Scapegoating Cardinal Pell


While reading Thomas Keneally’s article in the May issue of Women’s Weekly attacking Cardinal George Pell, I couldn’t help but think of the “scapegoat phenomenon”.

This is the phenomenon where someone is chosen as a substitute for sinners and punished to atone for their sins. This victim is taken to have expiated through punishment the “sins” of the others.


We have Jesus as the most perfect “scapegoat”.

It is an interesting phenomenon because we in our enlightened society would be scandalised to think that we would have a “scapegoat” mentality or even think of punishing anyone other than the guilty party. But the reality is that we have recently been made privy to this phenomenon.

The media in all its forms has clearly shown that someone has to “pay” for the “sins” of those offending and molesting priests of long ago.

The media in all its forms (print/visual/social), which we know even financially supported the victims and their supporters to travel all the way to Rome to confront Cardinal Pell as he gave his evidence, together with counsel for the commission Gail Furness, who seemed intent on breaking down the voluntary witness (Cardinal Pell), showed an intensity of fury against the witness that one would have thought that it was he himself who was responsible for all the criminal acts committed. That he himself was the criminal.

“Dr Pell was directly and repeatedly accused of lying to the commission, of covering up evidence of sexual abuse of children and of blame shifting to exonerate himself,” wrote Peter Westmore, who was present in Hotel Quirinale during cross-examination of Cardinal Pell.

As I watched Ms Furness, I was repeatedly reminded of the Old Testament priest who laid his hands on the chosen “goat” and placed all the sins of the community on its head and then sent the goat out into the desert to die, which in dying expiated all the sins of the community. (Hence the term, scapegoat).

Is this what Ms Furness was trying to do? Lay all past sexual abuse sins by sinful priests’ (for example, Frs Ridsdale, Searson, Day and others) on the head of Cardinal Pell and have him take the fall for them? Goodness! What a head and what a scalp!

As we watched the proceedings being telecast from Rome, it became obvious that truth was not the goal, but a mere side issue of this royal commission, and that the presumption of guilt had replaced the presumption of innocence and that Cardinal Pell was required to prove his innocence (if he could).

The presumption of guilt overhung the entire proceedings as does the damp of an unpleasant overcast Melbourne day, and even from thousands of kilometres away felt intolerable.

While royal commissions are not courts of law and are not bound by the rules of evidence, they are nonetheless expected to apply the presumption of innocence to any person against whom allegations are made.

In this case Cardinal Pell was faced with the opposite: he was presumed guilty and had to prove he was innocent.

Chief royal commissioner Peter McClellan QC also appeared to make no effort to temper the belligerence of his counsel (Ms Furness), who was intent on proving the guilt of the Cardinal, of showing him to be a liar and a non-caring person.

From the beginning, Ms Furness set out to find Cardinal Pell guilty, at least of knowing what was happening and doing nothing about it.

It was difficult to watch this. Yet the palpable hostility made it possible for anyone of goodwill to see that there was a long list of other individuals closer to the perpetrators who might have noted or seen something happening and were more likely to do something about it. But it was Pell who was to be the fall guy. Why?

Because, apart from the scapegoat phenomenon, the “tall poppy syndrome” is alive and well in Australia.

We will honour overseas guests and their accomplishments, but our own we tend to demean. Our own must wander over the waters; and even then there is sense that something isn’t quite right. They must be brought down. Once they are down, homoeostasis bas been achieved.

Scapegoating can be found in all manner of situations where it seems an injustice has been committed and no reparation made. A “sin” has not supposedly been atoned and sinners seem to have escaped punishment.

A scapegoat is chosen on account of some link or association with the sinners and for no other reason. Then the denunciation, humiliation, persecution and removal from the community begin in earnest and persist until the scapegoat is finished: that is, dead.

While scapegoating is not a preferred term these days – the term “witch-hunt” was used in the Pell experience – I would suggest “scapegoating” as a more apt descriptor because of the wave of hatred against the Cardinal and the Catholic Church that all forms of media and media personalities incited. That was also clearly demonstrated in the conduct of the members of the royal commission itself.

The anti-Pell saga played out before the eyes of the world and was done with the sole purpose of bringing down Cardinal Pell, to make him pay. To humiliate him, to embarrass the Church and to call into question the Cardinal’s position at the Vatican.

Keneally has gone so far as to portray His Eminence as “an enemy of the church”.

How reminiscent of the Lindy Chamberlain saga. The mob didn’t like the way she reacted to her baby’s death, so she was guilty of murder. The mob doesn’t like the way Cardinal Pell reacts, so surely he must be guilty.

Someone had to pay for the sins of the offending priests; and the bigger the scalp the better the prize.

Keneally has continued with the same. He has said nothing new but just used his own “fame” to further discredit the Cardinal by pretending to have inner knowledge of Catholic ways.

Indeed, Keneally made use of the Cardinal’s traditional Catholic beliefs and teachings to declare him “guilty”. Keneally’s hostility was palpable. As was counsel for the commission Gail Furness’. Yet, if we consider that Cardinal Pell had been under cross-examination for hours on end and perhaps answered incorrectly to a question at 2.30am it might be graceful to excuse someone who made a confused response.

But of course Keneally would not grant the Cardinal any such grace because Keneally has a new book to sell and his so-called “concern” is for the hurt of the children. Balderdash.

I have written a book on sexual abuse of children within the family (Hidden Pain: An Insight into Childhood Sexual Abuse) where statistically the largest number of abuse cases occur, and I didn’t need to destroy anyone. I needed to find a way forward for the victims and their pain and for the perpetrators, a way to find healing.

And in 20 years of counselling for this abuse and other pain, I have not encountered one case of priestly abuse but many of family member abuse, and they cause deep wounds that require gentle management and healing.

Healing is possible but not where maintaining the rage is the objective.

That Keneally heard angels “weep” as the cardinal gave evidence, I agree, but not for the reasons the author gave. They wept that a good man was also being abused.

He was made a scapegoat at a show trial and, as someone said, “was fed to the lions”, ironically in the very city where Christians were originally fed to lions.

Justice was also denied him just as surely as it was denied to the young children by those abusive perpetrators.

Anne Lastman is a counsellor with a BA in Psychology and Religious Studies, and Masters Degrees in Arts. She is a Member of the Australian Counsellors Association and the College of Loss and Grief. She founded the organisation, Victims of Abortion Inc.