Cardinal George Pell faces the media at a press conference on Tuesday. Photo: Anthony Johnson
George Pell has been a beacon for criticism over the years and even more so this week. Much of it is richly deserved. But some of it is, frankly, silly and shows a culpable ignorance (at least, if you want to be a commentator) of the Catholic Church.
George Pell is Australia's only active cardinal, but he is not Australia's chief Catholic. No one is. If there were such a position it would belong to the cardinal's close friend and colleague, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, as the chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
Each bishop of Australia's 30-odd Catholic dioceses is theoretically autonomous, answerable to the Pope, not Pell. So to say he should have done this in Newcastle or that in Ballarat is to miss the point: he has no authority there; he is the Archbishop of Sydney.
But that doesn't let him off the hook when it comes to talking about the Catholic Church in Australia. As he said in Tuesday's press conference in Sydney, he has considerable moral influence, which he uses to comfort some and discomfort others.
Pell and Hart really seem not to understand how they are perceived because they do not see themselves as part of the problem - as many in the pews and wider society do. In their eyes they are the solvers, the Hercules who cleaned out the Augean stables of entrenched clerical sexual abuse and cover-up. How else could a press conference ostensibly welcoming a royal commission spend so much time castigating others and justifying the church when the only proper response was a mega-mea culpa?
Pell was the architect of the Melbourne Response, with the help of Hart (then his Vicar-General) in 1996, and both were part of introducing Towards Healing, the abuse protocol that applies everywhere but Melbourne.
These were genuine attempts to improve the processes involved in handling complaints of clerical sexual abuse and the treatment of victims, which should be readily acknowledged. What should also be acknowledged, and which Pell and Hart find difficult to do, is that these protocols also have manifest inadequacies – not least that the church should be independently investigating crimes at all, let alone under canon law rather than Australian law.
Many inside and outside the church are calling on Pell to resign as Archbishop of Sydney. This is highly unrealistic. Pell is a combative man who relishes a fight and cannot see that he has done anything to require such drastic penitence. I think he is wrong about many things, not least his belief that the revulsion is media-driven and not shared by the public, and that the media exaggerates the problem. As I have said before, without the media nothing would have emerged, and nothing would have changed. But I understand why Pell cannot step down.
Pell is homo vaticanus, a Vatican man, almost before he is homo sapiens. Retired Sydney bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who headed the Australian church's fight against clerical sexual abuse for a decade before resigning, disillusioned, in 2004, is surely right to say the real reforms need to happen in Rome. It is the authority and power structures of the church, its deep clericalism and patriarchalism, that underpin the systems that let Catholic clergy abuse at six times the rate of all other Christian clergy put together.
Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister, put it very powerfully last year after the Cloyne Report highlighted interference from the Vatican which he characterised as an attempt to frustrate the inquiry – three years, not decades, earlier. ''In doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism ... the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation','' Kenny said.
Another aspect of Catholic ecclesial life that has been widely criticised, including by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell this week, is the sanctity of the confessional, the idea that what is revealed to a priest under the sacred rite of confession is utterly secret and cannot be revealed to anyone, even the police if it involves a crime.
Cardinal Pell repeated the doctrine emphatically on Tuesday, in a tone that said ''this is not remotely open for discussion''. He said it twice: ''The seal of confession is inviolable.'' This is so important to Catholic priests than many have said they would rather go to jail rather than break the seal.
It is easy to understand the outrage at the thought that the confessional might stand above the secular law, but I don't think the state should tackle this, for at least two reasons. First, these are personal beliefs that go to the core of the priests' faith and self-understanding, and to drive a wedge between public and private conscience is seldom wise or effective. What is the point of making martyrs of such priests?
The second is pragmatic: I don't believe that the first inkling of paedophile predation often emerges in the confessional (unless the paedophile knows he is confessing to another paedophile). I think such behaviour emerges because the victim has finally found a voice, or perhaps because rumours are swirling around the church. With all the issues a royal commission must face, this is rather a red herring.