Screen shot of Cardinal George Pell testifying by video link from Rome to a Royal Commission in Sydney

It is a remarkable coincidence that Cardinal George Pell, one of the Vatican’s most senior figures, should be giving evidence to an Australian child abuse enquiry in the week that the Spotlight movie received an Oscar, and not long after the Pope’s safeguarding advisory body suspended one of its members.

It is also remarkable that this extraordinary confluence of events should be taking place in Lent, a time for facing past failings and sins. There is a strong sackcloth-and-ashes feel both to Spotlight, and to the evidence that Cardinal Pell is giving each night over video link from the Quirinale Hotel in Rome to the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to sexual child abuse.

The Commission is investigating the extent to which Cardinal Pell was party to decisions by bishops in Ballarat and Melbourne to shuffle paedophile priests between parishes, despite the appalling harm they committed. This is the third time that Pell has voluntarily given testimony to the Commission.

‘Dangerously indifferent’

Pell has been firm in rebutting claims that he knew or should have known about those cases but contrite about the appalling mishandling by bishops.

“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” the Cardinal told the lead counsel, Gail Furness. “The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the Church in many places, certainly in many places, has mucked things up, has let people down.”

Specifically over Gerald Ridsdale, one of the most notorious priest abusers with more than 50 victims in the 1970s-80s, the decisions taken or not taken by the then Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, constituted “a catastrophe, a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church,” Pell said.

Although he was not party to those decisions, Pell confessed, with admirable candour, that he was not inclined at that time to pay attention to rumours of priests molesting children. “If a priest denied such activity, I was strongly inclined to accept that denial,” Pell said.

Asked if, as one of the bishops’s official advisors on his so-called Board of Consultors, he was curious as to why Ridsdale was being constantly transferred, Pell admitted he was happy to take the bishop’s word that it was appropriate for him to be shifted.

“Gentle and euphemistic language … was regularly used by Bishop Mulkearns on these occasions, so that some of us were kept in the dark,” he told the Commission.

Last night he was confronted with the history of Fr Peter Searson, who tape-recorded children’s confessionals, forced them to kneel between his legs, pulled a handgun on parishioners, stabbed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children and held a knife up to a young girl’s chest while saying, “If you move, this will go through you.”

Cardinal Pell, who was an auxiliary of Melbourne at the time, said he had only recently learned of the stories, and that at the time he had not been “informed about the variety and the seriousness of the problems” by Archbishop Frank Little.

When the Commission put to him that this was an “extraordinary” position to take, Pell answered that it was an “extraordinary world” at the time, “a world of crimes and cover-ups. And people did not want the status quo to be disturbed.”

Pell’s apparent detachment has caused outrage. A well-known columnist who has previously defended the cardinal says that either he is lying or he was ‘dangerously indifferent’.

On Monday night he drew gasps of shock from a group of Australian abuse survivors who had flown over to Rome to hear the Cardinal give evidence at the Quirinale. It was when the commission chairman, incredulous, asked Pell if he had really heard nothing about Ridsdale being a paedophile, given how widespread the rumours were.

“I don’t know whether it was common knowledge or not,” Pell replied. “It’s a sad story but it wasn’t of much interest to me.”

He had recently moved to Ballarat after finishing his doctorate at Oxford and was busy managing the diocese’s education provision and teaching. “I had no reason to turn my mind to the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated,” he said.

The remarks were greeted with shocked silence, and then jeers — which have continued in an outraged Australian press, fed by indignant quotes from survivors.

The truth that has been ignored

Yet Pell has honestly named the point which consistently gets ignored in the coverage of child sex abuse, especially in relation to the Church — namely, the vast gulf of moral awareness and empathy that separates our time from the 1970s-80s.

Back then, people didn’t much know or care about child abuse. There was a generalised social silence. Victims hardly ever complained. It wasn’t seen as a police matter, and if the police were informed they tended to pass the matter onto the bishop to deal with.

To the extent it was a problem — as it was, clearly, for bishops at the time who had to decide what to do with their priests — the focus was always on the perpetrator, not the victims. It was seen as a sickness that needed treatment and time away on leave, like alcoholism, followed by rehabilitation in the form of another parish assignment. When Cardinal Pell recalls the discussion about Ridsdale being conducted in vague, euphemistic language, he exactly captures the time. The words “paedophilia” or “child sexual abuse” barely existed in common parlance.

The same euphemisms were deployed by organizations such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association which argued for the legalization of sex with under-age children, whose members (they included one of Boston’s most notorious paedophile priests, Paul Shanley) were interviewed on the media as part of a nationwide debate about the frontiers of legitimate sexual expression. To look back at such debates now is to be amazed. No one, it seems, thought of the victims. Barely anyone, it seems, imagined there were victims.

As Hugo Rifkind recalls, as recently as 1989 in the UK the late disc-jockey John Peel was so relaxed about sex with the underage that he told a funny anecdote in a newspaper interview about accidentally receiving fellatio from a 13-year-old. Nobody alerted the police or appeared even to notice.

A growing awareness

What Spotlight brilliantly draws out is the growing moral realisation that comes with embracing the point of view of the victims. But it could only happen because the reporters truffled them out, and persuaded them to speak.

Even then, few could communicate their experience. When a victim tells one of the reporters that he was “molested”, she asks him to be more specific: “the time for sanitising language is over,” she tells him, giving permission for the pain to be expressed in words hitherto avoided: rape, anal penetration, forced masturbation. At that moment, the door began to be opened on the harrowing and desperately sad hidden world of the bewildered abused child, usually poor and lonely, whose craving for affection was brutally exploited for the gratification of older men, and who carried their trauma into addiction, depression and suicide.

As the language was found, the pain could begin to be expressed — and the evaders became crusaders. That conversion took place in the Boston Globe itself, as the reporters begin to realize that it was a story that the newspaper itself had unwittingly buried. They had been given the information, but didn’t act on it, not until 2001, when an outsider — a new Jewish editor, flown in from Miami— began to see the story that no one else had wanted to  or cared to or were capable of seeing.

From evaders to crusaders

The evasion was not abnormal or pathological. It was typical and normal. It still is, in many quarters. It is normal because, on the whole, people have trouble hearing the voice of victims until they finally do.

As a society, we have barely begun to face the uncomfortable truth that anywhere between 8 and 20 per cent of British people have suffered abuse as children — something like 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders, according to a Guardian collation of different studies in an article by one of the sharpest reporters in our country. Child sexual abuse remains hidden, and silent.

Yet this knowledge seems to create barely a ripple, just as the massive 2002 Irish study which showed that 27 per cent of Irish adults had been sexually abused as children was pretty much forgotten by political and social leaders who were furiously excoriating the Church — and rightly – for its shameful cover-ups.

Of those, 60 per cent had been abused by people within their own families, and most of the rest by people within the family circle of neighbours and friends. Less than 2 per cent of the abuse had been committed by clergy.

The Globe, like the rest of Boston society (its police and judges and political leaders) was an evader. Cardinal Pell, like almost everyone at the time, was an evader. The BBC, whose dressing rooms were brazenly used by Jimmy Saville to abuse teenagers, was an evader.

Should further evidence of the Church being an evader be needed, yesterday saw the publication of a devastating report into the Pennsylvania diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, that charted the usual sad story of at least 5 abuser priests and systematic concealment over decades to protect the Church’s image. The police were part of the cover-up.

It is the same pattern, over and again, whether in the Church or in any other institution. No institution displayed awareness of the suffering of the victims of the time.

Society was deaf. We were deaf.

Now, like almost everyone in Church and society now, Pell is a crusader. So, too, are the BBC, the Boston Globe, the Vatican, the police, and the judiciary. Western society has been converted to the voice of the victim.

Conflating past and present

Yet what is missing is an acknowledgement of that moral conversion, a paradigm shift in Western society. Refusing to admit that it was all once different, we seem to want to castigate those who, back then, shared that lack of awareness.

This same displacement lies behind a consistent unwillingness to recognise that the Church — which is now the leading organization worldwide in prevention — has itself undergone that process of conversion, and is now a major part of the solution.

Yet so much reporting continues to be predicated on the assumption that “the Vatican” needs to be “made aware” of the problem, or that “the Church” needs to face up to some kind of intrinsic sickness. The interrogation of Cardinal Pell has been underpinned by this thinly veiled condescension.

What is missing from this frame is the story of what happened in the Church after the Boston crisis, as Christopher White points out. Sadly, Spotlight‘s producers have exploited the myth of the Church as an unreformed institution. Surrounded by the cast and crew in Hollywood on Sunday night, Michael Sugar issued a call for Pope Francis “to protect the children and restore the faith” — as if this is the first he has heard about the matter.

What is also missing is the way the impulse for reform first came from within the Church. The books from the early 1990s which, in Spotlight, the survivor pulls from his box, were by Catholics: Richard Sipe and Jason Berry. The latter’s crusading journalism, backed by the National Catholic Reporter, provided the first systematic attempt to document the evasion, at least a decade before the Globe became interested in the story.

As Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said, in response to Spotlight, “The media’s role in revealing the sexual abuse crisis opened a door through which the Church has walked in responding to the needs of survivors.” But it was firstly Catholic journalism that opened that door.

Avoiding displacement

The Australian enquiry into institutional responses, like the Goddard enquiry just beginning now in the UK, is necessary. We need to understand. All our institutions need to sit in sackcloth and ashes and repent their collective deafness to the voice of victims, while recognizing that they now have the benefit of an awareness of that voice their predecessors did not have.

But to move on from the crisis and to learn from it, we have to avoid scapegoating particular institutions or individuals by heaping indignation on them for their lack of past awareness. That is another symptom of the displacement activity that has long dogged this issue.

Realizing that shame and guilt and evasion brought about yesterday’s silence, we can put in place measures to ensure it can never happen again; and finally see the Catholic Church — the institution that has undergone the most radical conversion of all Western institutions — as now a leader (however imperfect still) in that field of prevention.

Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. This article first appeared on its website

Austen Ivereigh

Dr Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, is an author, journalist and commentator, who is a well-known voice on TV and radio on church affairs. From 2000-2004 he was deputy editor...