Cardinal George Pell just doesn't get it with child abuse

It has long been said that Cardinal George Pell has shown too much indulgence for child abuse in the Church on his watch. Never has this been truer than in his evidence to the royal commission this past week.

In times past, the church was notorious for corruptly selling pardons for the commission of sins; they were called indulgences. Now Pell appears to be suggesting much the same thing – a proposal to insure the Church against the expenses incurred by child abuse by priests.

This tells us, in a nutshell, everything we need to know about Pell and his baleful influence. First, his tin ear for the way his views come across. Second, his assumption that the problem is fundamentally financial. From first to last he has behaved more like an accountant than a cleric. He reveals here how deep goes his understanding that the real problem lies in the expense of legal actions against the Church.  

Third, Pell’s proposal betrays how blind he is to where the real responsibility lies. Insurance would make some sense if legal liability for child abuse were to fall on individual priests who presumably would not be able to pay them; we have car insurance because we cannot afford the costs of our own negligence in the case of a catastrophic car accident. But the real responsibility in this case rests with the institutional Church. It is difficult to see what the point of insurance would be. Very large organisations like the Church or a multi-national corporation are normally self-insurers. So Pell’s suggestion betrays either a shaky grasp of logic and law – of which the Cardinal has never before been accused – or a continuing failure to understand the role the Church played in this disaster.

Fourth, Pell again reveals how little he understands the gravity of the wrongs of child abuse. You can’t insure yourself against your own criminal conduct. What next? Burglars insuring themselves against the cost of their own arrest?  Corrupt lobbyists insuring themselves against the possibility of an ICAC finding against them? Pell fails to appreciate that child sexual abuse is criminal conduct; not some terrible accident.

Finally, Pell shows he cannot grasp the extent of the problem. Insurance – really? Who exactly would be prepared to take the risk of insuring the Catholic Church against child abuse? How high would the premiums have to be to justify the expensive payouts that would be sure to eventuate? Would any insurance company in the world think this a good market niche to enter?

In short, Pell doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the perception, the nature, the extent, the legality, or the effects of the scandals that are gripping the Church; which is, as a result, in worse odour than it has been for some 500 years. He wins all the battles and loses the wars. A little bit of fancy financial hedging won’t make it better. There has been too much indulgence all around – indulgence shown by Pell and the Church for the corruption in their ranks, and indulgence shown by the rest of the country and indeed the world for their power and breezy indifference. A royal commission was long overdue. The last time the bean-counters started to trade away the moral assets of the Church, it led to a little thing called the Reformation. Maybe it's time for ​another one.


Professor Desmond Manderson, ANU College of Law, Australian National University