True contrition requires honest confession

The Catholic Church is like a quicksand victim: the more it struggles to free itself from the appalling taint of child sex abuse, the deeper it sinks into the mire.

Australia’s top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, appears a decent enough man based on his media profile. But his attempts at securing public forgiveness for the church’s sins with respect to child abuse are flimsy at best.

Oh, he utters some of the right words, alright, but they have all the cadence of a practised politician skirting the absolute truth for personal and organisational benefit.

A few days ago, Pell was fighting to prevent the establishment of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse by its priests and laity. He gave the appearance of a swimmer in big waves fighting to keep his head above water. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s subsequent announcement that a Royal Commission will, indeed, be established has almost certainly robbed Pell of any possible rescue.

The Cardinal must find it hard to sleep at nights for fear of what a Royal Commission might uncover. What has already been revealed in recent decades is damning enough and there are many close to the action who suggest we have barely uncovered the uppermost portion of an iceberg.

What is deeply concerning about the Cardinal’s statements in recent days is that he clearly sees his mission as damage control.  He has done nothing to suggest any serious willingness to uncover any and all past wrongdoing as a vital precursor to assuaging suspicion and, even contempt, arising from the evidence of wrongdoing that is already in the public domain.

Pell says the church is ashamed of what has happened. He says the church leadership has apologised many times. He has neglected to do so this time.

Then he went for deflection saying the church has already gotten rid of a substantial cancer and is now spiritually healthier than it used to be. There is no skerrick of proof for this assertion, Cardinal, so it is facile to claim it. The test is to subject the church to unfettered scrutiny and let any claims be investigated. That this is about to happen without your willing concurrence does not create a climate of confidence in the church’s approach to the inquiry.

Pell demeans all victims, those known and those still cowering in the shadows by suggesting that sexual abuse crimes were largely historic and not part of a systemic failing within the church. How he must wish this were true but his unwillingness to be subject to full legal scrutiny undermines his credibility on the claim.

As a Detective Chief Inspector of the NSW Police, Peter Fox, says: “I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church.”

Even in the unlikely event Fox was not telling the truth, he is willing to face a full Royal Commission – with all its coercive and punitive powers – which gives him a massive edge in the credibility stakes. Pell should be ashamed by comparison if he really wanted to atone for evil practised under his organisation’s banner, even if he himself is entirely innocent.

Stonewalling has characterised the Catholic Church’s approach to this issue since it first emerged in public and this latest incident simply serves to suggest nothing has changed, nor will it. No amount of self-professed piety can restore credibility.

It should be noted that the Catholic Church is not the only organisation enmired in the tragic saga of child sexual abuse. Other churches, organisations and individuals will be fearful of the impending Royal Commission, as well they might. Only the most rigorous attempt to uncover all the truth of this issue can start the process of healing in any meaningful way.


Acknowledgement: Dan Box, The Weekend Australian. P.1 10-11 November 2012.