Lawyers used every tactic to avoid paying compensation to victims.
Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, has departed for Rome to take charge of Vatican finances. His last acts in Sydney involved rationalising the contradictions in his leadership style caused by the chasm between moral and spiritual leadership of his community, and legal and fiduciary management of its assets and finances. For 30 years his has been the authoritarian, cold, unfeeling, and arrogant face of the church corporate in Australia.
His brother bishops, and the heads of most Australian religious orders, will be glad to see him go. He has never been very popular with his brothers - something exemplified by the fact few have ever voted for him to be chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Colleagues think the negative publicity he engenders has been disastrous for the reputation of the church.
But a good many of those bishops rose from the ranks by exactly the same processes as Pell, and are themselves distant from their flocks for having chosen, primarily out of ambition, to be the local representatives of Rome, rather than to Rome.
Pell is on a tough management job in Rome. In business terms he may do it well, but, if he does, it will be by behaving in much the same manner that has made him so ineffective as a pastor, but so powerful as a cleric, in Australia. He will not be preaching, or exemplifying a gospel of love, but being autocratic, driven and unaccountable to those below him.
This week he copied that strange, modern ministerial style of accepting responsibility - as the person at the top - while blaming everyone else and refusing to be actually accountable.
The diocesan lawyers, questioned about their hardball, no-prisoners approach to sexual abuse litigation, insisted that they acted on detailed and specific instructions from the diocese. The tight circle of top diocesan officials surrounding Pell gave evidence that those instructions came directly from him.
Pell denied giving detailed instructions or having close knowledge of the case. He effectively called a host of senior clerics and officials liars. That's the sort of leadership which illustrates why he has had sycophants, but not followers. While mouthing words of ''regret'' at the ordeal forced upon a victim, he would not look him in the eye, though he was metres away. This man of God is very mortal.
Yet George Pell was far from the worst of the Catholic bishops in his response over the years to evidence that an epidemic of sexual abuse of children by religious began in the 1960s and carried on until the 1980s, when it slowed. But his peculiar lack of empathy, and apparent belief that everyone was harping too much on the subject, remained with him to the end. It will handicap the image of the church and its bishops here for years to come. Decades from now, even after his statue has joined other effigies of past archbishops outside St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney (and perhaps one in Melbourne), Pell will be mostly remembered as the man who did not get it. The man whose almost every action further damaged the good name and reputation of the church.
Yet he was one of the first bishops to recognise that the church had a big problem on its hands. One of the first to draw up checks and balances, and procedures to deal properly with allegations. His pioneering response, and his interventions may seem, in retrospect, too little, too late, and with too keen an eye on limiting the liability of the corporate church. But he deserves some credit for acting while other bishops, and the leaders of some religious orders, were still in denial, shuffling abusers to other places where they could resume abuse, and, in many cases covering up or staring victims, and their families, down.
But in the end, Pell must wear, or own, even, some of the criticism that others deserve more richly. It was he, for example, who told lawyers to argue that there was no such legal entity as the church or the archdiocese, and that a bishop could not be held responsible, directly or vicariously, for the misdeeds of a priest, a pastor or a teacher.
It was all a part of shameful tactics used around Australia, including Canberra. Bishops played funny buggers about which canon law entity had legal ownership or responsibility for particular functions. Lawyers used every jurisdictional, procedural and limitation-oriented point to avoid paying proper compensation to victims. It is clear, from American and Irish inquests, that some of this was part of a tactic rehearsed in the Vatican, and passed on by its local representatives, not least some of those who have been so influential in appointing such managerialist bishops at the expense of pastors and moral leaders.
Just as shamefully, as was made clear by Pell's evidence this week, some tactics were designed to send out clear signals to the ''enemy'' - lawyers willing to act for victims - that the church was not a soft target, and would strongly resist any litigation. In many cases, kind words about the church's sorrow for and embrace of the victims were suffocated by simultaneous manoeuvres to limit liability, bluff victims from knowing or exercising their rights, and to restrict damaging publicity.
All long-running institutions having power over others have a background incidence of sexual abuse, superimposed on a separate but overlapping problem of physical abuse. But it now seems to be agreed that there was a marked upsurge 50 years ago, and that it continued for about 30 years until belated responses by institutions of the church and the state forced down the incidence again.
Understanding the problem is complicated by lags before victims come forward. With abuse in Catholic institutions, as elsewhere, lags were compounded by the problems of victims in being heard and believed. Thus the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse abuse is dealing with cases from up to 50 years ago, as well as much more recent ones.
The wickedness of perpetrators goes beyond ordinary issues of paedophilia. It involves abuse of power and authority by teachers, pastors or people in special positions of trust. It is the more perverse by having being carried out by people pretending to be religious guides, often indeed in religious contexts.
All too often, hurt and lasting psychological damage was magnified by the seeming incapacity of church leaders to believe victims, or, if they did, to put as first priority, the welfare of victims ahead of the financial interests of the church, and ahead of the reputations of it and its servants. A body sometimes said to be the oldest continuing institution in civilisation seemed, inexplicably, not to know of the problem until very late. It lacked protocols and procedures for dealing with it, or for creating circumstances that made the possibility of abuse less likely and the risk of detection more likely. A church often accused of being obsessed with issues of personal sexual morality and with a Jansenist belief in mankind's intrinsic sinfulness, seemed to have little understanding of risks that it fostered and damage that festered.
Most of the worst abusers seem to have been of a generation who had grown to maturity in the decades before the opening of the windows supposed to occur at Vatican II, and in the decades before a supposed upsurge of sexual permissiveness and promiscuity in the 1960s. This is the generation of most Australian bishops. They seem to have been badly trained and ignorant about human sexuality and sin.
Thanks to external rather than internal pressure, and consequent shame, the corporate church is now having its nose rubbed in the stink of its inept response. The church's claim is that it is chastened and humbled - perhaps in the Murdochian sense. Such abuses, we must believe, will occur no more, or that if they do, will be swiftly detected and punished.
The bishops have given the appearance of extricating themselves from the processes. They have thrust media-savvy lay people or female religious to the front. But there is no sign that bishops have surrendered any ultimate absolute control over anything happening in their dioceses. Nor that the church has seriously addressed systemic problems of governance, or the lack of downward accountability of bishops to their priests, their parishioners, or the community at large.
Pell concedes a serious failure of moral leadership, by himself and many other bishops. He does not think that the church should suffer at the hands of the community.
The puzzling thing is that he clearly seems to expect that, now he has made this concession, everyone should ''move on,'' focusing instead on things that ''actually matter.''
It isn't that easy. Not for continuing Catholics so seriously let down by their leaders. Not for Catholics who have separated themselves from those leaders from sheer disgust. Nor for non-Catholics occasionally given to wondering why the Catholic Church is given by the state each year more money than is sent to the Western Australian government.
The church acquits its government money - in effect by certifying that it has spent it as promised. But it is not confronted with regulation, red tape or government inquisitiveness. Successive prime ministers - even former ministers for education such as Bill Shorten - vie with opposite numbers in promising even lighter scrutiny. The merest Aboriginal organisation receiving a grant is subject to more government and community accountability than many of the bodies, including the Catholic Church, that delivered generations of abuse to some of Australia's most vulnerable people.
The week also provided a tiny peek into Sydney archdiocesan finances. To the perhaps naive amazement of some reporters, it was shown that Pell controlled, as the effective absolute monarch over his see, assets of more than $1.2 billion, valued at cost price. The diocese had annual surpluses of up to $50 million. It seemed a lot - not least when one considers the self-conscious poverty of the primitive church, and its special pleading for public influence and funds to help the poor.
In fact, the peep was only at small bickies. The church in Australia controls about 1900 schools, 70 hospitals and hundreds of nursing homes and aged, welfare and children's institutions. It employs about 150,000 people on professional wages (whose work is supplemented by perhaps 60,000 regular volunteers). Australia-wide Catholic agencies, other than purely voluntary bodies such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, have incomes of about $6 billion a year. More than 50 per cent of this comes from government. Church agencies, pay no rates or taxes, nor do the greater proportion of them prepare balance sheets or ''profit'' and loss accounts for public consumption. Not even ordinary Catholics know the state of local church finances.
It would be a dreadful thing if the state - concerned with temporal things - were to take upon itself the duty of regulating the affairs of a voluntary mystical body that claims to speak of a Kingdom of Heaven, not of the goods of this world.
But there is no reason why that body, when it wants of or deals in material things, should not be subject to the same rules, accountabilities and duties, as the merest voluntary association, club or corporation.