The funeral of Cardinal George Pell takes place today at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. From there he guided his flock for 13 years and often spoke fearlessly beyond its perimeters to all of Australia.
Hours before his body was received at the cathedral to lie in state, protesters had begun tying ribbons to the cathedral’s gates and fences. Protesting what? Childhood sexual abuse?
Every mainstream media outlet, especially Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, has referred ad nauseam since his death to the Cardinal’s conviction for child sexual abuse and subsequent imprisonment. And yet little mention is made of his unanimous 7-0 exoneration by the High Court.
Then there are references to the findings of The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. These allegedly show that Pell was complicit in the cover up of abuse by others — and yet these so-called allegations are shaky, even those which refer to the predator priests Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson.
Australia’s mainstream media are only narrating a fraction of the story, and in so doing are harming vulnerable people.
George Pell was a global forerunner who courageously looked the horrors of childhood sexual abuse in the eye, both domestic as well as institutional abuse.
He was the first to ensure victims were financially compensated without having to prove their abuse occurred by civil standards, let alone by criminal ones. Victims of domestic violence still do not have this opportunity.
Anyone involved in the restorative work of child sex abuse victims will know that the vast majority of abuse happens outside of institutions, within families, or by people in positions of power. These stories rarely see the light of day.
Pell’s media critics are causing victims of domestic childhood sexual abuse more harm and hardship than hope and healing through their cynical reporting about the cardinal. They are pouring additional salt into many victims’ festering wounds.
I facilitate Western Australia’s Survivors’ Support Network. An article in the state newspaper, The Sunday Times, entitled “Pell of a Mess” appeared days after the Cardinal’s death and sought to find ever reason to condemn his soul to hell. The article ended:
“There is another good fallback for those who need a sense of satisfaction at Pell’s passing, now that hell is off the table – during his 13 months in prison, the Cardinal said his least favourite part was the humiliating strip searches.”
These words cause incredible pain and harm to many survivors of child sexual abuse. They show indescribable insensitivity to the lived experiences of survivors.
Some in our network have met with Pell and were supported by him. As a result, they have blossomed and have moved away more swiftly than normal from their crippling pain. They have spoken of feeling understood, known and cared for beyond their expectations by Pell’s consistent concern. He helped them to heal. He wasn’t the horrible monster that Louise Milligan et al make a living out of by deprecating the very utterance of his name.
For these victims to speak up publicly about Pell’s integrity and generosity would mean opening a door to their family members knowing about their histories of abuse — and this is one door that many just cannot and will not push open. So they are left wounded and trying to heal from any original abuse, to often be yet further wounded by salacious articles and cheap news reports about the person who brought them hope. And once again they have no way of defending themselves.
Members of our network have to labour hard to move beyond the ingrained suffering of past abuse, rape and sexual assault. Pell understood this. He did not remain silent but reached out and helped.
For victims to read an article in which a journalist rejoices in the strip searches of an innocent man — the same man who fought their cause — brings overwhelming distress. Today, victims can at least dwell on how Pell could understand firsthand their own abuse, their own rejection and what it means to be wholly misunderstood, because he too was an innocent victim whose entire body was stripped naked, and put through humiliation and unjust imprisonment of mind, body, and soul.
As survivors, we invite all those protesting outside of Pell’s funeral, every bitter mainstream journalist, and our fellow survivors to recognise that Pell achieved more for child sex abuse victims than will be recorded on this side of eternity.
For every jeering critic on news screens, there are many more who are deeply grateful for the gift of Cardinal George Pell’s courageous and selfless life.