2 February 2023
The funeral of Cardinal George Pell takes place today at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, the mother church from where Pell guided the Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese of Sydney for thirteen years and often spoke fearlessly beyond its perimeters into the social fabric of Australia.
Hours before his body was received at the cathedral, individuals had begun tying ribbons to the cathedral’s gates and fences, violating private property in protest. But in protest of what? Childhood sexual abuse?
Every mainstream media outlet, especially Australia’s national broadcaster, refers ad nauseam since his death to the Cardinal’s conviction for child sexual abuse and subsequent imprisonment. And yet little if any reference is made to the unanimous 7-0 decision made by the High Court, a decision based simply on evidence that acquitted him of any guilt.
Then there are references to the ‘findings’ of The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which many state show Pell was complicit in the cover-up of abuse by others – and yet these so-called allegations are not indubitable, even those which refer to the cases of predators Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson.
Australia’s mainstream media are only narrating a fraction of the story, and in doing so are causing untold harm to vulnerable people.
No Australian journalist in a mainstream publication has yet written about Pell as a global forerunner who courageously looked the horrors of childhood sexual abuse in the eye, both domestic as well as institutional abuse.
He was the first to take action to ensure victims were financially compensated without one person having to prove their abuse occurred even by civil standards, let alone by criminal ones. Still to this day, domestic victims do not have such a luxury.
Anyone involved in the restorative work of child sex abuse victims will know that the vast majority of abuse happens outside of institutions, carried out within the family, or by those in trusted positions of power. These stories rarely if ever see the light of day.
Mainstream journalists and media outlets are causing victims of domestic childhood sexual abuse more harm and hardship than hope and healing through their perfidious reporting about the cardinal. They are the ones pouring additional salt into many victims’ already festering wounds, the ones which Pell set out to heal.
I facilitate Western Australia’s Survivors’ Support Network. An article in the state newspaper, The Sunday Times, entitled, Pell of a Mess appeared days after the Cardinal’s death and sought to find every reason to condemn his soul to hell. The article ended:
‘There is another good fallback for those who need a sense of satisfaction at Pell’s passing, now that hell is off the table – during his 13 months in prison, the Cardinal said his least favourite part was the humiliating strip searches.’
These words cause incredible pain and harm to many survivors of child sexual abuse. They show indescribable insensitivity to the lived experiences of survivors.
Some in our network have met with Pell and were supported by him. As a result, they have blossomed and have moved away more swiftly than normal from their crippling pain. They have spoken of feeling understood, known, and cared for beyond their expectations by Pell’s consistent concern. He helped them to heal.
For these victims to speak up publicly about Pell’s integrity and generosity would mean opening a door to their family members knowing about their histories of abuse – and this is one door that many just cannot and will not push open. So, they are left wounded and trying to heal from any original abuse, to often be yet further wounded by salacious articles and cheap news reports about the person who brought them hope, and once again they have no way of defending themselves.
Members of our network have to labour hard to move beyond the ingrained suffering of past abuse, rape and sexual assault. Pell understood this. He did not remain silent, but reached out and helped.
For victims to suddenly be presented with an article in which a journalist rejoices in the strip searches of an innocent man – the same man who fought their cause – brings overwhelming distress. Today, victims can at least dwell on how Pell could understand firsthand their own abuse, their own rejection, and what it means to be wholly misunderstood, because he too was an innocent victim whose entire body was stripped naked, and put through humiliation and unnecessary imprisonment of mind, body, and soul.
As survivors, we invite all those protesting outside of Pell’s funeral, every bitter mainstream journalist, and our fellow survivors to reflect carefully and to recognise that Pell achieved more for child sex abuse victims than might ever be recorded on this side of eternity. For every bemoaner visible across news screens, there remain hidden and silent significantly more who are deeply grateful for the gift of Cardinal George Pell’s courageous and selfless life.