Trauma & Dissociation in the News

The Conviction of Cardinal George Pell: Recognising the Impacts and Implications

The conviction and sentencing of Australian Cardinal and high-ranked Vatican official George Pell for sexual abuse of two 13 year old choirboys in the mid-1990s is generating a tsunami of media report and debate. In stark contrast to the period prior to delivery of the verdict late last year (when a suppression order in relation to his previous trial precluded media reporting of it in Australia) commentary on the conviction and imprisonment of George Pell has, as we now say, `gone viral’.

This is as it should be. In light of the silence which has long surrounded the topic of child sexual abuse (a silence which the 2013-17 Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did so much to dispel) a muted response to the conviction of Cardinal George Pell would be a travesty in itself. His, of course, is no ordinary case. It is entirely appropriate that the attention paid to it is unstinting. But such scrutiny should also be unflinching. And in the early aftermath of response to the Pell conviction there have been notable deflections from some of the hugely challenging issues it raises about the nature of structural, as well as individual, power in our society and the ways in which power is exercised. This may seem a strange claim to make. Particularly when the enormity of the challenges highlighted by the Pell case is being dissected from multiple angles. But it is precisely because the challenges are so many that they risk being discussed in isolation from one another.

When this occurs the connections between them can remain unrecognised. If the crime of child sexual abuse is to be confronted and responded to effectively, it is imperative that the interrelationship of its enabling components, not just the separate elements, is recognised and addressed. This is more difficult than it might seem when the component parts are themselves complex, and when powerful interests are served by their interconnections remaining obscure. The immediate aftermath of responses to Pell’s conviction is illustrative. High profile figures have expressed doubt and incredulity. Some media outlets have also publicly and vehemently professed their belief in the Cardinal’s innocence. Such protestations include those of two former conservative Prime Ministers.

One of these former leaders tendered a glowing character reference prior to sentencing, but after the conviction was recorded. The other stated that “we have all made `mistakes’”(cited in Tyeson, 2019). Support for a friend may be an admirable quality. Yet the fact of the friendship is also itself problematic in the circumstances. And if doubt about a person’s character is not registered in the wake of their conviction for the crime of child sexual abuse, one wonders what would be sufficient grounds for reappraisal. Furthermore, relegation of this crime to the status of a `mistake’ is surely breathtaking. It was not only former leaders of the government and senior church figures who reflexively and assertively expressed their support for the disgraced Cardinal.

Extraordinarily, his defence counsel, Robert Richter QC, immediately declared his belief that there had been a miscarriage of justice, that he was `angry’ about the verdict (cited in Loomes, 2019) and that he lacked the objectivity to lead the forthcoming appeal of it (while retaining sufficient objectivity, apparently, to remain a member of Pell’s legal team). Such comments risk undermining public confidence in the jury and the legal process of which Richter is a high profile participant. As the forthcoming appeal means that process is not yet complete, this is disquieting to say the least. It is especially so when sections of the public are struggling to assimilate the fact of the conviction and are thus likely to be influenced by the defence counsel’s extraordinary description of the verdict as `perverse’ (cited in Loomes, 2019).

The effect on many survivors of the defence counsel’s pronouncement on the verdict does not need to be spelt out. Richter’s assertion follows his shameful and confounding description of the acts for which Pell was convicted as `no more than a plain, vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering or actively participating’ (Australian Associated Press, 2019). An apology quickly followed, but the need for that apology remains disturbing. That such comments were merely a graceless and over-enthusiastic defence of his client (which is the light in which Richter’s apology implicitly requested us to regard them), in no way obviates their outrageous inappropriateness. That they could be uttered at all – in any circumstances – is surely the primary objection. That they were expressed in a court of law – the institutional arena in which justice is sought, should be seen to be done, and pursuit of which should not be prejudicial – evokes broader questions about the extent to which child sexual assault is analogous to other crimes with respect to the way in which it is both defended and prosecuted.

With respect to the institution of the Catholic church, its manifest failure to address the child sexual abuse exposed by the Royal Commission as rampant within its ranks – and of which the trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell is the most dramatic illustration – is now widely critiqued. But even wide-ranging criticism can deflect attention from aspects of the Church which need to be reflected upon. Distinction is frequently drawn between the institution of the Church in terms of its structure, composition, and administration on one hand, and Catholic doctrine and practice of the faith on the other. In this context, a distinction between Catholicism and clericalism is often also asserted, where the latter describes status and authority within the church (characteristically hierarchical, `top down’, and male) and the former the Catholic faith per se (to which millions of laypeople around the world subscribe and which is widely and increasingly recognised to have much less to do with its institutional expression).

While persuasive to a degree, it might also be asked whether focus on the `institution’ of the Church goes far enough. This is because sole focus on the ‘institution’ – in the more specific and familiar sense of the term – means that the realm of Catholic doctrine is exempt from the questioning that is now being applied to many other aspects of the Church. Whether the epistemology which underpins the Catholic faith should be exempt from this process of critical reflection is a legitimate question to ask. It is also a question which potentially raises deeply challenging issues. In a recent episode of the radio program `God Forbid’ (ABC, 2019) it was queried whether the prominence accorded forgiveness and compassion for the sinner in Catholic doctrine may serve to deflect from the suffering of the victims (in this case children who are not only damaged in multiple ways by the sin itself, but by the secondary serious trauma of not having been believed). Thus an ostensibly laudatory doctrine may have the corollary of insufficient focus on the magnitude of the suffering caused by the sinner.

Equating such acts with `mistakes’, as per the comments of the former conservative Australian Prime Minister who is also Catholic, comes to mind in this context. To the extent that Catholic doctrine – particularly as it may be applied in relation to the sin of child sexual abuse – may contain a scintilla of even the most indirect succour for perpetration or minimisation of this crime, it surely merits careful analysis from this vantage point. The significant and singular role of the Catholic priest as conduit and intermediary between God and members of the Catholic congregation (e.g. via performance of sacraments such as Penance and Reconciliation in the form of Confession) also imparts an imprimatur of authority to `God’s representatives’.

Historically this has been a further and compounding disincentive not only to the reporting by Catholic laity of sexually abusive `men of the cloth’. It has fuelled disbelief by the wider Catholic congregation that their priests could even be capable of such sins (crimes). Current reappraisal of the `seal’ of Confession (which precludes disclosure by the priest of sins confided within it) is a potent and disturbing example of the intersection of the doctrinal and institutional aspects of the Catholic Church which do not prioritise the safety of children from the sexual predation of clergy and which need to be revisited as a matter of urgency for this reason.

Each of the issues raised in the above commentary, which by no means exhausts the range of issues to arise in the wake of the conviction and imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell, merits sustained consideration. In combination they raise formidable challenges for the comprehensive reflection in which society as a whole now needs to engage. Not only the church but government, the judiciary and the media are institutions which, while themselves complex and containing internal diversity, can converge in ways which may initially be hard to recognise. As long as recognition of the points of convergence does not occur, this also deflects attention from interests which enable the crime of child sexual abuse to be widely deplored in words, but undercut in ways which escape scrutiny. Focus on specific issues and institutions is important. But failure to also address their areas of intersection obscures the connections between them which serve to make society-wide addressing of the crime of child sexual abuse less comprehensive than it needs to be.


ABC Radio (2019) `How far does the Catholic Church need to reform?’, `God Forbid’, 10 March
Australian Associated Press (2019) `Robert Richter apologises for describing George Pell’s abuse as ‘vanilla sex’ 28 February
Chang, C. (2019) `Some people can’t accept Cardinal George Pell is guilty of child sex offences’, 26 February
Henning, P. (2019) `Pell’ Tasmanian Times, 3 March
Knaves, C. (2019) `Strength and Sincerity: John Howard’s glowing character reference for George Pell’, The Guardian, 27 February
Loomes, P. (2019) ‘I am angry’: Pell’s key defence barrister Robert Richter steps back’ 5 March
‘Perverse’: Barrister Robert Richter won’t lead Cardinal George Pell’s appeal bid’ 2019, 6 March htps://
Pearson, N. (2019) `Tony Abbott: Pell going through ‘very bad experience’ 4 March
Tyeson, C. (2019) `Shockingly, Tony Abbott Isn’t Readily Accepting the Pell Conviction Either’, 27 February