Phil Cleary, After Pell, the questions we all need to answer, The Age

Was anyone not moved to despair, or maybe even outrage, watching Cardinal George Pell’s evidence at the royal commission on child sexual abuse? Even if Pell didn’t know, as implausible as it looks, that Father Gerald Ridsdale and a cabal of priests and brothers was systematically raping children in the 1970s and ’80s, his church’s guilt is palpable.

Why was Pell, a big strong outspoken man in his younger years, so timid when a generation of children was being terrorised by cowardly, sadistic brothers and priests? If he’d been a reserved, retiring kind of man we might have imagined he didn’t have the nerve to confront those who covered for Ridsdale and his like. But Pell is not that kind of man. He’s never flinched in a public debate about Catholic doctrine or the failings of sinners. A man of the old world, George Pell was never one to mince his words.

Yet when acting as a “consultor” to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns it seems he never asked one forthright question about why a known sadistic “sinner”, Ridsdale, was being moved from parish to parish. All the while, says Pell, those with knowledge of these crimes either lied to or failed to confide in him. Whatever the truth of what he knew, there can be no mistaking his indifference to the lives of young boys at Catholic schools. While some men in his predicament might have shed a tear for those who have suffered, the cardinal from Ballarat is made of sterner stuff. His testimony was all about survival and proving that, because he was ignorant of the crimes, he had no moral culpability.

Now that we’ve established the church’s culpability, we need to answer other, very serious questions. Why could men supposedly called to God act so sadistically? Were there reasons, other than the protection of the church’s name, that induced its leaders to protect those men engaged in a brutal misuse of power? Were some church elders burdened by what they believed were their own guilty secrets?

Just as importantly, we must ask what part notions of male entitlement played in the crimes about which Pell has been interrogated. It’s all too convenient to reduce these crimes to the acts of “evil paedophiles”, as if men weren’t committing the same crimes against women and children with impunity in the broader society.

Pell and the men who refused to name the rapists and molesters did not make their decisions in a vacuum. They acted in a social milieu where notions of male entitlement were rampant and institutions routinely belittled women and children when they cried rape. In 1974, a year after Father Ridsdale fled Apollo Bay, a man in Richmond abducted and raped a nine-year-old-girl living across from his house. He was sentenced to 15 months in jail. Six years later he would have a conviction for molesting two young girls quashed. Such outcomes reflected the flawed attitudes of the times.

In researching the crimes of men against women and children in those dark days, I’ve come to the conclusion that the institutional responses were profoundly defective, with the judicial response on many occasions as appalling as that of the Catholic Church. It is no secret to professionals working in the sector that the under-reporting of rape was chronic and that the police response was undermined by patriarchal assumptions. The inconvenient truth is that Gerald Ridsdale and his cohorts were abusing and raping children in a society whose institutions were complicit in the violence.

The Catholic Church has ample enemies among baby boomers born into a cultural setting where the old Protestant/Catholic divide provided fertile ground for prejudice. Compounding this latent antipathy is the fact that the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion has alienated many young people. It’s hardly surprising therefore that its defenders would raise the spectre of a witch-hunt against Pell and his church, a proposition a lawyer imperiously asked him to dismiss on day four of the hearing.

If only Pell had asked the lawyer in question whether she believed there’d been a witch-hunt against women and children alleging rape in the “old days”. If only he’d reminded her that the abusive brothers and priests being named in the commission were like so many other men outside the church’s jurisdiction who were also offending. Men whose lawyers used every means available to discredit victims like those who travelled to Rome to confront Pell.

Yet again a royal commission – as was the case with the 2015 Victorian royal commission on violence against women and children – has missed the opportunity to consider the institutional context of the violence and abuse it is examining. Submerged in the mire of Pell’s antiquated views and a cover-up by the church, the commission has unwittingly camouflaged the complicity of major institutions in the catastrophe of violence by men.

As a student at St Joseph’s Pascoe Vale in the mid-1960s, where Brother Keith Weston was molesting pre-pubescent mates of mine, I came to understand the consequences of assigning unbridled power to men whose sexual gratification was founded in the abuse of boys. We could so easily have concluded that it was a manifestation of homosexuality rather than something peculiar to men. Now that the women’s movement has lifted the veil of secrecy on the litany of crimes by an underbelly men in the 1970s and ’80s, there should be no such confusion.

George Pell’s contemporaries were not doing anything that unusual when they covered for Ridsdale and his lot. In fact, they were apeing the behaviour of men on the street, in the family home, in our parliaments and in our courtrooms.

These were different times, Pell told the royal commission. Unfortunately, those lawyers who queued up to expose his failings did not canvass the implications of that plea. They did not address the role their profession and the law played in silencing and marginalising abused women and children.

Until such time as we acknowledge that Cardinal George Pell speaks for a society that enshrined the rights of men at the expense of their victims, there can be no true reconciliation and we will have learnt little from this disgraceful episode.

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