The Cardinal Pell Dilemma

It was probably only a matter of time before allegations would surface that Cardinal George Pearl had been engaged in child abuse.

Predictably Cardinal George Pell has vehemently denied allegations that he sexually abused minors while a priest in Ballarat and as Archbishop of Melbourne.


 Cardinal Pell’s excuse that he is too sick travel looks like a smokescreen

The Herald Sun’s report on Friday evening claims Cardinal Pell is being investigated by Victoria Police’s Sano taskforce for committing multiple offences, by “both grooming and opportunity”.

Feeling is running very high in Victoria where Tim Minchin’s satirical song “Come home, Cardinal Pell”  has gone viral, the abuse victims are preparing to go to Rome to witness Pell’s interrogation by the Royal Commission and a crowd funding campaign to provide financial support for the trip has been wildly oversubscribed.

However, the accusations against Pell raise some important questions about the way enquiries such as commission conducted and more importantly the way the media shapes public opinion. The central problem with allegations of child abuse is that there are often no witnesses and it’s the child’s word against the alleged abuser.  This is the approach that the Catholic Church has taken for years. “You’re a mere child, how can you say that about a priest, a man of God!”

As has become apparent from victim statements at the Royal Commission, the people who have suffered the abuse are often scarred for life, both emotionally and physically and are often shattered by its social and economic effects. But the people who have been accused of child abuse are members of the most powerful, influential and wealthy organisations that the Western world has ever seen: the Catholic Church which is protected them.

In this situation,  where examples of  Catholic Church child abuse are now a global phenomenon, it’s not acceptable to cast doubt upon the allegations against priests. Every allegation must be treated seriously. In addition, people are often prepared err on the side of the victims and give them the benefit of the doubt. In all the cases so far, this has been justified.

So far the best defence that Archbishop Hart has been able to think up for his friend George Pell is “I have known George all my life and he’s not a paedophile.” Unfortunately, this is what Catholic priests have been saying about each other for generations.  At best, public opinion may see Archbishop Hart as sadly deluded, at worst, colluding to protect the guilty.


But the dilemma is that while many people would like the latest set of allegations to be true,  we need to be very careful about developing the ethos that existed when McCarthy was running his witch hunts in America.

It’s so easy to think  “If Pell were a paedophile, it would make his protection of other paedophile priests all the more damnable.  His disgrace would be complete.”

In this situation, media reports that confirm our prejudices are unlikely to be given more credence than those that do not.

You’re tempted to sympathise with Pell’s situation. But then you think about it and decide ” No.”


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