Opinion: We must not accept any more self-serving bluster from the Catholic hierarchy

Peter Gogarty. Picture: Marina Neil
Peter Gogarty. Picture: Marina Neil

On the day the High Court of Australia quashed the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for child sex abuse offences, the Pope asked for prayers for those who suffer unjust sentences because "someone had it in for them" and compared them to Jesus who "was judged ferociously even though he was innocent".

While not referring directly to Pell, the Pope's comments were either ill-advised and oblivious to the deep distress they would cause to hundreds of thousands of child abuse survivors across the world, or they were deliberately chosen to be inflammatory and offensive to those same survivors. Of course, the Vatican later confirmed that the safety of children and justice for child abuse victims remained its priority.

This is not the first time the Pope has uttered a self-indulgent and deeply offensive defence of his church and clergy. In early 2019, at the start of a summit on eradicating child abuse within the church, Francis gave what was described as a defensive and "rationalising" speech - highlighting that child sexual assault occurs in many cultures and was primarily a problem for "families, relatives and husbands" and resulted from on-line pornography.

Weeks later, he labelled critics of the church as "friends of the devil" stressing that one cannot lead a life "... accusing, accusing, accusing the church. Who in the bible is called the great accuser? - the devil" he said.

A year earlier, the Pope railed against people alleging to have been abused by a Chilean priest. He referred to their claims as slander and said "the day someone brings me truth I will talk" - despite that exact priest having been found "guilty" by the Vatican of abusing young boys.

I am not the first to describe these outrageous comments as "tantrums" and in that context, his most recent utterance should not be surprising.

What though does Pell's acquittal and the Pope's behaviour mean for child protection and justice for abuse survivors? The quashing of Pell's conviction sends numerous messages - many of them unpleasant.

Since the Child Abuse Royal Commission, convictions for sexually abusing a child have actually reduced from an already abysmally low rate. Not because victims haven't come forward or prosecutors are reluctant - quite the opposite - the historic nature of most child sex abuse cases brought against members of the Catholic Church, together with the way our Criminal Justice System works, means the odds are dramatically in favour of the accused person walking free.

If his name wasn't "Pell" the cardinal would be just another statistic. In the current circumstances though, the adage that "justice" is available to those who can most afford it has never rung truer.

On top of the individual tragedies, the revelations of inquiries in various parts of the world (including our own royal commission) show that hundreds of thousands of children were abused with the full knowledge and complicity of the Catholic Church.

We must accept some things, but there are other things we should never accept, and here is a situation that cannot remain as is.

We must accept the decision of the High Court - to do otherwise would be to undermine the institution that keeps Australians largely free from injustice. We must also accept that our system necessarily includes protections for an accused person.

We cannot accept that it is business as usual for the Catholic Church.

Peter Gogarty (pictured)

That said, it is entirely appropriate that there be measured and incremental law reforms which re-balance the scales of justice in child sex abuse cases. The NSW government through Attorney-General Mark Speakman has already implemented many reforms and others are on the way. Future children will be safer as a result.

But we cannot accept that that is enough. We cannot accept that it is business as usual for the Catholic Church - that this institution has emerged largely unscathed from a world-wide scandal that would have finished any other institution.

Despite the proven conspiracy of silence, we have not seen a single successful conviction of a Catholic official for concealing child abuse.

We must not accept that the Catholic Church continue to enjoy staggering tax breaks and government grants when almost nothing about its management structure or personnel has changed.

The day after Pell was released, former NSW politician and now academic Adrian Picoli - himself a Catholic - said that if the Catholic Church was any other corporation it would not be allowed to operate in Australia.

He also said that the Pope's response to Pell's release was "diabolical" and voiced what many have argued for decades - the Catholic Church is far more interested in its wealth, power and influence than it is in protecting children.

Finally, we must not accept any more self-serving bluster from those in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that they are the victims in this sordid tragedy.

  • Peter Gogarty is a Hunter advocate for child sex abuse survivors
This story Acquittal's bitter message to abuse victims first appeared on Newcastle Herald.