Dr Brian Harris; Vose Principal

When a Cardinal Sins: Reflections on the conviction of George Pell

For those not in the loop (and they must be a very small number), Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of child sexual abuse, and is being held in detention while his sentence is awaited. As he is the most senior cleric in the world to be convicted of this crime, it is deeply unsettling. He could have become the Pope – having been a serious contender (though not the front runner) when Pope Benedict resigned in 2013. Until stepping down from his role at the Vatican to face trial in Australia, he was the third most senior figure in the Roman Catholic Church (far and away the largest branch of the Christian Church), so it is near impossible to over emphasise the significance of this. It could well be a stumbling block to people embracing the Christian faith for decades – for it makes a mockery of the churches claim to provide moral guidance or to have moral authority. Bottom line is simply this, your average punter will take one look at the church and say, “I might be far from perfect, but I’m certainly not that depraved.”

What are we to make of this? I ask the question mindful that I have spoken to many Christian people who find this a challenge to their own faith, making them doubt if what they have long believed is valid. Stories of abuse are corrosive to faith – eating away at it, and making people wonder who can be trusted.

Understandably people are asking if the guilty verdict is valid – noting that Pell continues to protest his innocence, and wondering if he is a victim of an angry public who wanted someone, anyone, to pay for the appalling abuse of children in far too many churches. As a high profile public figure, Pell could have been an ideal target for false accusations.

I’d be cautious about adopting this line. Of course it could be true (and I will think through the implications of that option further along), but experience suggests that it probably isn’t. We should remember that the legal system works on the assumption of innocence, and readily adopts the principle that it is better to proclaim ten guilty persons innocent than one innocent person guilty. Australian courts are not known for their harshness – indeed, the public routinely lament that they are far too lenient. In Australia if someone is found guilty, they almost always are. Furthermore, the vast majority of clergy sex offences have initially been denied – only begrudgingly admitted when the weight of evidence is overwhelming. Protestations of innocence no longer convince, they only anger, for having committed the offence, the offender refuses to face what they have done, and therefore clearly are not remorseful. Without repentance, there is no redemption.

If we then accept the courts verdict that Pell is guilty of child abuse, what does it say to those of us who seek to follow Jesus the Christ?

It certainly helps us to understand why Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for the religious leaders of his day. There is something about being a religious leader (and I speak as one) that is dangerous to ones spiritual well being. Because others assume you are godly, you can fool yourself that you are above moral critique and can easily resist all temptations. This is seriously misguided thinking.

Perhaps more dangerously, because you routinely deal with holy things, you can start to treat them lightly – their significance no longer striking you. It should be noted that Pell’s offence occurred between masses – the one finished, the next about to begin. For a busy church leader, it was one service followed by another – with a short break between. How can anyone go from conducting mass, to sexually assaulting children and straight back to conducting mass again? Only the most disturbing over familiarity with the holy can allow that. It is more than a little disturbing.

Christians have often been accused of adopting self righteous attitudes to those who do not share their faith. This has never been acceptable – but is now clearly untenable. No longer do people assume that Christians hold the high moral ground. The genuineness of our faith will need to be proven, for it assuredly will not be taken for granted. Our posture must shift from implying we already know all the answers, to carefully listening to the doubts, fears, hopes and concerns of those around us. Our listening should be prayerful, and we should accept that the best gift we  give to others is often to listen well and to pray deeply – genuinely asking God to bless them. Let’s aim to live invitationally – our lifestyle a gentle witness to the transforming power and love of Christ. When we speak, our words should match the way we live our lives. Truth to tell, we should probably have always lived like this – and if the tragedy of sexual and other abuses within the church has any redemptive edge, it is perhaps in its insistent call for us to return to the teachings of Jesus, and to follow him more faithfully – far, far more faithfully. 

While I have already indicated that I think the guilty verdict is probably correct, let me consider the possibility that it is not – and that Pell is, as he and his many supporters claim, the victim of a cynical and orchestrated attack on a high profile church leader.

If Pell is innocent, then what has happened to him is truly appalling. And yet… And yet he remains a senior representative of a church that has repeatedly failed to provide adequate protection. The dismay and rage of the public at the church for covering up so many, many abuses cannot be dismissed. If Pell is the sacrificial lamb, perhaps he can console himself that in some small way his suffering is making a modest contribution towards the healing of thousands of innocent victims, for in a round about way there is some justice in innocent suffering on the other side of the ledger.

I like to write encouraging and helpful posts. This time I don’t think this is an option. In my head I am hearing the poignant words often sung in liturgical churches, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy…


To read more from Dr. Michael O’Neil, see what he has posted from his blog onto our website.