Commission hearings' trail of collateral devastation


John EllisMost of us who have worked in or near church institutions get used to a certain level of dysfunctionality: poor lines of communication, under-developed personal skills, the arbitrary use of power, the no-talk rule about controversial issues, lack of accountability and transparency, people rising above the level of their competence, and so on. In general we learn to tolerate it and work around it as best we can. At times, however, it comes together as a 'perfect storm' of dysfunctionality leading to incredibly damaging consequences for all concerned.

After listening to several hours of the Royal Commission into sexual abuse on the John Ellis case I would see this as one such occasion.

There was enormous damage done to John Ellis (pictured) in his attempts to get the Church to respond as the presence of Christ in the world. Despite repeated failures by Church authorities to deal adequately with his plight he continued to seek pastoral care, spiritual direction and finally legal mediation. It seems he wasn't recognised as a victim but as an adversary whom the Church needed to crush, a well-to-do lawyer after a pot of money. His was to be the corpse hanging outside the city gates as a warning to all who would attempt similar actions.

Damage was done to the reputations of various bit-players: John Davoran and Monsignor Brian Rayner who clearly did not have Cardinal Pell's confidence; the Cardinal's secretary Dr Michael Casey who was forced by the Commission to admit that the Church's actions were unjust; the solicitors from the Cardinal's legal team Coors who would have heard clearly the warning of Justice McClellan that saying they were following their client's instructions would be no defence. Many who faced the Commission's scrutiny emerged diminished persons.

Perhaps the major exception was Monsignor John Usher, whose humanity shone through when he sought assurance from counsel representing John Ellis that his relationship with the Ellises had not been damaged in the whole sorry affair. He was so assured and his relief was palpable.

There is the damage done to the Australian Church as a whole. This tale is one of the most de-evangelising moments in its history. What appeared as a great legal victory to be celebrated, to successfully defend against John Ellis' claim, has become the Church's millstone. The inner workings of the Church's highest authorities have been laid bare for all to see and it was not a pretty sight.

Time and again Justice McClellan was simply gobsmacked by the dysfunctionality of the inner workings of the Church. Under his forensic questioning it was clear that the claims to the Church's response to victims of clergy sexual abuse being based on compassion and justice were severely lacking in this case.

As a consequence of this legal 'victory' the Church will now be subject to legal constraints not of its own choosing in order to regulate more carefully its responses to victims of clergy sexual abuse. It is unclear where this will lead. As others more capable than I have noted there are legal difficulties in relation to insurance for, or liability in relation to others', criminal acts. But the Church's performance as a pastoral agent in such matters has been shown to be a major source of damage and may be subject to civil action as a form of malpractice.

Finally there is the damage done to Pell himself. What should have been a triumphant move to high office in Rome has been overshadowed by his role in the handling of John Ellis' claims.

Much of the attention of the Commission was directed specifically to decisions or omissions made by him: the failure to clarify the nature and amount of John Ellis' claim against the Church; the failure to attend to the psychiatric report on John Ellis' condition because he presented so well; the failure to take up any of the multiple offers of mediation from John Ellis and his legal team; the endorsement of a legal strategy of dubious legal ethics, which resulted in John Ellis being subjected to days of intensive questioning to establish what the Church had already acknowledged, that the abuse had occurred.

Also we have the irony of one of the Church's great culture warriors, who has constantly railed against secular values, adopting the most secular of all instruments, the legal system, to pursue his ends. And what ultimately were those ends? John Ellis was to be the sacrificial offering to protect the Church's assets.

Much has been made of the Cardinal's poorly delivered apology at the end of proceedings. Clearly he was tired but I think also deeply shamed by the experience. This is not how he wanted his reign in Sydney to end. And to make matters worse McClellan has made it clear the Cardinal will be recalled for further questioning in relation to the Melbourne Response. Not a happy thought to be going to Rome with.

What is the way forward? Pope Francis has pointed the way — repentance, humility, mercy. He wants Church leaders who are truly pastoral, who know the 'smell of the sheep', not careerists or culture warriors. There can be no triumphalism in a Church whose failings have been so searchingly exposed. It will take a decade or more for the Church to recover.

Neil Ormerod headshotNeil 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. His latest book is Re-visioning the Church: An experiment in Systematic-Historical Ecclesiology.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Ellis, George Pell, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse



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"Most of us who have worked in or near church institutions get used to a certain level of dysfunctionality: poor lines of communication, under-developed personal skills, the arbitrary use of power, the no-talk rule about controversial issues, lack of accountability and transparency, people rising above the level of their competence, and so on. In general we learn to tolerate it and work around it as best we can." This is a damning indictment on the culture of the churches and on all those who accept this culture.

Patrick Wright | 03 April 2014  

Neil Thank you for your measured and compassionate analysis. The church can recover if it follows in practice the words of Pope Francis. I fear it will take more than a decade as you suggest and will require a major reshaping of it's power base.

John W H Smith | 03 April 2014  

Not only "damning", Patrick Wright, but also a great enhancement of the damage already done and possibly adding to the time span for healing. Continue to tear open a wound and it will take much longer to heal. An unnecessary opening paragraph here.

john frawley | 03 April 2014  

Succinct and penetrating article. Thank you. I wonder if the Ellis case, spectacularly damaging as it is, has shifted attention too far away from the host of other cases where less gifted victims have also been treated in a thoroughly un-Christian manner?

Frank Golding | 03 April 2014  

Thank you Neil for another insightful article. You write that "this tale is one of the most de-evangelising moments in its history." I could not agree more. It is hard to proclaim the gospel when you are fearful that even if you identify yourself as a Catholic in mixed company you will be dumped on with bucket loads of righteous vitriol. If we have a spring in our step from the glow of the Francis effect the Pell effect immobilises us. I am still attempting to comprehend how the situation got to the point in which it seemed like “a good idea at the time” to crush John Ellis. This is not a case of a judgement made in one context of a decision made in another context. The idea of crushing Ellis to save assets follows the same logic of treating asylum seekers appallingly to send a message to others who may be considering it. I think it is legitimate to ask whether as a Church and as a people we have lost our way?

John Francis Collins | 03 April 2014  

Thanks for an honest summary of the events so far Neil. Another major black hole is The Second Cover Up summarised in the latest SWAG by Kieran Tapsell in his coming book on canon law, Potiphar's Wife: The Secret of the Holy Office and Child Sexual Abuse coming out in May 2014. It is a much wider problem!

Brian F Kennedy | 03 April 2014  

"His was to be the corpse hanging outside the city gates as a warning to all who would attempt similar actions." thanks to John and many others now fighting or should I say embattled, hoped for corpses are well and truly alive and will not lie down and die.

Jennifer Herrick | 03 April 2014  

Thanks for that reference Brian.

Jennifer Herrick | 03 April 2014  

There is a lesson to be learnt by lawyers also from this sorry saga. In practice as a lawyer for 50 years, I have found there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what is meant by "my client's instructions". It does not mean that the lawyer is to run the case in the way that the client wants. A lawyer's instructions means the body of factual information give to the lawyer. The lawyer is then not only entitled, but is obliged to conduct the case according to his or her professional judgement, not according to the client's wishes. This is particularly true of the obligation not to present to the court a factual hypothesis which is contrary to the factual information given. How these principles will apply in this case remains to be seen, but Justice McClellan is obviously conscious of them. Alan Hogan Kirribilli

Alan Hogan | 03 April 2014  

John Frawley, the greatest damage is to the prestige and credibility of the Church's leaders, and this article has done nothing more than expose this festering sore. The wounds of Ellis and others like him, may well heal more readily as a result of this.

JR | 03 April 2014  

'What is the way forward? Pope Francis has pointed the way — repentance, humility, mercy.' But will that be enough? Surely this is also the time for faithful disobedience, a drawing of lines in the sand, and a refusal to work with or cooperate with those who might profess repentance but who choose not to change their ways. Part of the problem that you all have is your cringing deference to all ecclesiastic authority, your willingness to remain sullenly silent, and your refusal to withdraw your cooperation from those who have not earned it. Even bishops and cardinals only control with the consent of the controlled. The fancy gear that they wear and the monopolies that they claim are nothing more than an attempt to intimidate you all. You are the Church, it doesn't belong to them. Call their bluff, imagine them naked, and see how quickly their aura of authority fades.

Ginger Meggs | 03 April 2014  

Neil Ormerod's apposite words revived a painful memory for me. In the late 1990's I visited "the North" - that is the northern parts of Ireland whence my forbears departed to Australia (not to mine for gold, but to sell grog!). In Newry, we were appalled to see a sign at the old mills and site of the town square. That sign celebrated that several weeks after one uprising had been brutally put down, the shopkeepers in the town square petitioned to have the heads of rebels removed from the pikes on the roadside as the smell and the flies were driving away all customers. In the case of the interactions between Duggan, Ellis, Pell and Corrs, Chambers Wesgarth - the putrid smell involved has most certainly deterred many "customers" from the Cardinal's business. I call it a business, because that's how the Cardinal treated his role - as a business manager interested only in the financial profit and loss.

Jim Boyle | 03 April 2014  

Trust in Catholic education and pastoral care is reserved for the parent child reciprocal relationship of trust or covenant knowing each other. This trust does not include the church helper authorised but not "entrusted" by the parent. as a participant in the process of education to be able to carry out their responsibilities in the Catholic education and pastoral care of the parents' child. Oliver Clark, Job's Trust

Oliver Clark | 03 April 2014  

Neil Omerod is making the case against Pell smaller than the facts presented to the RC. Pell is the architect of more than 20 years Inquisition of Victims, across Australia.

Helen Dawson | 03 April 2014  

John Frawley: wounds need to be debrided, necrotic tissue removed and infection eliminated for optimal healing.

patrick wright | 04 April 2014  

Thank you for this searing article, beautifully written.

Bill Dowsley | 04 April 2014  

I like John Francis Collins' equation of the logic behind the Church's treatment of victims of sexual abuse with the logic behind the Australian Government's treatment of asylum seekers.

Gavan Breen | 04 April 2014  

I liked Alan Hogan's sage comments. "The lawyer is then not only entitled, but is obliged to conduct the case according to his or her professional judgement, not according to the client's wishes." Just like any crook the Church has got the best justice money could buy, and you Alan have thankfully reminded that lawyers were complicit as were many other bodies and individuals in protecting, the "Faith of our Fathers".

Michael D. Breen | 04 April 2014  

Neil Ormerod asks what is the way forward and sadly, proposes a totally inadequate solution. The evil that the Church has done and that it has become can never be forgotten or forgiven. It is an evil institution. The revelations coming out of the Royal Commission are unbelievably shocking and on top of that we have the sordid saga of the Church's massive profiteering, in which it makes hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, all tax free, while refusing to pay compensation to people who have been abused in its care. And at the same time it uses interest on public funds, paid by State and Federal Governments for schooling, to cover compensation payments resulting from abuse cases bought against the Church. This is the sort of behavior that places in it in the same league as the worst criminal corporations and businesses. The Catholic Church should face the same fate as the big corporations that continue to plunder and destroy- the corporate death penalty. The Catholic Church has lost its social licence to operate and should be wound down as a public entity, no longer able to operate. As a long time reader and supporter of Eureka St I find it deeply disappointing that you continue to sidestep and fail to directly confront the evil that has been done by the Catholic Church (and the other religious and secular institutions).

colin penter | 04 April 2014  

Sometimes it is easier to "see" from the outside rather than from the inside. Here no one on the inside seems to have stopped long enough to take a deep breath and step outside the immediate to see it for what it was/is.

Ron Anderson | 05 April 2014  

Perhaps MR Anderson a closer look at Ellis issue also. Why would Mr Ellis enter a reported consensual adult relationship with the very person who abused him so in early life,with later radical personal and legal collateral??

Father John George | 09 April 2014  

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