Cardinal George Pell has died suddenly, days after commenting publicly at the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Less than four months ago, I sat directly alongside Cardinal Pell at his dining table in Rome. We laughed, philosophised and prayed – and enjoyed a particularly large gin and tonic together.
The purpose of our luncheon meeting was to discuss sport and the ongoing creation of the St John Paul II Foundation for Sport in Australia, which hopes to encourage and facilitate the return of godly values and virtues across the sporting world. It is only since then that I have begun to read the memoirs of his time in prison.
In volume one of his Prison Journal, the late Cardinal wrote: “many of us are tone deaf to the Supernatural, not tuned into any godly wavelength.”
Although we might each struggle to tune into what God might be saying to us, this truth certainly could not be attributed to Cardinal Pell.
We never discussed the topic of his court cases or his incarceration during our three-hour luncheon. However, what I did raise with him as dessert was ending was a topic very close to my and many others’ hearts, namely childhood sexual abuse.
Within an air of good food, great company and scintillating conversation, any earlier formal atmosphere had now dissipated. I turned and looked directly into the eyes of the Cardinal and shared with him that I was a survivor of extensive childhood sexual abuse. Immediately, I had his full attention, the concrete fixture of his gaze and his silence. His demeanour moved immediately into that of a concerned servant, one never experienced in the presence of a predator on children.
I mentioned to him that it was only within the realms of the Church had I been able to find any true and lasting healing from the layers of trauma experienced for three years during my late childhood.
I shared how for some time I had been running a survivors’ support network across Western Australia, one that is daily mushrooming into every state and territory of this vast nation as survivors struggle to find any meaningful resolution to their past trauma.
I thanked him on behalf of a vast number of abuse survivors for being the first church leader globally whilst Archbishop of Melbourne to hear, and to respond to, the whisper of God’s voice which led to the Melbourne Response protocol being established in 1996 to investigate and deal with complaints of child sexual abuse in his archdiocese.
Imperfect though the protocol has been judged to be compared to today’s standards, it nevertheless made public, and therefore undeniable, for the first time ever within the perimeters of the Church globally the reality that childhood sexual abuse could and did exist within ecclesial confines. Every survivor group internationally should be applauding this courageous action, not vilifying the man who set its wheels in motion.
Certainly, in Australia the Melbourne Response preceded the creation of Towards Healing, a national Church response, which further opened the door for abuse survivors internationally to come forward to tell their stories and to begin to hold Church leaders accountable.
I, and many in the survivors’ support network, have reflected on what our nation and indeed our world might look like today if Cardinal George Pell had not instigated the Melbourne Response. We will continue for a long time to be grateful to him for boldly leaving his comfort zone and for stepping into precarious territory.
In the case of Pell v. The Queen, every survivor in our network, a number of whom have been witnesses in trials against their own abusers, believed all along that Cardinal Pell could not be guilty for the crimes of which he was convicted.
We were hurt that an innocent man had been declared guilty. We are still hurt today that so many continue to believe him to have been guilty and are rejoicing at his untimely death. Sycophants we aren’t; realists we definitely are.
The baying crowds across Victoria could not be silenced until they had secured an innocent scapegoat to crucify in payment of the prevalent sexual sins of every abusive father, mother and person of responsibility across Australia’s history. They would only be satisfied once Pell was incarcerated and mocked by every media and secular outlet. As they spat upon Pell’s Christian gabardine, they got their pound of flesh – for 405 days.
Anyone who has worked within the delicate and often strenuous area of adult recovery from child sex abuse will know that the issues of transference and projection can be commonplace.
If indeed the complainant was a victim of childhood sexual abuse (and we have no reason to this day to believe that he wasn’t), then the accusatory finger was pointed unquestionably at the wrong man. This means that the complainant’s true perpetrator is most likely still to be roaming freely. That isn’t justice. Pell, therefore, not was not only the first voice to speak up for survivors, but he paid the price for injustices committed by others.
From a spiritual perspective, maybe Pell also paid the price for those who are never discovered, tried and convicted, following the path trod by his Master?
As a female friend in Melbourne, an Evangelical Christian with a doctorate in theology and much expertise in the recovery of sexual brokenness, recently shared with me about Cardinal Pell, “he has been a man of courage, singled out for such venom.”
Pell’s sudden passing should serve as a reminder to us all that none of us can know the hour when God will decide on our last breath.