A tawdry melodrama is currently being played out in Sydney. It is called the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. It has already heard months of evidence. There’s been understandably teary witnesses recalling distressing and life changing events in lurid detail. There are a battery of lawyers doing what they do best, earning exorbitant fees, asking the odd probing question, all the while trying to shield some of the organisations and individuals they are representing from deserved scrutiny. Nevertheless, there are a number of organisations and religions, which are being forced to admit to wrongdoing. Right at the present time, it is the Catholic Church in the spotlight and being forced to relive the sins of its priests and brothers. But one Catholic administrator, a Cardinal no less called George Pell, who currently runs the Vatican Bank, is very much in the commission’s cross hairs. Certainly not for abusing young boys or girls but over allegations that he did not do the right thing by the victims of this abuse. I was interested in discovering why the Commission in general and abuse victims in particular wanted Cardinal Pell to appear as a witness. So i did a bit of digging.
George Pell, at one time, ran the Sydney Archdiocese of the Catholic Church before his promotion to Rome. One of the cornerstones of the allegations against Pell concerns the legal claim by one abuse victim, a man called John Ellis. It turns out that the Royal Commission has already released a report where it examined the way the church handled complaints of sexual abuse, particularly those made by Ellis. It also turns out that the church spent more than $1 million fighting a legal battle against Ellis despite the fact that he was seeking only a tenth of that amount as a settlement of his claim. Worse still, the Commission found, the Catholic Church put him through “ distressing and unnecessary cross-examination” and threatened him with legal costs. The reports said the “archdiocese of Sydney wrongly concluded that it had never accepted that a priest abused Mr Ellis. This conclusion allowed Cardinal Pell to instruct the archdiocese’s lawyers to maintain the non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse. The archdiocese accepted the advice of its lawyers to vigorously defend Mr Ellis’s claims,” the report concluded.
The report confirms statements made by Pell who admitted this motivation in a public hearing of the Royal Commission in March of last year. “ One reason Cardinal Pell decided to accept this advice was to encourage other prospective plaintiffs not to litigate claims of child sexual abuse against the church.”
The other reasons the Commission found was that Pell believed Ellis was seeking “exorbitant damages” of millions of dollars with Pell “explicitly” endorsing the major strategies of the defence, to defend the proposition that the trustees were not liable, if an offence had been admitted by the archdiocese.”
It found that the church “failed” Ellis and “ did not make a compassionate response as its first priority.”
“ Some seven months after the fact of Mr Ellis’s abuse had first been put into dispute, the archdiocese on behalf of the trustees and the archbishop, sought to put itself in a position where it could maintain a non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse because this was in in the interests of the church in the litigation,” the Commission found.
Among its 34 findings in the Ellis case, the Royal Commission said it agreed with Pell’s statement during the hearings that “ the archdiocese, the trustees and he, as archbishop, did not act fairly from a Christian point of view in the conduct of the litigation against Mr Ellis.” It found a raft of “systemic issues” in the Catholic church.
In its dealings with another abuse victim, a woman called Joan Isaacs, who was abused by a Brisbane priest, the Catholic church was “unfair, mean and broke its own protocols in several instances,” the Royal Commission found. “ In 1998, the church knew that the priest had been convicted of two counts of indecent assault and the church did nothing until September 2011,” the report said. The priest was not dismissed from his church role until November 2013, more than 40 years after the abuse and 15 years after his conviction. “ It was not compassionate, fair or just” when it required Isaac to sign a deed of release which effectively gagged her from speaking about the settlement she received or from making “disparaging remarks” about the church. “ Confidentiality clauses should never have been included in deeds of release relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said. As you might expect, Joan Isaacs is over the moon at these latest developments.
“ I am deeply grateful to the Commission for upholding those two findings,” Isaac said. “ The silencing seriously affected my ability to heal and had a damaging effect on my emotional wellbeing. It brought about nearly 13 years of additional suffering for me as it held the same power over me as my abuser did when I was a child. I am grateful for having been released from the silence clauses. I have no doubt that those silence clauses would still be in effect to this day had it not been for the work of the Royal Commission.”
Isaac also thanked the Commission for “ exposing the true dealings” she had with the Catholic church. “ The Royal Commission has shown that the Catholic church or the archdiocese of Brisbane departed substantially from the undertakings they gave,” she said. “It is now public knowledge that the Catholic church invited me into a situation which brought me more pain and suffering.”
But returning to the case of Cardinal George Pell, it seems the tragic victims of sexual abuse, or more specifically their lawyers, have some tough questions they want to put to him and he has said publicly that he is prepared to return in person to give evidence. Watch this space.