It was not even the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but there was George Cardinal Pell, truculent, embattled, irritable and defensive taking on the bowling from Victorian parliamentarians inquiring into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations.
It was not a public relations triumph - not even intended to be. One can sense, however, that Pell left thinking he had given as good as he got, and that a few of his hits reached the boundary. He has shown over and over that he simply lacks the self-awareness to know that his every appearance on the subject throws fuel on to the fire - if only because his every facial tic makes it clear that he does not get it.
No one has reached stage one of argument suggesting that Pell condoned or facilitated a culture of abuse in his dioceses. But his combativeness and what one of his critics last year described as ''a sociopathic lack of empathy'' seem to be one of the key factors guaranteeing that an array of public inquiries will continue to embarrass and humiliate the church over the next few years.
The archbishop of Sydney, previously the archbishop of Melbourne, has made it clear he is very sorry that there was any sexual abuse of children, particularly if it occurred at the hands of Catholic priests or religious or even lay teachers. The Catholic church, he admits, handled things badly when there suddenly seemed to be an epidemic of complaints of such matters about 25 years ago. Some of his (late) predecessor archbishops of Melbourne frankly handled the matter shamefully, he agrees, and what they did could be described as a cover-up. Once, however, he came to appreciate the dimensions of the problem, he acted swiftly and decisively, setting up an institutional response that embraced victims, led to the identification and punishment of abusers, and which seems, on the basis of present abuse reports, to have worked in much reducing the incidence of abuse.
Pell gave little ground, except when he blamed other bishops for early inaction or incompetence, cover-up, placing the finances and reputation of the church ahead of compassion, empathy and assistance for victims, or when he took sideswipes at a few witnesses who have directly criticised him.
His impatience with the inquisition he was facing was manifest - the more notably as several of his (presumably non-Catholic) inquisitors demonstrated basic ignorance of well-understood precepts of church governance. (The going on about palatial hotels in Rome, though a scandal in itself, was, for example, simply gratuitously anti-papistry, playing to a gallery, given that Pell was not claiming that the dioceses could not, or would not, pay damages to victims.)
There seemed a strong and consistent line to Pell's refusal to submit. This seems to be: yes, the abuse was reprehensible beyond measure, and the church, more through ignorance than ill will, seriously and culpably mismanaged its response. But it's ancient history now, and I suspect your motives in continually coming back to it.
It's ancient history, Pell suggests, because church leaders - Pell actually - ultimately addressed the problem with firm leadership, and the problem has more or less disappeared. While there are still ''historical'' cases emerging - of abuse from any time between the 1930s and the 1980s - there have been few cases come forward of recent sexual abuse. So, presumably, the church's institutional response, if belated, is working. Moreover, victims are now getting help, including damages and counselling.
In these circumstances, there's an implicit and aggressive question: so why are you still going on about it? It's bad, yes. Embarrassing, yes. Shameful, yes. We've said sorry, again and again, and we say it again. But surely we can, at least after we ''mop up'' the remaining survivors, move on, as the prime minister might put it? Or are you people harping on this simply so as to have a stick with which to beat the church, the bishops, and loyal Catholics everywhere? In that case we will fight you.
Pell seems almost oblivious of the moral authority being squandered by his legalism, or the joy given to his many enemies inside the establishment, and to news editors everywhere, every time he puts on his humble but exasperated face.
Pell is not, of course, the only Catholic bishop who has expressed irritation and impatience at the seeming determination of journalists to continually harp on the topic, or the possibility that exploitation of this point of weakness in the church might be part of some anti-Catholic plot.
Bishop Anthony Fisher did it at a press conference when the former Pope was in town – and the former (and still unreplaced) archbishop of Canberra, Mark Coleridge (now Archbishop of Brisbane), has been critical of the harping on the subject, and attacked some, including his fellow bishops, who have responded with their hearts rather than their heads. When Melbourne diocesan spokesman, he once said of Broken Rites, one of the groups whose efforts on behalf of victims have helped produce the inquiries: ‘‘They need constantly to feed the spirit of vengeance that drives them and conspires with the culture of violence, of which sex abuse is one symptom and their approach is another.’’
Of a remark that sexual abuse meant the church was facing the most serious crises in its history: ‘‘This says more of Broken Rites’ inflated and self-dramatising sense of its work than it does of the church’s history. The problem of sexual abuse is very grave, but the church has survived.’’
Later, in Canberra, Coleridge was one of the first to follow the then pope’s example of making an absolute apology to victims in his diocese. It was the better for its admission that the problem was systemic and cultural – caused in part by perverted notions of human sexuality that ran in the church. He was, in short, apologising not only for slowness to act, inadequate responses, a tendency to put the interests and reputation of the church ahead of the needs of victims, and institutional cover-up. He was promising a change of heart and approach.
It is by no means clear that the church has delivered on this promise, in Canberra or elsewhere, but it was, at least, some sign of the sort of post-abuse era of church government that non-Catholics as much as Catholics have a right to expect. And of which they see so little evidence.
The Victorian inquiry, like the inquiry in NSW into whether ‘‘a Catholic mafia’’ frustrated police inquiries in sex abuse by Catholic priests, has found Pell a willing enough witness, if only because he has examined his conscience about the matters being investigated and found himself blameless. If he seemed dismissive or aggressive towards those who made complaints, or regarded their complaints as ‘‘gossip’’ until they were substantiated, then he regrets their inability to understand his deep compassion and empathy.
Most of his fellow bishops wince every time they see him stride to the wicket, and have done their level best to have a more human, empathetic and humble representation at the Commonwealth royal commission. Pell may be the most senior Catholic statesman, but he has no authority over, and does not speak for, bishops outside Sydney, and few, if any, want him to try. (He was in Melbourne defending his record as Melbourne archbishop, before he was sent on to Sydney.)
Pell has always seen himself as the solution rather than the problem. He’s not famous for listening to advice to the contrary.
Those in the church know the church will be judged, here as well as in the hereafter, not by its ‘‘management’’ of the sex abuse disaster but by its humility, its justice to victims, and its adoption of a precept of its founder about manifesting love of God by love of the least in the community.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.