the way he responds to anyone who challenges him. In that respect, he is similar to his mate Abbott, and many of Abbott's ministers. In my opinion, Pell needs a blood nose, and is it any wonder that many of those who have been bullied, belittled, and sold out by him would like to see it happen? Have no fear, Pell will be treated justly by the Commission, and by the state's justice system should he ever come before it. If for no other reason, the resources at his disposal will ensure that. I wish that I could be as confident that the victims of Risdale and all his mates (including all those who covered up the perpetrators and leant on the victims), will also receive justice, not just at the hands of the state, but also at the hands of the church. But I won't hold my breath.

Ginger Meggs | 11 June 2015  

Ginger Meggs: " ... Pell needs a blood nose." This sounds more like your comic strip pseudonym's antagonist, "Tiger", than it does the red-headed rascal.

John Kelly | 12 June 2015  

Well yes John K, maybe I am channeling Tiger. But I think the point that I make remains, that Pell is a bully and uses the resources to which he has access to threaten and cajole those who cross his path. He is unlikely to be harmed by what Frank calls a 'witch hunt'.

Ginger Meggs | 13 June 2015  

Ginger Meggs: Then I suggest you desist from channeling "Tiger" - after all, he was the bully of the piece. By the by, what are your grounds for alleging the Cardinal to be a "bully"?

John Kelly | 14 June 2015  

Well, John Kelly, constantly threatening people, including victims and their loved ones , with the big stick of the law, is one example (see Chrissie Foster's book as one example, and the Ellis case as another, I'm sure others can think of lots of others). One might say he is even 'hiding' behind that stick and asking them to do the bullying for him - in typical bully-fashion. The church is good at this - getting the seculars to do the dirty work for them. I've copped it this way, too.

Ed | 15 June 2015  

Good on You, Fr Frank for having the courage to speak the truth. Don't we have the presumption of innocence here in Australia. Why anyone would attack the first person in Australia to set up a process to deal with abuse is beyond comprehension. It seems that the Cardinal is the scapegoat for the anger against the church. Many Catholics are sick of the constant barrage of attacks against a good man. How long will it be before they start attacking all Catholics like the Nazi's and Communists.

Sue Martin | 21 February 2016  

Why didn't the Pope give audience with the abuse victims while in Rome? According to Cardinal Pell's testimony, he knew something was happening, but 'didn't want to turn his mind to it. So, therefore, he was aware of something.

Patricia E. Mamo | 13 March 2016  

I saw the documentary 'Mea maxima culpa' about a priest in America. the investigation had so many similarities to what was happening here, especially the Cardinal Law who was also sent to Rome. so Rome protects them from prosecution in their respective countries. Bottom line, what are we going to do about it? Need more women in the Church.

Patricia Elizabeth Mamo | 13 March 2016  

It is time for you to apologise to your followers for this article and any other comments you made defending George Pell. Sometimes a “witch Hunt” is just justice going about it’s business!

Kerry Costello | 26 February 2019