We like to think of ourselves as being civilised. We ban discrimination of all sorts. We believe you are innocent until proven guilty and that everyone is entitled to proper process. But there's an ugly side to humankind that occasionally reverts to animal instincts.
Hunting in a pack is very primal. Rules go out the window. We go looking, desperately, for blood. We become hunters and if you're the hunted, watch out. What's ugly about this is not just the hunt but how few people care.
I have always found George Pell to be a decent, honest, intelligent man.
The slip into animal instincts often happens when we sense a wrong has been perpetrated and that our civilised system just hasn't dealt with the perpetrators.
George Pell is the latest to fall prey to this ugly side of humanity. We know that children in institutional care and in the churches have been abused and we know it's been covered up. It's been hidden in the Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Salvation Army and seemingly endless state institutions. The crimes have been horrific. Now we want blood.
Somehow Pell has become the lightning rod for all the hatred, anger and resentment that's built up around Australia. No one seems to have considered that the time we most need the rule of law is when the allegations relate to horrific crimes or their cover-up. The more serious the crime the greater the threat to your reputation or liberty. The rule of law is there to protect us all from these threats. It's what we call being civilised.
Some time ago we saw a version of this baying for blood in Adelaide. A priest at a prominent boys school, which is Anglican and not Catholic, had interfered with at least one boy. The local archbishop gave him a reference to move him along. He left the country and thus escaped criminal prosecution. There's no doubt that the archbishop did the wrong thing. He was made to retire shortly before his scheduled retirement. You might say it was light treatment or well and good.
Everyone needed blood, a sacrifice to assuage the wrong doing. But there was one glaring problem. The principal of the school, members of staff and the board all walked away scot free. Sure, they didn't write the reference, but how many of them do you imagine knew about the priest's actions, even before the archbishop knew, and did nothing? The priest got away and so did lots of people who failed to notify authorities. Adelaide had had its ritual slaughter so everyone could just go home – and those equally as guilty as the archbishop could rest in peace. That's what happens when proper process isn't followed.
Plenty of people, especially in the media, don't like George Pell. He's very conservative (albeit a republican) and isn't afraid to speak his mind. While he and I don't agree on lots of things, I admire him. I am an admirer of people who are prepared to stand up for what they believe and who support my right to do the same. Pell easily fits into that category.
Failing to bow down to the self-appointed cognoscenti affronts their sense of importance and draws their gunfire. You have to be taught a lesson. Once you become a target, everyone can join in. It's like criticising politicians, the taxman, bureaucrats or the Devil. It's a free-for-all with no rules.
People who have suffered abuse, and their parents, react and cope in different ways. I don't think even my vivid imagination can fully comprehend the difficulties they face. It would be easy to become obsessed, to see avenging the wrong as your reason for living. It's also true that nobody wants to add to their distress and so, outside of courts, they are rarely seriously challenged on whatever they say. For most I think this is fair enough. But for the odd one or two it will be a licence to kill.
There's also something odd about us in that we still fail to recognise that kids are most at risk of abuse in their own home or from family and friends. We (the state) still keep hoping that bad parents and their partners will see the light. We leave kids to suffer their darkest days at the hands of those they should be able to trust. We seem to vainly hope that "it will all turn out".
There's been a fair degree of criticism of Pell's initiative within the Catholic Church to deal with cases of abuse. Little mention that the system he set up was a trailblazer in its time and reportedly as good as any set up by state governments. That kind of reporting doesn't fit the narrative of sensational TV on a Sunday night.
I have always found Pell to be a decent, honest, intelligent man who, while forthright in his own views, is happy to listen to those of others. When I was serving as Ambassador to Italy he perpetrated a great kindness that I will never forget.
I asked about the method for getting in the front row at a Papal audience, where one will meet the Pope. How do ministers, businesspeople and others seem to manage it, I wondered. Pell asked if that's what I wanted and I rightly pointed out, given my views, how inappropriate that would be. I told him the Filipino maid and butler at the Ambassador's residence who served his meal when he came to dinner were committed Catholics, true believers, and I wondered how they would get such a chance given they were more godly than many who get the privilege. He organised it and I have not seen two happier people than the day they met the Pope. It was marred in my mind only slightly by their comment that they felt people were staring at them and wondering how they got there. The answer of course is simple: by the good grace of George Pell.
I hope the royal commission on child abuse is out for the truth from everyone – not a blood sacrifice to appease the baying crowd.
Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for The Age and was a minister in the Howard government and Australian Ambassador to Italy.