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Cardinal Pell does not deserve scapegoat status

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 07, 2020

An Australian royal commission has found that Cardinal George Pell was aware of sexual abuse in the 1970s “but failed to take action.” Cardinal Pell says that he is “surprised” by that finding, and observes quite accurately that the evidence against him is very thin.

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But even if the commission’s finding is accurate—and keep in mind that it is in dispute—that finding does not justify making Cardinal Pell the scapegoat for the sex-abuse scandal in Australia. What he did (if he did it) is what most bishops did—but at the most relevant times, he wasn’t a bishop!

The abuse in question occurred in the 1970s. Cardinal Pell was not appointed as a bishop until 1987. Even then he was an auxiliary in Melbourne, acting as an assistant to Archbishop Thomas Little, rather than making policy decisions for his own diocese. He became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. The BBC report on the royal commission’s finding says that he “failed to take action” against abusers. But as a parish priest he did not have authority to take action. The worst that could be said is that he did not urge the archbishop to take action.

It is alleged that Pell was aware of abuse by the notorious ex-priest Gerald Ridsdale in the 1970s and early 1980s. But it is an established fact that the late Bishop Ronald Mulkearns of Ballarat moved Ridsdale from one parish to another to cover the abusive priest’s trail. Here the worst that can be said (and again, Pell disputes it) is that Pell, a parish priest, was aware that his superior, a bishop, had covered up abuse. Literally hundreds of Catholic priests could be indicted on the same charge.

Most of the report issued this week by the royal commission rehashes old material taken from the cardinal’s testimony before the investigative panel. In February 2016, he told the commission that he had heard reports of sexual abuse at one Catholic institution in the early 1970s. But what he heard—from “one or two students, and one or two priests”—was vague. Perhaps he should have followed up on the reports. But remember that he was not in a position of authority; he did not have the power to launch an investigation. Nor did he have hard evidence of abuse; he had only heard rumors.

“I heard that there were problems at St. Pat’s College,” Cardinal Pell recalled in his 2016 testimony. He chose to keep his silence about those problems. In much the same way, in the 1980s and 1990s, dozens if not hundreds of informed Catholics (myself included) “heard that there were problems” with “Uncle Ted” McCarrick’s handling of seminarians in the Newark archdiocese. We had no direct evidence, and the problem was not our direct responsibility, so we too kept our silence.

If young Father Pell was culpable for his silence in the 1970s, then many, many other Catholic priests are equally guilty. If he should be blamed for failing to urge bishops to take action, then the bishops are far more responsible—not simply for a passive failure to act, but in many cases for actively protecting the abusers. Cardinal Pell has already admitted to regrets about his handling of the sex-abuse crisis. But in all justice, even on the most unfriendly reading of the available facts, he does not deserve to be cast as the principal villain in a tragedy in which he was, at the most, a bit player.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 08, 2020 10:28 AM ET USA

    What we need to be asking is, "Who benefits if Cardinal Pell is shown to be guilty?" What is it exactly that the accusers are up to? Is it the Church that is really under attack and not just Cardinal Pell. If it is the Church then the accusers become obvious but it would be most helpful if the accusers could be identified as to who they represent.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 07, 2020 5:05 PM ET USA

    Test question: Which has been subject to more outrage from the Vatican? The treatment of the Church in China by the Communist Party or the treatment of Cardinal Pell by those who hate him in Australia?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 07, 2020 3:10 PM ET USA

    They want to get Pell no matter what. For the progressives, the end justifies the means.