Pell should face up and 'fess up
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Pell should face up and 'fess up

The victims of sexual abuse say they felt stripped bare, humiliated, embarrassed, bullied, belittled and disbelieved, JUDY COURTIN writes

Valiant gentlemen,

Let us survey the vantage of the field

Archbishop George Cardinal Pell of the Sydney Archdiocese is ''certainly seen by Catholics and the rest of the national and international community as a figurehead of the church in Australia''.

Archbishop George Cardinal Pell of the Sydney Archdiocese is ''certainly seen by Catholics and the rest of the national and international community as a figurehead of the church in Australia''.Credit:Susan Wright

Call for some men of sound direction

Let's want no discipline, make no delay,

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For, lords, to-morrow is a busy day.

- Shakespeare, Richard III

The Catholic Church is nervous and preparing for battle. Legal fortifications are being erected, especially around the Sydney and Melbourne Archdioceses. Opening arguments for the defence are in position and the hierarchy is hunkering down.

Perhaps, like King Richard, the clergy offenders and their protectors are collectively dreaming of the ghosts of their victims - those who have survived and those who have died prematurely.

As Archbishop George Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Denis Hart plan their ecclesiastical battle strategy, or perhaps it is a strategy for self-survival, it is apparent they are trying to distance and isolate themselves and their archdioceses from the rest of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Calls for a Royal Commission in NSW are escalating and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations is looming.

Such threats to the church have precipitated their furtive and well-constructed reactions. Pell has recently given his imprimatur to a 4000-word document, Sexual Abuse: The Response of the Archdiocese of Sydney and a 16-page booklet, Sexual Abuse.

A major component of these documents argue that Towards Healing (a National complaints process introduced in 1996) represents ''a significant break'' with past practices by, inter alia, investigating complaints and offering a pastoral process in a non-adversarial way. This claim is fallacious.

All complaints of sexual abuse arising out of the Sydney Archdiocese and the rest of Australia (except for the Melbourne Archdiocese) are passed on to Towards Healing whose protocols require the church to respond with ''justice and compassion''. But the evidence presents a very different reality.

My research (conducted in Victoria and NSW) is based on the accounts of victims and lawyers. Some have been satisfied with the Towards Healing process, but they represent a very small minority. About 95 per cent of the victims and about 90-95 per cent of the legal representatives reported the process as abusive, highly adversarial, legalistic and traumatic.

Victims felt stripped bare, humiliated, embarrassed, bullied, belittled and disbelieved. They felt that they were the guilty ones, the ones on trial.

Double standards abound as the provision of an apology, counselling or monetary compensation is entirely discretionary. Each bishop, archbishop or head of a religious order has complete discretion in deciding whether compensation will be paid at all, and if it is, what the amount will be. One church leader may award $80,000 whilst another may award $5000 or nothing. There is no yardstick and no consistency.

Some lawyers believe Towards Healing has a policy of lobbying for victims not to have legal representation. For the unrepresented victim, this process is highly inequitable in that there are marked power discrepancies. The many victims who go through it completely alone are unfamiliar with the process, are daunted and unable to negotiate on an equal footing. Victims must return to the church that protected their abuser and they must once again confront the same authority figures.

One lawyer with about 200 clients did not know of any victims who had a positive Towards Healing experience. Another lawyer found that many of his clients came through the process with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many victims described the often-lengthy process as more traumatic than the original abuse.

There is no right of appeal or review of compensation amounts, whether paid or not. So the very element of the Towards Healing process that is replete with individual discretion is fully protected from the appeal process.

Pell's document makes other claims.

''There is no financial assistance from the Archdiocese of Sydney for legal costs for priests of the Archdiocese who are accused of crimes,'' the document says. This is disingenuous and misleading. The legal costs for clergy offenders of the Sydney Archdiocese are paid by Catholic Church Insurances Limited. This insurance company is owned by the church and exists ''to serve the church''. The technical splitting of legal hairs to further the church's defence of its handling of the sexual abuse crisis is cheap and insulting to victims and not befitting of a cardinal.

''We understand a great deal more now than even 10 years ago about the extent of the problem,'' it says.

Perhaps this is the most pompous, hypocritical and dishonest claim.

The hierarchy of the church has always known the extent of its sexual abuse problem, more than anyone else.

For decades, clergy offenders have been moved from parish to parish in Australia and overseas. For hundreds of years, Canon law has required documents relating to sexual assaults of children be kept under lock and key in secret archives.

For the Archdiocese of Sydney to feign retrospective ignorance of the extent of these hideous crimes is a malign defence.

And, ''Cardinal Pell is not the head of the church in Australia … His authority is limited to the Archdiocese of Sydney'', the document says.

Pell's authority may well be limited to the Sydney Archdiocese in a strict ecclesiastical and legal sense. But, what of his responsibilities and moral and ethical obligations? He is certainly seen by Catholics and the rest of the national and international community as a figurehead of the church in Australia. As such, he is expected to display leadership, courage and vision in relation to the church's sexual abuse crisis and not be curbed by the intricacies of the Canon and civil laws, which divvy up the church into its component parts.

Pell has clout and he commands respect. He should be on the ground with his foot soldiers shouldering the responsibility for this nationwide, execrable mess of clergy sex crimes and cover-ups.

But, while Pell has his front foot firmly planted in the tantalising papal possibilities of Rome, it seems it is not possible for this Prince of the Church to fulfil his domestic Christian duties and face up and fess up to the decades of crimes of the church - and all of the church, not just his little patch.

The battle is now well under way.

And to again borrow from Shakespeare, it will not be the ''lily-livered'' who claim victory.

It will be the victims and their families. Their integrity, bravery, stoicism, courage and truth will be the measures of their success.

Judy Courtin is a lawyer and PhD student at the Faculty of Law, Monash University.

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