With almost 800 pages of submissions to the Royal Commission into institutionalised sexual abuse released this week, attention has again zeroed in on one man. Given the labyrinthine web of secrecy and abuse over decades this might seem too narrow. In his submission Cardinal George Pell has argued if his prominence demands scrutiny it should not deny him justice over his knowledge of abuse at the time.
Several key episodes remain in dispute. Counsel Gail Furness claims at a 1982 consulters meeting there was a “common understanding” of why Gerald Ridsdale was being moved from parish to parish. Cardinal Pell’s refutation lies in the veil of secrecy former bishop Ronald Mulkearns drew around all the scandalous abuse. Similarly a conversation at the Eureka pool about paedophile Edward Dowlan is disputed over its content and if it took place.
Perhaps more revealing than either is the actual recollection Cardinal Pell had of “unspecific rumours” relating to Dowlan. He was told the Christian Brothers had the matter “in hand” and went no further. His submission advocates his inquiry and action were appropriate. In itself it is not a damning incident but it gives an insight into the divergence of what action one might be “content” with and what, with the wisdom of hindsight, many would see as neglect.
His own defence states; “a more sophisticated understanding of the impacts of abuse, its prevalence, its deceptive perpetrators, and the inadequacies of treatment has developed only in more recent years. It is important that when one comes to judge conduct of someone in the 1970’s, that judgment is undertaken in the context of states of mind which existed at that time.”
The bigger picture here is an institutional ignorance that if it didn’t abet abuse, created a culture of distorted priorities and credence and lack of scrutiny that in turn created secrecy, willful inaction and even collusion. That should be the real focus. If empathy was absent then it must return now.
The one constant and one Ballarat still bears the scars of today is the damage done. All the differing opinions of events of four decades ago will not change this and as such it is the horrible legacy that must be dealt with as the first priority. Additional financial assets for the support of victims of clergy sexual from the legacy of the former bishop is a concrete step but the commitment and action of many more, including Cardinal Pell, are all the more critical for the future.
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