Cardinal Pell’s Groundbreaking Record on Dealing With Clergy Sexual Abuse

COMMENTARY: Whatever the outcome of his appeal against his own conviction, historically he pioneered many reforms now in effect in how bishops address this issue.

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell (photo: 2016 photo, Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

In the discussion of clerical sexual abuse, Cardinal George Pell now occupies a unique place. He is in fact the highest-ranking Catholic official ever to be criminally charged with the sexual abuse of minors. Other cardinals have had allegations confirmed against them in Church processes — Theodore McCarrick of Washington, Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna — but faced neither criminal charges nor subsequent conviction to date.

The appeals-court verdict, to be delivered Wednesday morning in Melbourne (Tuesday evening in North America), is supremely important, not least for Cardinal Pell’s liberty. But the facts of the case are now widely known, and the appeals-court verdict may not change very many minds. Cardinal Pell, should the conviction be upheld, will remain a man falsely convicted in the considered judgment of many, including this writer.

Should the conviction be overturned, those who have been after Cardinal Pell — including the Melbourne police, who confessed to want to “get Pell” long before there were any allegations against him — will remain convinced that he is guilty of horrible crimes. They were convinced of that before there was any evidence and will remain convinced even if the appellate court rules that that evidence is false.

But before that story dominates the days and weeks ahead, it is important to remember that Cardinal Pell was a key figure in the Church’s sex-abuse scandals long before the current charges were made in 2017. He was, in fact, widely considered to be a pioneering reformer. The travails of the past two years have obscured that.

In two major respects, the Church universal is catching up to where Cardinal Pell was decades ago.

George Pell was named an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987 and elevated to archbishop in August 1996. Seventy-five days later he established the “Melbourne Response” for victims of alleged sexual abuse.

The Melbourne Response invited victims to come forward, established an independent body to investigate claims and provided apologies, counseling and compensation — at the time, up to $50,000 in Australian currency. (It was later increased to $75,000, and then to $150,000, after Cardinal Pell had left Melbourne.)

In recent years, particularly at the Australian Royal Commission into sexual abuse in institutions, the Melbourne Response has been criticized as inadequate and its payments too low. But at the time it was more farsighted and generous than other schemes.

Melbourne Response victims received an average ex gratia payment — meaning no legal liability was conceded — of $38,000. That was more generous than any of the various state government compensation schemes at the time, which were funded with taxpayer dollars, and so had a much greater capacity to pay.

In Queensland, the government scheme had a maximum payment of $40,000 and an average payment of $13,000; in Tasmania, the scheme had a cap of $60,000 and an average payment of $30,000; in South Australia the scheme had a cap of $50,000 and an average payment of $14,100; in Western Australia the scheme had a cap of $45,000 and an average payment of $23,000.

Much later, when the National Redress Scheme was established in 2018, following the royal commission, financial payments were capped at $150,000. The difference from the Melbourne Response, voluntarily established 20 years earlier, is a difference of degree, not kind.

It is possible to criticize Cardinal Pell’s response for not being even more robust, but that criticism would apply with greater force to everyone else on the scene at the time.

What dioceses in the United States have only set up in recent years — voluntary compensation schemes — was done 20 years ago in Melbourne.

And what is now regarded as essential, namely the use of independent lay investigators — formalized later in lay review boards in the United States — was done in Melbourne more than five years before the Boston scandals first broke.

The independent investigator looked at more than 350 complaints, upholding 97% of them. In the five years Cardinal Pell was archbishop of Melbourne, he removed 28 priests from ministry.

Why was Cardinal Pell so far ahead of everyone else on the sex-abuse file? Three reasons.

First, he genuinely finds sexual abuse by priests “abhorrent,” as he has repeatedly said. And he was inclined across the board — doctrinally, liturgically, pastorally — not to shy away from disciplinary measures.

Second, he had seen in Melbourne as an auxiliary bishop how these cases were poorly handled by his predecessor. So when he took over, he could move very quickly, already knowing how the diocese worked and where urgent attention was needed.

Third, from 1990 onwards, Cardinal Pell was a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome. It was there that some of the more notorious cases landed, and it was during the 1990s that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was moving toward major reforms on sexual abuse, which culminated in the 2001 decision by St. John Paul II to mandate that all allegations of sexual abuse of minors be reported to the CDF. Cardinal Pell would have had the benefit of knowing, in part, the global nature of the problem earlier than most.

Beyond the Melbourne Response, Cardinal Pell was a pioneer in another respect. In August 2002, now archbishop of Sydney, he was accused of abusing a boy at a summer camp in 1961. Then-Archbishop Pell subjected himself to the protocols which he had put in place for his priests; he stood aside from active governance of the archdiocese until the matter had been independently investigated by a retired judge. He was cleared and returned to active governance in October 2002.

The complaint heard from priests often since 2002 has been that measures on handling sex-abuse allegations against priests are effective and immediate. Indeed, some have criticized the “precautionary” suspension from ministry as tantamount to sentencing before trial. But there were no such measures in place for bishops. Even now, those are being worked out in the United States and around the world. Cardinal Pell subjected himself to those measures voluntarily long before anyone else and at a time when an “auto-suspension” from ministry pending investigation raised many eyebrows in Rome.

The Church today is not in the same place as Melbourne was in 1996 nor Sydney in 2002. But at the time, Cardinal Pell had an impressive record of concrete reform. That remains, whatever the appellate court rules.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

The towers of the Cathedral of Our Dear Lady are seen at night in Munich, Germany.

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