Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Cardinal Pell and the culture of silence


There was an obvious irony in the timing of Cardinal Pell's evidence to the royal commission last week, coinciding as it did with the awarding of the Oscar for best film to Spotlight, the searing expose of the Boston Church's failure in relation to its own sexual abuse crisis.

Ridsdale and PellThe Commission put the spotlight on the Cardinal in relation to what he knew and did not know about the multiple cases of sexual abuse in the Ballarat diocese while he was a young priest working there.

This was not the Cardinal's first evidence to the commission. He has been under considerable scrutiny over the John Ellis case and the Melbourne Response, his own attempt to deal with sexual abuse within the Melbourne Diocese.

The Ellis case in particular was very damaging, with contradictory evidence given by the Cardinal and key figures in his offices about who knew what and when. We are yet to see the findings of the commissioner, Peter McClellan, in relation to that conundrum.

The latest interrogation had a focus on the case of the out-of-control pedophile Gerald Ridsdale. Evidence has been received of person after person who seems to have had some knowledge of Ridsdale's offending: bishops, priests (one of whom went on to become a bishop), religious and laity.

Ridsdale was being regularly moved while then Fr Pell was on the council of consultors for the diocese; Ridsdale had a 14-year-old boy living with him in his presbytery; complaints were coming in from parents about his abusive actions.

In this whirl of rumour and concern, the Cardinal's consistent evidence is that he heard nothing at the time about Ridsdale's activities. While there were failings all around him, particularly from Bishop Mulkearns and other diocesan consultors, he is innocent of wrongdoing because he had no knowledge.

The senior counsel for the commission, Gail Furness, and the commissioner himself, have made it clear it will be the commissioner's task to determine whether this position is credible. Furness has suggested this level of ignorance is 'implausible.' This does not bode well for the final findings in relation to Pell.

Oddly, there is something plausible about the Cardinal's denials. He is adamant that he has no memory of any evidence in relation to Ridsdale. He never raised any question in relation to the multiple moves Ridsdale enjoyed. He admitted to knowing Ridsdale was a 'difficult fellow' but the nature of the difficulty was never clear to him. He was happy to take the bishop's word that the moves should take place.

What could account for this systemic blindness? There is an old scholastic axiom that 'what is received is received in the mode of the knower.' Cardinal Pell said as much in his response to first finding out about Ridsdale's tragic legacy: 'It was a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.'

Whatever the future Cardinal may or may not have been told, it is quite a different question as to what he heard. Such matters were simply not of 'much interest to me'. It is quite likely that whatever he may have been told, it was simply not considered important or significant enough to be remembered.

Of course on the final day of evidence the Cardinal attempted to 'correct' the record in relation to these words. The commissioner will need to judge whether this was a face-saving exercise after what was actually a frank admission.

Even as a young priest George Pell was clearly marked for higher things. He was a protégé of B. A. Santamaria who had a significant following among Victorian bishops and priests. He was known as a high-profile sportsman who might have gone on to higher things in AFL.

He was chosen to go to further study in Rome and then in Oxford, the first Catholic priest to complete a DPhil at Oxford since the Reformation, according to his own evidence.

He was quickly given positions of responsibility: episcopal vicar for education, running the local teachers college, being on the college of consultors for his diocese, editor of the diocesan newspaper. All his priestly life he has had important backers who have seen him rise to the highest ranks in the Vatican.

Within this trajectory there was no room for a priest who rocked the boat on clerical misconduct. To ask questions about why Ridsdale was being constantly moved, about why he could no longer remain in his various positions, was evidently not part of the plan.

Undoubtedly it was a 'sad story' and the pain of the victims was real, but 'it wasn't of much interest to me'. In the end it seems such concerns were filtered out, present but nor seen or heard.

This type of selective blindness is not that uncommon where there is a culture of abuse. It is regularly seen in families where there is sexual abuse and domestic violence. No one knows, yet everyone knows. The victim is not believed or even heard. People want a peaceful life, not to rock the boat.

In particular they want to believe the Church is a safe place to be. Sadly and tragically this was not the case in Ballarat. No one is safe until the culture of silence is broken.


Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Cardinal Pell, Royal Commission



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks Neil for your insights into this culture of silence that has been so conducive to child sexual abuse in our Church. I think another problematic factor is the absence of women in high places in our Church. No women are there to perceive what is going on and with the power to act quickly to stop such abuse. The sexist nature of our Church is also very off-putting to many or most young people. They see sexism as grossly unjust and won't have a bar of any unjust institution. Our Church needs to make celibacy optional for priests, and also ordain women as priests. I think Mary Magdalene was as close to Jesus as were Peter, James and John and could be rightly called an apostle. We are hampered by Church laws that have built up over many centuries, and by having a Church run by ageing celibate men, some of whom are out of touch with family life. Should we shred the books of Cannon Law? Jesus gave us only two commandments - to love God totally and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Our immediate priority is to help the many victims of sexual abuse.

Grant Allen | 09 March 2016  

For the past couple of weeks I haven't watched any news bulletins or read anything of Cardinal Pell's testimony in Rome. Other things took precedence. It was a 'sad story' and the pain of the victims was real but 'it wasn't of much interest to me'. Chilling words. From a churchman, of all people. I don't want to sound gloomy, but, really are there any excuses for that statement?

Pam | 09 March 2016  

Part of the problem involved in the culture of silence is that people in general, especially in previous times, wanted and clung to ideals and resisted the intrusion of sordid realities. The image of untarnished leaders was fostered by authoritative regimes, and welcomed by their followers. Newspapers recognised this and refrained from publishing less savoury items of 'news'. A trite example is that although as 'First Lady', Jacqueline Kennedy was practically a chain smoker, no picture of her with a cigarette in her hand was published. Also Leaders in that era did not welcome 'bad news', and although they no longer executed the bearer of bad news, it was accepted that such was unwelcome. It is entirely feasible that 'bad news' would not have been passed on to Cardinal Pell, but also that it would not have been welcome even if hinted at.

Robert Liddy | 10 March 2016  

Thanks, Neil. Power is a terrifying drug, and the thirst for power can have lethal effects. Pell is a classic case. I too look forward to the Commissions's report. Will the Vatican do anything about Pell? Probably not. Look at the favours heaped upon Cardinal Law..

Marcus Tee | 10 March 2016  

Well said Neil. Poignant words - 'filter' 'selective blindness' 'don't rock the boat' - common traits of perpetrators and cover-uppers and ignorers and disbelievers - resulting in longterm damaging consequences for all clerically targeted victims / survivors. It's the culture that is 'a sad story'.

Jennifer Herrick | 10 March 2016  

Yes, Robert Liddy. And in the past, even if people knew what was happening to children, there was a mistaken belief that "they're only kids - they'll get over it". Now we know better, and we know that the consequences are lifelong, and sometimes even life-ending.

Marcus Tee | 10 March 2016  

Thanks Neil for such a comprehensive article. As I traveled around the various dioceses in the 1970's and 1980's it was well known that Pell was on the upward movement. At that time in prevailing church culture if one intended to attain high office it was vital not to 'rock the boat' of advocating for victims of clerical abuse and uncovering those responsible. Hopefully the church community (and other groups) have moved beyond this sad situation.

kevin treston | 10 March 2016  

Within the catholic church there are divisions and I don't mean just the divisions between male and female, young and old, clerical and lay, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, etc. The church may be a unity but it is a diverse unity. I have in mind rather the division between the powerless and the powerful, and within the latter I discern those who sought power, possessions and prestige, and those who did not but had it thrust upon them. The latter (Let's call them the naïve) tend to discard the trappings of power - possessions and prestige. They use their power for the good of the most needy. The former (Let's call them the Machiavellians) tend to hang on to the trappings and use all in their power to hang on to it e.g. getting rid of rivals or neutralising them or paying them off. Let us not be surprised that the Royal Commission has revealed the church and some of its church leaders be an arena of interacting and challenging power groups, factions and allies. Turning a blind eye. Cocking a deaf ear. Speaking with a forked tongue. All part of the tactics.

Uncle Pat | 10 March 2016  

Thank you for the insight, Neil Omerod. Perhaps now I can glimpse a notion of Pell in the midst of this pervasive culture of silence. Even if it explains his inaction, does it justify it?

Bob GROVES | 10 March 2016  

Father (later Archbishop) Eric D'Arcy graduated D.Phil from Oxford in the early 1960s, ten years before Cardinal Pell. I find it hard to believe the Cardinal was not aware of this.

Bill Uren | 10 March 2016  

Secrets and silence were part of the culture of that age. An unplanned pregnancy in our family that led to the baby being adopted, resulted in my parents making us swear that we would never tell anybody. Sexual matters were especially hidden and hushed up. Normal sexual relations was barely talked about - so terrible situations of sexual abuse were even more energetically hidden. I believe Cardinal Pell. I believe him because of what I've just described and because the church had another whole layer of secretiveness. It's not an excuse but an explanation.

Michael T. | 10 March 2016  

I agree with Neil’s comment that within Pell’s trajectory, “there was no room for a priest who rocked the boat on clerical misconduct.” This is obvious from his decision to launch the Melbourne Response a few weeks before Towards Healing. The one significant difference between the two protocols is that the Melbourne Response had no provision for reporting to the police, whereas Towards Healing did, and conflicted with the pontifical secret over all allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children, imposed by the Instruction of Pope Paul VI, Secreta Continere of 1974. Pell was a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1990 to 2000, and must have been well aware of the publicly stated attitude of the Roman Curia toward reporting – bishops should prefer to go to jail rather than report a paedophile priest. The wish not to rock the boat had nothing to do with not remembering, but everything to do with making sure that the scandal never got out. Shifting Ridsdale and Ryan and trying to cure them was what was required by canon law – and Bishop Mulkearns was a canon lawyer.

Kieran Tapsell | 11 March 2016  

There's another aphorism that applies: There's none so deaf as those that don't want to hear.

Amica | 11 March 2016  

Oddly though, and contrary to the flavour of your piece, Pell was the impetus behind the Melbourne response of 1996, the first institutional acknowledgment of, and response to, abuse of children in care in Australia, and indeed, the world. His position is similar to that of Mark Scott, head of the ABC, Also head of the Board of Knox Grammar for many years, and part of the school community, yet we seem to be happy to believe he knew nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. Unlikely in a relatively small school community. And the defence offered by people at that school who could not deny knowledge, due to clear evidence, was the need to protect the reputation of the school, not to rock the boat. The same story up and down the land, Catholic, protestant or government run, it makes no difference. "The past is a different country, people do things differently there." Pell was the first to say "this is wrong, and something must be done about it". Or have we forgotten that?

Paul Triggs | 11 March 2016  

Thanks Neil yet another insight into the world of the Church and its male dominated hierarchy! I agree ... Women should be priests and so should any married person male or female! At least through that a real perspective and experience expertise in reality would then

Helen | 11 March 2016  

There was no evidence that Pell knew anything of Ridsdale's sexual abuses at the time Ridsdale was abusing. Furness asked Pell about an article in The Age in 1994 about Ridsdale's abuses in 1976 - which established that by then (1994) Pell knew of Risdale's abuses - and she asked whether Pell knew that others knew of Ridsdale's abuses. It was not clear what time frame Furness was referring to but Pell answered: "I didn't know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn't. It's a sad story and it wasn't much interest to me." Pell was talking about his state of mind in 1994 and the story in The Age. As he explained immediately afterwards, by then (1994) "I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated" - the "evils" being those in 1976. By 1994 Ridsdale had been convicted and jailed - there was nothing to be done about Ridsdale, he'd been dealt with. Furness understood Pell's answer perfectly well - her next question was: "In order, Cardinal, to not have the offences and misconduct of the past repeated, doesn't one need to understand the circumstances in which those offences were committed and the structure and personnel that permitted that to occur?" Pell's response was to the effect that in 1994 he was not in a position to look into and fix structural or personnel problems. But we know that 2 years later when he became Bishop of Melbourne and thus in a position to act, he did. He instituted the Melbourne Response. The suggestion that Pell's "not much interest" comment was referable to Ridsdale's abuses at the time Ridsdale was abusing, or to child abuse by clergy generally, is pure smear.

Damian | 11 March 2016  

"This type of selective blindness is not that uncommon where there is a culture of abuse". This is so true Neil. Thank you for your insights. Hopefully, my study which I wrote about on Eureka Street on 26 November 2013 (see http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/search.aspx?s=knowing+the+unknowns) will be available soon and will be of some assistance for those many adults who have experienced sexual misconduct. Thanks to the 23 women and 6 men who participated, this study will hopefully begin a discourse on this as yet undiscussed and hidden part of the whole clerical abuse issue. The Church needs to completely rethink their perceptions of such adults: they are most often not the 'consenting adults' that selective church definitions would have us accept. They were psychologically groomed and spiritually manipulated into very insidious sexualised 'relationships'. Most were highly vulnerable people even though again highly selective church definitions of 'vulnerable adults' would not agree. Half of my respondents had already been sexually abused, mostly by clerics, as children, already. Then, to make matters worse, when the so called 'relationship' ended, they were then blamed for instigating an 'affair' with a holy cleric. As has been the case with clerical sexual abuse of children, the prevailing culture of silence needs to be broken in regards to the sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, exploitation, (it comes under many names) of adults within the Church.

Stephen de Weger | 11 March 2016  

In The Age of 8 March 2016, Peter Craven states: "A lot of people seem to want Pell to bear personal responsibility for the sins of the Church, sins against the innocent which have ruined lives, for no better reason than that they don't like him. It's ironic but it's precisely because Pell was a tough customer that he was liable to be left in the dark. As he indicated to Bolt (never mind that you hate Bolt too), a lot of people in the Church couldn't stand him, both before and after his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne." Eureka Street provides evidence that a lot of people in the Church don’t like him.

Ray | 11 March 2016  

A nicely analytical article and interesting comments. One question: is there any evidence that the amount of abuse is less in churches with married clergy or women clergy?

Dr Marty Rice | 11 March 2016  

Just like the Church of England boys society , Anglican diocese Melbourne

Henry tran | 11 March 2016  

Apart fom Ballarat the ACT seems to have a high percentage of sexual abuse of children connected with the Catholic Church. Canberra has been a haven for ex religious to congregate and find work in ACT Catholic Schools especially ex Marist Brothers who have been able to hide their religious names. They have covered up for others or committed offences themselves. Now we have Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding headed by ex NSW cop Matt Casey. Casey does not find it necessary to take any notes during interviews and then refuses to provide a copy of the interview report to the person giving him the information. So much for transparency just another agency set up to obtain information to protect the church rather than assist the victims and their families. Archbishop Christopher . Healing and support of victims are not a priority in Canberra.

mother | 11 March 2016  

I thank you, Neil, for your reference to the film "Spotlight" an Oscar winner for its portrayal of Boston journalists during their lengthy investigation of Catholic clergy involved in the abuse of children and in the official church and catholic community cover up of these matters. Until reporters uncovered details of church lawyers' activity in silencing victims the number of victims was underestimated. I commend the film most highly. Gerry Costigan

Gerard Costigan | 15 March 2016  

Yes Stephen your research will lead thankfully to discussion of the yet to be recognised serious clerical abuse of targeted over 17s, seen clerically as safe targets. But let's see that discussion not just on pages such as these but in the civil and criminal courts. That's where justice may prevail.

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 11 April 2016