Cardinal George Pell – his personal appearance – a real opportunity

Cardinal George Pell withdrew from his much-awaited personal appearance by at the public hearing into the Melbourne archdiocese and Ballarat diocese this week, due to a sudden exacerbation of long-standing heart condition. The move frustrated not only victims and advocates, but also the very process of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Call me naïve, but I am struggling to retain a fundamental belief in the moral rectitude of our institutions, and the compassion of those in a position of power and responsibility within them. The wealth of contentious evidence and damning allegations uncovered makes this a primal challenge, and one in which I believe I am far from alone.

Failure to respond to systemic child sexual abuse is not restricted to religious institutions; nor to the Catholic Church alone. However, allegations have been mounting about the role of the then Archbishop Pell, the integrity of the Catholic Church process, in particularly The Melbourne Response, further challenged in the recent 60 Minutes segment. Searing testimony during the last week’s public hearing into the Ballarat diocese, makes consideration of the Church’s actions, in general, and Cardinal Pell’s role, in particular, pertinent and topical.

As the President of Australia’s national organisation, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), and, as a child abuse survivor myself, I am struck by the contrast between the tenacity of victims seeking to be heard and acknowledged, and the apparent ongoing disregard, for their welfare by some of the powers that be.

The decision by Cardinal Pell, prior to his ill-health intervening, to cross-examine victims runs the very real risk of re-traumatising survivors.

The Melbourne Response, established by the then Archbishop Pell, was established as an independent body to efficiently respond to victims, lessen their suffering and provide support, compensation and justice. According to Cardinal Pell, the three main components – the Commissioners, the counselling arm and the Compensation Panel – of The Melbourne Response, were independent from the Archdiocese.

Under the scrutiny of the Royal Commission, its processes, goals and outcomes are being brought into question.

Firstly, it has been alleged that the ‘Independent’ Commissioner, Peter O’Callaghan QC, appointed in 1996, shared his instructing solicitor with the Archdiocese. Secondly, the Royal Commission’s public hearing in May heard that Peter O’Callaghan never, in his role as Commissioner, reported abuse to the police. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the Commission’s sensitivity to the need to optimise survivor psychological and physical safety, Peter O’Callaghan interviewed victims in his chambers, a daunting physical space for anyone, but especially for victims of abuse.

The role of Professor Richard Ball, the psychiatrist appointed for clinical services to victims of Church abuse, also highlights the question of independence and trust. Recent allegations about two letters allegedly written by Professor Ball on the same day, one to the paedophile priest, Father O’Donnell’s lawyer, and the second to a sentencing judge, providing conflicting information is clearly a matter of the utmost gravity.

The personal appearance of Cardinal Pell before the Commission would provide a long-awaited opportunity for him to prove that the needs of victims for justice, compassion and support are his primary concern.

One only hopes that Cardinal Pell’s ill-health will improve and he will have the opportunity to respond to all allegations made to the Royal Commission, and so right the record. If he fails to do so, one could be forgiven for believing that minimising financial and legal risk and accountability were, and still remain, key drivers for the Church, and for him, as Vatican treasurer.

If my faith, and that of so many others, in this institution and in institutions more broadly, is to be restored, the needs of victims as well as genuine compassion must dominate the words and actions of all leaders.


Help and support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse is available from the ASCA professional support line on 1300 657 380, 9am- 5pm Monday-Sunday