The case of George Pell is one of the most important legal trials to be heard in modern Australian history. Not only is the Cardinal the highest ranking Catholic clergyman to be convicted of child sex crimes (with the conviction being overturned as of yesterday), he became representative of all the anger and frustration that has been mounting in the community as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Throughout the entire process, from the time police began their investigation until yesterday’s High Court ruling, I remained quiet. I declined from offering an opinion, not because I didn’t have thoughts on the matter, but because I am not privy to the truth of the allegations. The last thing I want to do is cast aspersions on someone who is coming forward as a victim of child sexual abuse. At the same time, I was also aware (through friends who work in law) that there were significant legal shortcomings with the case. These issues have come to light in the High Court and were responsible for all seven High Court Justices overturning the guilty verdict against George Pell.
I hate the abuse of children. As a Father with 3 children, the idea that there are people in the community who would commit such evil acts sickens me in the stomach. Even in writing about the subject, I can feel the temperature rising in my gut. Also, as a pastor of a church, anger is too poor a word choice to describe how I feel toward clergy who have betrayed trust and destroyed the lives of thousands of young innocence. While I loathe the idea of children being abused in any context, there is something particularly ugly about this taking place by men who claim to serve God.
In 2016 I was interviewed by journalists at The Age. I had spoken up for concerned citizens in Mentone who were bewildered that their local Parish priest remained in office even though he had been found guilty by the Melbourne Catholic ArchDiocese for mistreating young men.
When George Pell was convicted in 2019, I accepted the verdict. Yesterday, I accepted the High Court’s decision. I didn’t accept these decisions because they confirmed any prior opinions that I held. The fact remains, I do not know what happened. If we took a snapshot at the last 24 hours it appears as though everyone knows what took place.
Lest we pretend that a virus has united the country, as soon as the Court announced its findings, social media divided into two very loud and unrelenting camps. Emotions are running high and prejudices are unyielding. It is a dangerous thing for opinion makers to ignore the High Court ruling and to insist upon Pell’s guilt. The cries of vindication by some conservative voices is not pleasant either. Indeed, much of the public posturing in the last 24 hours, from Premiers to newspaper columnists and to needy musicians, has been disgraceful. It would seem that no matter the findings of Courts, we all know better. Each of us has the truth because whatever our gut tells us must be true. It is an insane way to address such important matters, but that this is the landscape Australians have created for themselves. We have judged ourselves to be the purveyors of truth telling and righteousness, and authorities can only be trusted when they support our course.
The fact remains, you don’t know what happened and neither do I. We can theorise and speculate, and we can mould the evidence according to our prior assumptions, but let’s be careful about throwing our personal judgments about in public.
I note the irony and irreconcilable nature of this following observation, but of all the commentary that I’ve read in the past day, the most gracious remarks that have been written thus far are by the complainant and by George Pell.
Sometimes, the wisest option is to suspend personal judgment and to trust the legal system. We can be thankful for our judicial system, even with its imperfections. Having said that, this inner compulsion for justice and right doing requires us to look beyond ourselves and the very best of humanmade systems, and dare to hope there is God who will judge rightly and without any error.
Psalm 7 offers this kind of hope, a comfort to victims and a warning to perpetrators,
“Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
2 or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.
3 Lord my God, if I have done this
and there is guilt on my hands—
4 if I have repaid my ally with evil
or without cause have robbed my foe—
5 then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
let him trample my life to the ground
and make me sleep in the dust.
6 Arise, Lord, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God; decree justice.
7 Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
while you sit enthroned over them on high.
8 Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
according to my integrity, O Most High.
9 Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
who probes minds and hearts.”
Leaving the George Pell case aside, there’s no avoiding the fact that the Catholic Church has a lousy record when it comes to child sexual abuse, both in the number of cases and in the ensuing cover up and protecting of guilty priests. Their history is truly appalling. While Catholic Institutions are at the fore of public attention, they are not the only ones who have been found wanting. Most Christian denominations have examples, and many other organisations (such as the Scouts) have also been found as having sexual predators in their midst.
As a result of the Royal Commission and the countless stories that are coming to light, I understand why trust in Churches has been shredded. We should be able to say of Churches, these are safe communities for families. The reality is that most Churches are amazing communities where people may come and join, and discover the most important and beautiful truths that can be known to the world; namely the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, how can we blame our fellow Aussies for doubting and for suspecting Churches of being complicit with the Devil?
For example, I was saddened by this comment that I saw today under a twitter thread belonging to Annabel Crabb. A woman said,
“Let the children come to me. Makes me ill now. It used to be my favorite page in my illustrated bible.”
How can one respond to her? There will always be people who detest Christianity because of firmed moral commitments and because of stubborn a priori epistemological beliefs, and yet when Churches shame the name of Jesus, there is something profoundly wrong. In this case, it has led a woman to doubt the goodness of Jesus’ words. I wanted to reach out to this person and say to them, you can trust the words of Jesus. He remains true and good. Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not. Take a look at the meaning of Easter to see how loving and good Jesus is. He went to the cross, he endured the shame and guilt of the world out of love to redeem the unloveable and those crying in the silence. He rose from the dead to defeat the depravity of death and evil, and to offer genuine hope of healing and new life.
This draws us back to Psalm 7. If the words of the Psalmist resonate with our inclinations and hopes for justice and for healing, then take time this week to look at where God has most vividly demonstrated his justice and love, on the cross.
Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not.