Sunday, 3 March 2019

Some (rambling) reflections on the Pell case

To begin with, I was not present in the courtroom during any session of this trial.  I didn't hear any of the evidence first-hand.  My reactions are based on second-hand information, just like those of any other consumer of the media.

Secondly, I have no vested interest in the outcome of this case. 
  • I'm not a survivor of child sexual abuse. 
  • I'm not a lawyer.
  • I'm not a member, lay or ordained, of the Roman Catholic Church. 
I am a retired minister of another Christian denomination (Uniting Church in Australia) that enjoys good ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church across Australia.  I also spent a decade working as a staff member of an ecumenical body with active Catholic membership.  In any event, I think I qualify as an "objective but informed" commentator and an "educated amateur", whatever that means.

My initial reaction, given that I wasn't in court to hear the evidence being presented, is to trust the intelligence of the jury.  Occasionally, as in the case of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, juries get it wrong.  More often than not, juries get it right.  I'm working from the overt assumption, unless decided otherwise by the appeals court, that the jury got it right this time.

I have some real concerns about the public reaction to this case.  Much of the public comments (whether in social media, or in the traditional media, or in conversations among people in private settings) tend to fall into two disturbing patterns.  Many (but not all) of those who endorse the jury's verdict have tended to express either an establishment anti-Catholicism or a bogan religiophobia in support of their views.  On the other hand, many (but not all) of those who question the verdict have tended to minimise the seriousness of the impact of child sexual abuse on the survivors, victims, and their families.  Both of these extreme tendencies have the effect of cheapening and coarsening our public discourse.

One fact that I find interesting about the reaction to this case is that (discounting the politicians and media people who can always be counted upon to get on the bandwagon supporting whatever happens to be the right-wing cause du jour), a significant number of those who have publicly questioned the Pell verdict are people who were strong and consistent critics of Cardinal Pell during his period of ascendancy in Australia's Catholic hierarchy.  There are people other than Cardinal Pell's "yes-men" and "fan club" who are questioning his verdict.

Those questioning this verdict need to be aware that, in any legal case involving accusations of sexual assault (in which the only people present during the alleged assault are often the complainant and the accused, and no one else), the legal rules of evidence are (necessarily) different from other cases.

Similarly, those of us who happen to support the jury's verdict need to be aware that court cases are based on law and evidence, not on public opinion.  The fact that the majority of the population happens to believe that a defendant is guilty has no relevance to the outcome of a court case.  Public opinion carries no weight in the legal system.

Some comments have compared the case of Cardinal Pell to that of Lindy Chamberlain.  In a real sense, the early (and false) public perception of Mrs. Chamberlain's guilt was based on her own naïvete in assuming that the tragic disappearance of her child was an occasion for her to bear public witness to her own faith, leading to the false belief that Mrs. Chamberlain had a harsh and uncaring attitude to her child.  Whatever adjectives you want to use for George Pell, naïve is probably not high on your list.
I believe a better high profile Australian case to which to compare the Pell case is one from a few decades earlier than the Chamberlain case, the case of Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr in the 1950s.  Professor Orr was dismissed from his position at the University of Tasmania for seducing a student.  He sued the University for unjust dismissal, with the case (and its subsequent appeals) becoming somewhat of a legal marathon.  In the course of the trials and appeals, according to my reading of accounts of the case, Orr's abrasive personality and his personal arrogance were factors resulting in stiffening the resolve of his opponents and frustrating his supporters.  Can this be an apt parallel between the Orr and Pell cases?
I am personally worried that the Pell case may signal the beginning of a renewed period of anti-Catholic bigotry (never really far from the surface) here in Australia.  I've seen public comment asserting the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is a sinister institution at its heart, and that individual Catholics (or, at least, those who are practicing) have no moral right to express opinions on this case.  As a person whose social media profiles often list my profession as "ecumenist", I must object to this in the strongest possible terms.

In a real way, a renewal of anti-Catholic bigotry in the wider community will not hurt Cardinal Pell nor the various Pell wannabees in the hierarchy.  Nor will it hurt the various ultraconservative Catholics whom some commentators describe as "Brideshead Catholics" (from Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited) and whom I've been known to describe as the "Scientology wing" of the Roman Catholic Church.  (1)  They would just love it if the relations between Catholics and the rest of the community reverted to being as bad as they were during the bad old days of the 1950s.  It would increase their own influence within the Catholic Church far more than they deserve.

The people whom I fear would be most hurt by a renewed growth in anti-Catholic bigotry would be the good, solid everyday Catholics we all know in our daily lives, the people I call the "Mrs. Duffy Next Door Catholics".  These are people who are regular attenders at Mass.  They appreciate the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but would like to see the reforms go just a little further, even if it's nothing all that radical.  For example, the formidable "Mrs. Duffy" would like to see her divorced-and-remarried brother, her Baptist sister-in-law, and her gay son be able to receive Communion when they show up at Midnight Mass next Christmas Eve.  A rise in anti-Catholic bigotry in the community would hurt "Mrs. Duffy" far more than it would hurt the "Brideshead-Scientology" crowd in the RC Church .

Ultimately, we need to realise that life is more complicated than a television drama.  In a murder mystery on TV, it goes without saying that the character who is portrayed as an arrogant, ultra-conservative, hyper-moralistic cleric will turn out to have a few skeletons of a sexual nature in his closet.  Life is far more complicated than an episode of Midsomer Murders, however. 

The jury has done its job.  (In my own opinion, I believe they did it well, but I could be wrong.)  Now it is time for the appellate court to do its job.  Let's allow the legal system to continue to function.

The two things with which I want to conclude, whatever your opinions on the facts of this case, are these:
  • For the sake of the survivors and victims of child sexual abuse in any context, secular or religious, do not minimise the impact of child sexual abuse on the survivors and victims.
  • For the sake of the wholeness of our culture, do not add to the level of bigotry already expressed to, and experienced by, Australian Catholics.
(1)   I'm not singling out Catholics here.  I've also been known to speak of the "Jehovah's Witnesses" wing of the Anglican Communion (i.e., Sydney-style evangelicals) and the "Playschool wing" of the Uniting Church.

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.