Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church during a press conference into the start of a Royal Commission.

Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church during a press conference into the start of a Royal Commission. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Julia Gillard's decision to go for a royal commission into institutional sex abuse of children may have involved a calculation that it had more capacity to hurt the other side of politics than her own. That might be summarised with the observations that Australia's most visible Catholic, George Cardinal Pell, is a close friend, mentor and counsellor of the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and no one can remem-ber Pell wittingly doing Labor a favour - at least since 1955 - or missing an opportunity to benefit the Coalition.

Pell is not, of course, a sexual abuser of children, nor any sort of apologist for it. Nor is Abbott. But Pell's embattled, defensive and sometimes angry reaction to criticism of the church's response to the epidemic of child abuse - including his suggestion this week that the media were beating up on the church - could hardly have better symbolised a common suspicion that the leadership of the church was slow to act once it realised it had a big problem, failed to reach out properly to victims, and in certain respects still fails to ''get it''. Pell, when on the front foot on this subject, as opposed to Catholic issues he would prefer to be talking about, is a public relations disaster for the church.

And, some tacticians might think, the well-known reluctance of Pell to take a backward step or a back seat when under attack might accentuate the disaster at times in the political cycle when it matters. The Catholic Church may have a lot of adherents, even generally loyal ones, but it has only limited moral capital in the bank, and expending it on defending the indefensible is pretty dumb.

Abbott is instinctively, and some-times emotionally, loyal to his faith, his friends, and people who have stuck by the party in hard times, and openly fears a sectarian stitch-up in the organisation of the commission. This might well make him misjudge his responses when things get tough for Pell or the church.

Pell, after all, will not be primarily arguing his own record and his leadership of the so-called ''Melb-ourne response'' - or even, primarily, leading with a renewed message of the church's abhorrence of abuse and its special mission to protect the innocent, the vulnerable and those who have no champions. He can say and do all of that, but most of the message will necessarily be on the defensive. The attention will be on the attempts to explain how the problem developed, how an institution so big and so conscious of sin was so slow to recognise it and to devise effective protective measures, and, shamefully, how so many people, including at times Pell himself, seemed to have as much focus on the church's reputat-ion and finances, its duties of natural justice to those accused, and measures designed to keep the dirty and shame-ful secret out of the public eye, as on reaching out to, and providing help and compensation, to the victims.

Few of the church's stewards have the political or presentational skills to do this well. But few seem as bad at it as Pell. Almost everyone - in his cups even Pell himself - acknowledges the gross deficiencies in the early res-ponse by the church. The problem is that Pell, and some other bishops, think the problem was ultimately addressed, and is in effect over, apart from some mopping up. So Pell is openly exasperated when anyone, but particularly the media, harps on the subject.

Pell also seems to fail to perceive that even if the church's response has improved, it has more shame, more remediation, more acknowledgement, more contrition to come and much more penance to do before it can be said to deserve forgiveness, whether from victims, its congregation or the wider non-Catholic public.

Some of Pell's colleagues relish his discomfort, even as they, too, writhe with shame and apprehension about the inquiry. Pell may be Australia's most senior Catholic, but he is not local leader of the church, nor does he have authority outside his arch-diocese. That would involve election by his colleagues, and his arrogance has been such, he has as about as much chance of securing that as of getting Gillard to the baptismal font.

The ultimate charge against the church is not merely that it failed the victims, but that its leaders, its bishops, teachers and pastors failed the congregation in their judgment of those to whom it gave access to children, in dealing with them righteously when they offended, and in the moral and practical choices they made.

But, just as badly, they failed the Australian community. The Catholic Church does noble work in the broader community, in education, health and aged care. These days, a good deal is actually paid for by the taxpayer, even if, once, it was largely funded from the resources, pockets and muscles of the congregation. But it's more than mere money. It's legal trust, fiduciary duty and duty of care - civil powers and duties at least as important as the original charitable imperative.

Even the Pope is very critical of the bishops' failures. Very loyal Catholics, who feel very much the pain of their church's failures but want to help it win back public (and perhaps divine) confidence, must be appalled. They are no more willing than government to think that it is time to move on. A wider public may understand clerical and institutional abuse is only a fraction of the problem of sexual abuse within the home and the neighbourhood from close relations, ''friends'' and neighbours. But it will not - and should not - want to be ''realistic'' or willing all under the carpet.

Against the agony for the church, and crass political hopes that Abbott or some Liberals will make some ill-judged interventions, is the capacity for those on the defensive to create diversions, stunts and obstacles made to sound like sacred principles. Too much grandstanding around the sanctity of the confessional is likely to win ultimately for the church, not government.

The confessional does not - cannot - stand in the way of the duty of administrators to defend children. The source of knowledge may be problematic - not the duty to act.

It's hard to think God wants or expects His stewards to be triumphantly vindicated. Or even patted on the back for doing the best they could.

But why does an old cynic expect that when it comes to the more effective political, forensic, strategic and tactical tricks, the Gillard government faces a hiding?