Not just George Pell is on Trial: Michael Kelly S.J.

With acknowledgement to La Croix, this article is a disturbing account of the impact of clerical sex abuse on the Australian Church. It is crystallised in the trial of George Pell, which Kelly thinks will go on for a considerable time, keeping the issue to the forefront of news and public awareness. He suggests it will take three generations for the Church in Australia to regain credibility.

Not just George Pell is on trial It’s a story that would do the best Greek tragedians proud. Michael Kelly, SJ
October 9, 2017
Here is the lead role in the tragedy – Cardinal George Pell – having to endure the humiliation of facing charges for alleged sexual abuse. The October 6th “mention” at the Melbourne Magistrates Court did not specify charges but reported that there would be up to 50 witnesses testifying in court proceedings. The “mention” occurs to set a date for the committal hearing which establishes whether Pell has a case to answer and provides rules so that all parties have access to the available evidence.

The process is likely to drag on for a long time. After the committal hearing, trials may follow for each of the charges or clusters of them if there be a collection that can be broken up into different trials.It’s a process that will attract intense, global attention from the media. Cardinal Pell’s profile has been high for decades. Now he’s an object of international interest after his web televised appearance before the Royal Commission into the abuse of minors in institutions.Whatever the outcome of the legal process, charges against clerics, whether proven or dismissed, stick in the popular imagination. Once the finger is pointed at a cleric on sexual matters, the game is up and his life in the chosen profession is finished. What’s more, for Pell, his life in the Vatican is over as these court proceedings will extend well beyond his current contract there.

When Cardinal Pell is charged, under the rules that now apply to Catholic clerics in Australia, he will not be allowed to operate as priest – celebrating a public Mass, bless weddings, etc.What is tragic in the Greek sense of what is happening to Pell is that here is a person who for thirty years has created his profile. He also linked his considerable ambitions to being the re-maker of Catholicism in Australia and, through his international alliances, in the global Church.He was the self-appointed leader of a movement to restore the Catholic Church to “orthodoxy” and right practice in Australia and joined forces with similar personalities internationally. The movement now lacks credible leadership, ideas and plausibility and its campaigns over the decades have left the Catholic Church in Australia divided and demoralized.

Call it hubris. Call it silly and ridiculous. Call it over-reaching. Call it what you like. But the ambition is now in ruins because the Catholic Church in Australia is in tatters: its credibility is zero; its leadership continues to fail to “get it” as is clear from their divided efforts to guide the current same-sex marriage debate. One (Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane) absurdly linked the unacceptability of same-sex marriage (for him) to the unacceptability of incest.

Simply put, with utterances like these, no one is listening to them.The bishops proposing the “No” vote on gay marriage just don’t seem to realize that their collective negligence in covering up the worst sex scandal in Australian history disqualifies them from being heard out on anything to do with marriage and sex for many generations to come.As one of the best bishops in Australia said to me many months ago, it will be at least three generations before the Catholic Church in Australia recovers the trust and credibility it needs to provide its service and do its job.

So where do Catholics go from here in Australia and other countries where sex abuse allegations and convictions have sapped the church of credibility and trust? Probably nowhere else than where we should have been all along – faithful, honest and alert disciples, finding life where all Christians do: at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. And that’s a good place to be.

It’s the Spirit who makes and remakes the Church and, as St. Paul never tired of saying in different ways, “Just when you think the game is all over, maybe you might let God be God and see what the Spirit can do.” In Australia, the Spirit gets another opportunity because the Catholic Church at its leadership level appears to have run out of petrol.

The church still retains credibility at a local level in some parish communities and the manifold services it offers – schools, hospitals, aged care homes, welfare services. Moreover, there is a considerable upside to the chaos.

The current Royal Commission will do a lot to end the tyranny of silence and cover-ups; it will make Church officials accountable and force them to be transparent as they’ve never had to before. Laws will be passed and procedures established to see to all of that. And indeed, so they should be.But the cause of most of the trouble – clericalism – goes much deeper and while child abuse is its most obvious and lamentable consequence, clericalism is the “cancer at the heart of the Church” as described by the present Pope. It won’t be eliminated by firmer laws or more vigilant overseers.

Clericalism is that culture of presumption shared by those in Orders who believe they run the Church and everyone in the Church is there to be run by them. It is secretive, exclusive and judgmental. It reserves to itself and its leaders the right to make all decisions without consultation beyond its narrow confines and relegates lay people to their proper functions: pray, pay and obey.

Legal reform, oversight, and compliance are all essential. Reform of the internal culture of the Church that creates clericalism and permits its abusive exercise may be moderated by such regulation. But that won’t end it.

It may sound limp-wristed, but it’s only spiritual conversion and a relentless attack on clericalism and clericalists that will end its baleful sway. And that needs to be done in a disciplined and organized way. That conversion needs to drive administrative reform in the Church. Such reforms are not uncommon in the wider world. Flawed as affirmative action may have been to redress the massive imbalance in female representation at senior executive and Board levels in commercial enterprises and government departments, the very existence of this administrative direction suggests a way forward for the Catholic Church.For the Church, the restructure needs to enhance the presence of lay people and especially women. It’s time for a quota system and the quotas won’t be hard to fill.

In fact, across the Western world and no less in Australia, almost all of the Church’s work in education, health and aged care, social welfare and the daily administration of parishes is led and staffed by lay people and especially by lay women. These services in Australia engage well in excess of 180,000 employees – teachers, nurses, social workers, administrators.But where the presence and significance of lay people is plainly missing is in the governance of the church which contributed so generously to cover up most of the sexual abuse allegations. And the governance level is where most evidence for clericalism exists.

It would seem a pretty obvious move to introduce an aggressive affirmative action policy for lay people to assume more than subordinate roles in diocesan government and in fact the German Church has done that. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of women in senior executive positions in the German Church had risen from 10% to 20%. But the president’ of the bishops conference – Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – believes that it is underwhelming and has set targets for female representation on boards and in executive positions. We are yet to hear even the suggestion of it in most other parts of the Church.

However, there’s hope and a path to follow. Most of the Western world is familiar with an agreed system of government – representative democracy. It’s not the answer to every challenge. If it were, we wouldn’t end up with duds like Donald Trump and Theresa May running their countries.

But something that the present pope has revived in Church governance could, in fact, reach from the highest to the lowest levels of Church life – Synods and shared discernment of paths forward on contentious issues like the Church’s care of divorced and remarried people. It is the Catholic style of participatory democracy.And it is just the way everything – from the appointment of bishops to the selection of parish priests, from the creation and adoption of pastoral policies to the targeting of pastoral needs and priorities – could be considered and decided jointly by lay people and clerics in suitably arranged aggregations.

What happens now with everything from the appointment of a parish priest to a bishop is lost in the opaque world of closed-door clerical decision making. Many ask how George Pell got as far as he has up the clerical ladder? The answer is both simple and simply leads to a brick wall: patronage. And it’s not just true for Cardinal Pell. It applies to every clerical office holder in the Church.The complete absence of transparency in decision making in the church is the legacy of a power system that has nothing to do with Catholicism. It is simply the adoption of a way of operating that owes more to an aristocratic age than anything: officeholders appoint other officeholders. They include very few in considering decisions and run and hide from any accountability for the decisions if they prove to be bad ones.

If a synodal and discerning way of reaching decisions or making appointments were adopted – a structural reform really recovered from the way things were originally done in the church – we might have some credibility and trust restored to the life and processes of the church.In Australia, a national synod in 2020 is currently in preparation. However, the chances of it overcoming a stranglehold by vested interests are not great. This is not only because the last national synod was held 80 years ago. It is also because, as a top-down imposition, there has been no experience of or preparation for a national event at a local diocesan level.

With no experience of how these things work and sectional and partisan groups ready to jump and impose their agendas, just the wrong way to develop a national structure is to have it free standing and with no local platforms to take up its proposals.The Australian Church, as indeed global Catholicism, has a long way to go to develop inclusive and participatory governance.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of and based in Thailand.

Similar Posts


  1. Very good article. The Australian Bishop that I have great admiration for is retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson . He tried hard to get th Catholic Church to confront the scandals of sex abuse and power . He got it ,mores the pity he was not listened to .

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    To the moderator there is an error with one of my links in the post above Kevin Walters Your comment is awaiting moderation. October 13th, 2017 at 1:34 pm; ,
    if accepted can you replace it with this one.Kevin…..

    “Most of the Western world is familiar with an agreed system of government – representative democracy. It’s not the answer to every challenge. If it were, we wouldn’t end up with duds like Donald Trump and Theresa May running their countries”………

    The emperor has no clothes but that is only part of the story as many of his followers colluded with his vanity, if they had not done so, he would have soon come to his senses, we had to wait for the innocent voice of Truth to expose his and their hubris.

    In the story that I remember although he was naked he still retained the ceremonial Crown with its precious jewels, symbols (Dictates/virtues) of honest, unifying governance, now long lost as can be seen in his nakedness, this nakedness should have induce humility, not only in the emperor but also in his courtiers ( in privileged circles; some of whom are ensnared in evil situations) that colluded with this charade and in doing so, now should see their own nakedness (lack of integrity).

    It could be said that we are still waiting for the emperor’s court to dress the emperor with suitable clothing, which is the white attire of humility.
    So where do Catholics go from here as sex abuse allegations, convictions and cover-ups, with other deceptions, are sapping the church of credibility and trust?

    “Probably nowhere else than where we should have been all along – faithful, honest and alert disciples, finding life where all Christians do: at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. And that’s a good place to be”……

    On the 26th Sunday in OT we had the parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard; see my post @ 1

    The second son wanted an image of goodness before his father, who was supported by his own lie, while the first son in an honest reflection of his open disobedience, came to his senses. And I concluded with the statement that it could be said that one son acted out of pride and the other out of humility.

    “It’s the Spirit who makes and remakes the Church and, as St. Paul never tired of saying in different ways… Just when you think the game is all over, maybe you might let God be God and see what the Spirit can do”…………..

    Recently on another site it was implied that if the true image of Divine Mercy were to be accepted

    “All Hell would break loose”

    I think this is an overstatement, nevertheless it could be said that all those outside of the church, who are entangled in evil situations, who now cannot receive the sacrament of reconciliation have been given the means to dress in the Wedding garment of humility, and partake of His table and live. Continue in the link

    His Spirit at work;
    “Paint a picture according to the vision you see and with the inscription: “Jesus, I Trust in Thee.” “I desire that this picture be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the whole world”

    The true picture of Broken Man, points us to our failings and flaws which are acceptable in all of us, but dishonesty is not, as it is in the denying the reality of our hearts that our consciences are stifled.
    All that is needed to restore the credibility of Church is for His followers to serve the Truth, as His ‘Way’ one of Truth (Confrontation) with the reality of ourselves before our Father’s divine Word (Will) cannot fail, as it will induce humility in our hearts, creating a place for the Holy Spirit to dwell and work from within us.

    We can only hope and pray that the present leadership of the church has the good sense to embrace Humility, before God and His people and in doing so restore credibility.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

  3. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    I do not know George Pell, nor do I have any information about what he is being charged with. I have some questions about what is happening.

    Michael Kelly’s article states: “there would be up to 50 witnesses testifying in court proceedings.” That sounds very serious, but he does not make clear whether these 50 witnesses will be for the prosecution or for the defence. I have read that it is George Pell’s defence lawyer who will be calling 50 witnesses on his behalf. Let us not presume that the 50 are for the prosecution.
    An article in Sydney Morning Herald on 30 May 2017 says: “From the Director of Public Prosecution a second report. It reportedly says that the police ‘could’ decide to prosecute. That’s not a recommendation to prosecute and hardly an advice in terms of likely success in obtaining a conviction.” (The writer, Amanda Vanstone, says “I do not regard myself as a believer.”) It seems strange for the DPP not to direct the prosecution to proceed, but to say it “could” be taken.
    A book published in May of this year is “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell” by Louise Milligan. The blurb on Amazon says: “Louise Milligan is the only Australian journalist who has been privy to the most intimate stories of complainants. She pieces together a series of disturbing pictures of the Cardinal’s knowledge and his actions, many of which are being told here for the first time.” Australia has contempt of court legislation. It seems strange that it was allowed to be published about a case before the courts. Does it indicate a hesitancy about the case on the part of the police?
    The high profile of the case inevitably draws much media attention. Is there a danger of trial by media? Regardless of the outcome of the case, the fact that allegations are made and publicised widely means that the individual concerned suffers significant personal damage. We know this from experience here in Ireland. Assertions of the presumption of innocence are acknowledged, but may do little to moderate what can seem like a lynch mob.
    George Pell, insofar as I know anything about him, comes across to me as perhaps not the most gentle and considerate person, but this could be an Australian characteristic of directness.
    Perhaps someone can cast light on the questions I have posed above.
    George Pell’s successor in the see of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, advises letting the justice system take its course. This surely is the best course.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Pádraig, I spent two weeks in Melbourne in July, at the time when George Pell returned to Australia vowing to clear his name. I read a very chilling article in one of the papers pointing out that it was impossible for him to have a fair trial in the highly prejudicial climate, and given a certain laxness in Australian law about such issues. “To let the justice system take its course” may not result in justice at all!

    One Australian–a semi-Buddhist spiritual seeker from Perth–told me that Australia is consummating its divorce from Catholicism and wants to see the Catholic Church in the blackest possible light to be sure it won’t be missing anything. Does that remind anyone of anything?

    There was an excellent article in First Things a few months ago taking to pieces the known allegations against Pell, as vamped up by Louise Milligan. Here it is:

  5. Joe@5, you know as well anybody that nobody has to try very hard ” to see the Catholic Church in the blackest possible light….” The appalling behaviour of the institutional church has been responsible for creating the darkest possible cloud which now overshadows everything else about our Catholic Church.
    This piece below from the Irish Times suggests another ingredient that should be added to the destructive mix that has so diminished our Irish Catholic Church.

    The bullying of the people by some clergy played a greater role in Catholic church decline in Ireland than clerical child sexual abuse, a leading Dominican priest has said.
    “They had little or no respect for individual people – and not just for minors,” said Fr Tom Jordan, editor of Spirituality magazine.
    Referring in the current issue to a remark by an unnamed “acute observer of the church in Ireland,” he said “the failure of the church in recent times was due not so much to the abysmal behaviour by some clergy in sexually abusing minors but that some clergy were bullies.”
    One of the glaring deficiencies of church practice in recent times was the failure of leadership to respect the individual.
    “Consider the number of priests silenced or removed from office because of their expressed views, and without being afforded an opportunity of defending themselves.”
    This is understood to be a reference to the five Irish priests disciplined over recent years by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
    He said there were also members of religious orders, who professed obedience to a fraternal and democratic way of living, who were ignored and disrespected by those elected to lead.
    “Failure to respect the individual undermines the whole organisation and leads to paralysis of mission, and weakens the mandate and witness of the church.”
    Respect was “due to all because all are made in the image of God,” he said.
    Recent events worldwide focused attention “on the reality and quality of leadership,” he said. In the West one could be forgiven for asking “where has it all gone wrong?” he said.
    An exception was Pope Francis, widely recognised as “a good man driven by the basic insights of the gospel of Jesus Christ – mercy, justice, peace, love, reconciliation,” he said.

  6. Phil Greene says:

    To Paddy @6

    The saying “The fish rots from the head down” springs to mind.

  7. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    #6 Paddy:
    Nobody has to try very hard “to see the Catholic Church in the blackest possible light.”
    We can be very good at that, can’t we? Is that all there is?
    You may have heard the poem, “We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan (Google it): doom and disaster, whatever the scene. It’s a caricature, written by Australian bush poet John O’Brien, the pen name of Catholic priest Patrick Joseph Hartigan (1878-1952).
    We can also do the same with regard, for example, to pretty well every human institution I can think of; and in relation to each individual human being. We might include in that the Australian justice system, just as we see the failures in the Irish justice system and in many other countries.
    And it is important not to ignore the black light view – we begin our celebration of Mass with repentance.
    But that is always with a view to being renewed and reformed, which the church and each of us also needs.
    If we focus only on the black light view, we’re in deep trouble.
    Our consciousness of sin as Christians is in the light of forgiveness and resurrection. Jesus has a talent for pointing to the light in the darkness, whether it’s a penny candle or the light visible through the cracks. Doesn’t he call us?
    Leonard Cohen sang:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Let there be light. And there was light!
    There’s Calvary. And there’s Easter.

  8. Kevin Walters says:

    Pádraig @ 8
    “Let there be light. And there was light! There’s Calvary. And there’s Easter”

    A very enlightening post Pádraig; yes, let there be light

    “I am the way the truth and the light”

    His ‘Way’ of Truth transcends our sin, compelling us to proceed dressed in humility, onto the on-going Path of spiritual enlightenment, the transformation of our hearts, leading us to our Father in heaven.
    The ‘leadership’ of the church needs to ‘lead’, and walk the ‘Way’ by holding the bright lamp of Truth above their failings and then embrace them publicly, and in doing so, show us and mankind the path of spiritual enlightenment, before our Father in heaven.

    “Ring the bells that still can ring”

    In dank glen deep in wooded dell, sits
    The dinking, tinker ling, sweet blue bell
    Moist rock and sodden moss, decaying leaf and soft acorn
    This is my bed in cool May morn
    The morning mist conceals not my form
    As my small head rings in the dawn
    The church bells ring, high above the Glen
    Echoing on mountain side, rolling as the morning tide
    Bringing all that’s fresh and new
    Again we have the spray and morning dew
    Hurriedly we make our way some to sing and some to pray
    The ground clad mist coat of the morn
    Recedes in flight the coming of the morning light
    The trees stand tall in the great wooded hall
    Holding back the dawning light
    The gentle breeze, flutters the leaves
    Showers of quivering light
    Flickering foliage of every sight
    We feel the touch of the morning bell
    And again we dwell in the wooded dell
    The high roof cannot hide the view
    As we sing and contemplate anew
    The birds, greet the morning in
    Can you feel the blue bell sing?
    It is not a tinkling sound or shouting bell
    But can you hear me deep in the dell
    The choir sings in sweet accord
    As we feel the touch of the risen lord

    There’s ‘The Way’ of Calvary and then Easter. Praise the Lord!

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Yes, Joe – it reminds me of something from a very long time ago. A cooperative mode of production on a community level was taken for something much less robust – kingdoms and empires. You can only have one king and on this planet – that is Mother Nature, as Pope Francis so eloquently points out. When you tamper with Mother Nature and create ludicrously stupid systems of management, there is always going to be a fallout. The fallout actually becomes that you can’t pass judgement out fast enough in times when you are both jury and executioner (the .01%). How are they heralded in the Catholic Church? Terribly right now if you are listening to Pope Francis. Who are you listening to in Ireland when the first of many extreme weather waves will punish our/your island region. I pray daily for a solution that Pope Francis kindly offered.

  10. Kevin Walters says:

    Lloyd @ 10

    “I pray daily for a solution that Pope Francis kindly offered”

    “My Kingdom is not of this world”

    The leadership we Christians should look for, is a reflection of the Truth, His inviolate Word (Will) been held high by those who would lead us; as when we hold, Holy His name, as in obedience to His Will, who is the Creator of heaven and Earth (Mother nature), will His kingdom come, ensuring good governance for all His people, the basis for true justice within the world.
    True unifying leadership comes with the serving of the Truth and this can only be done in humility, before His inviolate Word (Will)

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.