ON THE same day Hollywood conferred its most prestigious prize on “Spotlight,” the newsroom drama about the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church’s complicity in the sexual abuse of children by priests, a related drama was unfolding near the Vatican itself. For hours, Cardinal George Pell, the Holy See’s treasurer and one of its top-ranking clerics, answered questions posed by an Australian commission that quizzed the cardinal on the extent of his knowledge about pedophile priests he knew decades ago.
Cardinal Pell, the most senior Australian Catholic, stayed mainly on message, the message from the Vatican for years having been one of carefully couched contrition in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the church enabled and covered up for sex abuse by clergy. “I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” said the cardinal.
But under polite and sustained grilling, the 74-year-old cardinal, who testified in Rome by video link to Australia, stumbled on several occasions, revealing the shortcomings in the church’s response to revelations of misconduct.
He referred to having heard rumors, during his years as a young clergyman, of “eccentricities” among priests teaching at Australian Catholic schools, a case of whitewash by euphemism. He pleaded a “senior moment” to explain away his failure to recall various allegations and the church’s response. While discussing a notorious priest who was widely known as a serial abuser by the early 1990s, when Cardinal Pell was a high-ranking church official in Melbourne, he said: “I didn’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t. It’s a sad story and [the extent to which it was known publicly] wasn’t of much interest to me.”
The cardinal went on to say he was kept in the dark on the wrongdoing by a lower-ranking cleric and that “There’s tendency to evil in the Catholic Church too and sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse but for good or for ill the Church follows the patterns of the societies in which it lives.”
That formulation, often heard from church officials, seeks obliquely to airbrush the church’s staggering lapses and reflects the Vatican’s ongoing failure to come fully to terms with the pattern of abuse. The fact is that the church was institutionally complicit in allowing men in positions of authority, in hundreds of dioceses worldwide, to abuse children, thereby damaging or wrecking their lives.
Even now, the church’s foot-dragging continues. While hundreds of priests have been defrocked and disciplined, bishops — the princes of the Catholic Church, sovereign in their dioceses — have only rarely been held to account, despite constant demands by victims’ groups and reformers.
Mindful of that criticism, the Vatican last summer announced that Pope Francis would establish a tribunal to judge bishops who enabled or turned a blind eye to pedophile priests. But nothing has been heard from the tribunal since, and the impunity of all but a handful of bishops remains a fact.