Power without responsibility: the vendetta against Dr Pell

Power without responsibility: the vendetta against Dr Pell

Peter Westmore

The decision by the Melbourne Age to publish allegations by an unnamed person, concerning improper conduct over 40 years ago by Archbishop George Pell, when he was a 19-year-old seminarian in Melbourne, highlights a very dangerous trend in Australian society: the power of sections of the media to aggressively impugn the good reputation of a distinguished person on the basis of mere assertion.

This has been particularly so in the case of Dr Pell, whose unambiguous defence of Catholic and Christian values stands in stark contrast to the apparent moral agenda of the pro-libertarian secular media.

The Archbishop rejected the allegations, calling them "lies", but announced that he would step aside, pending an independent inquiry, "for the good of the Church and to preserve the dignity of the office of Archbishop".

Any person who is aware of the pioneering role which Dr Pell played, after his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne, in ensuring that the Catholic Church fully and fairly addresses accusations of sexual misconduct by clergy and religious would find the content of the allegations most improbable.

A fellow student who attended the Melbourne seminary at the time dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous" and "inconceivable", and told me that that Dr Pell was an exemplary seminarian.

This, clearly, was the view of the seminary staff and his own bishop, who sent him to Propaganda Fide College in Rome, where he completed his studies for the priesthood before his ordination in St Peter's Basilica in 1966.

In all the time he was a student, a seminarian, a parish priest, Director of the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education from 1974-84 and as Principal of the Institute of Catholic Education (now part of Australian Catholic University), auxiliary bishop and Archbishop of Melbourne, there has never been an allegation of any sort of impropriety against him, of the type now made, or otherwise.

The same point was made by the President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, in an interview on the ABC's The World Today on 21 August.

Mr O'Gorman, who made clear he completely disagreed with positions which Archbishop Pell had taken on issues such as homosexuality, embryo research and abortion, said, "It used to be the law in Australia, before we became just absolutely hysterical and unbalanced about the procedures in relation to investigating child sex accusations, that a person wouldn't be named unless a person was actually charged.

"So far have we gone down the road of trashing a presumption of innocence that a law change is called for to restore, and to restore fundamentally, the principles of presumption of innocence."

Yet the Melbourne Age and its stable-mate, the Sydney Morning Herald, both published, in graphic detail, disgusting allegations made by their informant against Archbishop Pell, while protecting the anonymity of the informant, and admitting that he had no corroborating evidence to back up his allegations.

Distorted reports

The present allegations have followed earlier media stories implying that the Archbishop was soft on child sexual abuse.

The most recent of these followed comments Dr Pell made at the World Youth Day in Toronto, when at the end of a 40 minute talk, he was asked a question about what young Catholics should say when they are asked about sexual abuse in the Church. In the face of subsequent distorted media reports, the Archbishop offered the following account of what he actually said.

Clerical sexual abuse, he told his Toronto audience, was "an enormous moral scandal that has caused great damage to the victims and their families, and also to the Church. We have to be aware of this problem, face it honestly and deal with it in a just, compassionate, and effective way.

"I went on to state that there are other grave moral scandals in society, which receive little media coverage. Abortion would be a prime example.

"I accept that many people do not share our view on this issue, but for Christians abortion represents the destruction of innocent human life.

"There are many terrible wrongs that people can suffer, often with life-long consequences. But Christian teaching is at one with the law and secular ethics in holding that the supreme wrong that can be done to a person is the taking of his or her life. This claim does not make any other evils less evil.

"This was the context in which my remarks were made and in which they should be understood. My words did not in anyway downplay the seriousness of sexual abuse. At the end of the session I was given a standing ovation, as reported in the Canadian press, but not by the Australian media. My young listeners agreed with me. Sexual abuse is evil, but there are other serious evils in society as well.

"Where innocent or vulnerable people are hurt, honesty and compassion are essential. The Church has accepted the challenge to respond in this way to sexual abuse. It is important that our community should do the same on the issue of abortion."

An earlier controversy involved a Sixty Minutes interview last June by Richard Carleton, which alleged the Archbishop had approved payment of "hush money" to sex abuse victims.

A prominent Australian columnist, Frank Devine, wrote recently that nothing that went to air more clearly demonstrated Sixty Minutes' single-minded purpose than Carleton's "faking" [of Dr Pell's] relationship with a notorious Ballarat paedophile priest, Gerard Ridsdale (Quadrant, September 2002).

He added, "What followed over the next two weeks, emanating from nearly all media, was an outburst of malice and foolishness that calls for a novelist's attention."

Whatever the damage these allegations have done, Archbishop Pell remains the outstanding religious leader in Australia today, because he refuses to be intimidated by those who wish to destroy him. Archbishop Pell has our unqualified support.

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