When the reforming Pope Francis set up an advisory council of cardinals soon after his election in 2013 and appointed, alongside his fellow liberals, the arch-conservative Cardinal George Pell, it caught the Catholic church by surprise. So did Pell’s later appointment as the pope’s chief financial adviser. But it also made sense: Pell is a bruiser and if the byzantine workings of the Vatican and its mired-in-scandal financial operation needed sorting out, then Pell could be the prelate to knock heads together.
Now, though, Pope Francis may well regret his choice of attack-dog-in-chief. For Australian Pell’s place at the side of the pontiff has brought the church’s child sex abuse scandal right into the heart of the Vatican. Cardinal Pell has been charged with alleged historical sexual assaults on children.
Police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a rural priest 40 years ago, have not specified the charges made against the cardinal, the ages of the alleged victims or when the abuse was said to have taken place.
Pell says he is innocent and has said he will return home to Australia to defend himself – a turnaround from last year when he refused to fly home to give evidence to the Australian royal commission into child abuse, saying he was too sick to do so. Instead he gave evidence via a video link in a hotel room in Rome, an event that became a media circus with victims of sexual abuse flying to Rome to protest.
That event was embarrassing for Pope Francis, who has professed zero tolerance over abuse, although he has been careful not to make judgments before the commission or the courts do so. But criminal charges against a key adviser are even worse.
The Catholic abuse scandal is a worldwide one, and has led to disturbing cases being exposed not only in Australia, but also the US, Ireland, Germany and Britain. There are common denominators when it comes to how the church has dealt with cases: the victims are often traduced, the focus is put on the distress of the accused rather than on the victims, and the church strives to cover up the scandal, concerned above all about its own position and standing.
This came through strongly in the Boston sex abuse scandal, highlighted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which rocked the strongly Irish-American Catholic city. Then the scandal was exposed by Boston Globe journalists, who discovered a systemic cover-up involving the Catholic church and lawyers. Cardinal Bernard Law was accused of actively participating in the concealing of assaults by paedophile priests. He resigned in 2002 and it has taken the church years in Boston to repair the damage done there, not only by the assaults but by the cover-ups.
As Fr Klaus Mertes, a German Jesuit who has studied the church’s handling of abuse cases has said, this lack of concern for abuse “is generally just as painful for the victims as is sexualised violence by an individual offender”.
This approach is not, however, unique to the Catholic church. Last week’s report into the Church of England’s handling of the Bishop Peter Ball case – Ball was convicted in 2015 of assaults on 18 teenagers and young men between the 1970s and 1990s – revealed a similar propensity among Anglicans to cover up rather than deal with the issue. The review chair, Dame Moira Gibb, said that the Church of England has “colluded [with the abuser] rather than seeking to help those he had harmed”.
Cover-ups are clearly reprehensible, but the reasons for them are unclear. It probably has much to do with a desire to avoid scandal at all costs – an approach that has spectacularly backfired for both the Catholic and Anglican churches, when eventual exposure leads to even greater scandal. They may also be swayed by insurance companies, which have often persuaded bishops to fight abuse cases all the way, rather than willingly pay compensation to the traumatised.
Some Catholics believe that the church is being targeted by those who wish to harm the institution. If that is the case, then Pell’s would be their biggest scalp, given his proximity to Pope Francis. Cardinal Law was not implicated in abuse himself; but one who did face charges was Cardinal Hermann Groër, former Archbishop of Vienna, who was stiripped of all his episcopal duties by John Paul II in 1998. But in Austria a statute of limitations meant Groer did not face state prosecutors as looks likely with Pell.
In recent years efforts have been made to improve safeguarding of children. The Catholic church in England and Wales has had child protection measures in place for some time, as has the Church of England. In the Vatican, Pope Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, although that has also been mired in controversy with victims appointed as commissioners quitting its membership.
But despite these efforts, still the cases keep emerging, with Pell’s presenting the church with the most serious test so far. No wonder, then, that the latest British Social Attitudes survey this week revealed a drop in the number of Catholics accepting church teaching on abortion and homosexuality. When an organisation has such a tainted track record on sex abuse, it loses its moral authority. Catholics certainly won’t be heeding the words of a church that rejects loving gay relationships if some members of its male-only, celibate priesthood are raping children.
The first sex abuse scandal in the church I can recall was 30 years ago, when a local paper exposed such a case in rural Louisiana, only to have the bishop pressure Catholic businessmen to withdraw their advertising. Over the years, this scandal has taken its toll primarily on the victims, and sometimes, too, on the media messengers. Now the church itself is paying the price. And so are ordinary Catholics; our trust in this institution is being tested to the limit.
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