George Pell and shame

Fair warning: I’m about to talk about faith and religion, so if they aren’t your bag, please feel free to wander away now.  Also, this post is kind of long and very personal and if any of that, or incandescent rage, offends, you might want to look away.  If you want something lighter, may I suggest the post about what makes a man sexy?  That will be much more fun than this one.

Warning over. Read on at your own risk!

So, a couple of days ago, this happened.

Sidenote: For those not in Australia, or who haven’t been keeping up, George Pell is a Catholic Cardinal who was a bishop in Australia when many children were abused by pedophile priests.  He has already given evidence to the Royal Commission (enquiry) into these crimes, but now they want him to give more.  He is currently in Rome and claims to be too unwell to travel back to Australia to give it.  He has asked to give evidence remotely, but the victims and their families want to be able to look him in the eye as he answers the questions – which seems a small enough thing to ask.

Tim Minchin in this video expresses the feelings of many Australians, including me, about George Pell – or at least about his coming back to face the Royal Commission.   The song doesn’t cover all of my feelings about him, but I suspect they would require more bad language to express than I normally indulge in on this blog.

Thing is, though, those feelings are harder for me than for Tim, because, while he is an out and proud atheist, I’m Catholic.  You may or may not know this.  I don’t hide it, but nor do I talk about it much.  The latter is not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I feel that faith is better expressed in actions than words.

But when it comes to a situation like this, to be silent is to be complicit.  Or at least, that is how it feels for me.  I can’t speak for other Catholics and I wouldn’t want to.  This whole horrible story is at least partly about people having others talk for them and over them – and about who is believed.  The abused must be allowed to speak for themselves.

But I can answer the question here that I have answered in real life more than once.

It isn’t the question about why I have faith in God – that’s a much bigger question, which is not for today.

It’s the question of why, in the face of these revelations, I remain Catholic.  Why I stay in a fold that has hurt and killed people (because if you inflict the trauma that causes suicide, you are culpable for the deaths).

It’s a good question.  I have considered leaving.  But here’s the thing.  These people -these bastards – who hid the abuse of children and enabled it to continue – these men are not the Church for me.

The Church is my parents, the community that I grew up in and the one I am part of now.  It is the good brothers, nuns, priests and laypeople who have worked tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the sick and the outcast – and just to live good lives and love God – under the banner of Catholicism. These people are – as our tradition teaches, but the hierarchy seems often to forget – the Body of Christ.

Those people were betrayed not just by the pedophile priests, but by the hierarchy that allowed the abuse to happen and continue.  When these crimes came to those bishops’ attention they should have immediately acted to remove those men, to protect the children and to take a very serious look at the structures that had allowed or even encouraged it to happen in the first place.

They didn’t do that.  And by not acting as even basic decency dictated, they betrayed not only their calling and their vows, they betrayed every good person who believed that they were part of something holy.  On behalf of my parents and all the other good Catholics that I know, this makes me furious.

And that is why I persist in this Church. Because I’ll be damned if I let these godless vow-breakers be the legacy of my parents and others like them.  I refuse to let the good priests I know be tarred with the same brush as those who committed these crimes.

If, by my work and witness, I can make the name of Catholic stink a little less in people’s nostrils, then I have honoured the good people who no more knew about or condoned these atrocities than my Muslim friends condone the crimes committed in their name of their Prophet.

I know some people think that faith is nonsensical and religions are at best irrelevant and at worst actively evil.  I can see why you might think that.  But I don’t.

I have faith, although it is often challenged.  And as a person of faith, I recognise religion as a way of practising, focusing and supporting faith that can be of extraordinary benefit to both the individual and the community.  It isn’t always the case.  I’ve studied history.  I know that all religions have weaknesses and are vulnerable to being used to serve ungodly purposes. Faith comes from God, but religions are human constructs.   The Catholic Church, like all human institutions that last long enough, has done terrible things before and no doubt will again. I cannot and do not blame anyone who feels that the only option is to abandon ship.

But for me, I feel my job is to stay and work to make it better.  To help to re-form the Church into what it should be – an image of Christ in the world.

Some would say that it’s a hopeless cause.  That the rot is too deep, too endemic and the best thing to do would be to scrap it altogether.  But that’s when I come back to the people who have gone before me.  Along with the evil and power-hungry, there have been so many good people and so much good done, along with the bad.  In their name, I think we – or I, anyway – am required to at least attempt salvage.

Besides, I’m an old hand at fighting long and difficult fights that others think are insane.  I am an advocate for the environment and social justice.  I try daily to make my life more ethical, whether it’s in my shopping or my interactions with others.  I try to be aware of my privilege and adjust my attitude and actions accordingly.  I do my darnedest to be kind.

I know I often fail.  (My post from a few days ago shows how spectacularly I can fail even myself on the last one.)  And I know that the previous paragraph will make some people write me off as a bleeding-heart liberal with no knowledge of ‘the real world’.  (I’ve heard this and other similar things before).  They might be right.  Given the way people are, trying to make the world a better place could fairly be called an unwinnable fight.

But as I said to a friend in the environment movement, who was feeling discouraged about the lack of substantive change in his area, all the important fights are essentially unwinnable.  If I may get biblical for a minute, Jesus himself said, ‘the poor will always be with us’.

But we fight the fight anyway, we work to end poverty, we strive for unity and kindness and compassion, because it’s the right thing to do.  When he said that about the poor, Jesus didn’t mean to imply that we should just accept the fate of the poor.  He meant that, as long as the world lasts, there will always be opportunities for good works – and that we should do them.  St Paul is not my favourite writer but he said a mouthful when he said that he had ‘I have fought the good fight; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith’.

I believe that’s what we are all called to do.  To fight the good fight.  For people of faith, it’s a divine calling.  For others, I think it still applies, as an imperative of being a communal species.

So that’s why I’m still a Catholic, in spite of Cardinal George and all those who make excuses for him.  Because they are not my Church (no matter what they might think).  My Church is the people, current, past and future, in the trenches trying to bring this world closer to the kingdom of heaven.  They are worth fighting for.

And that’s why I’ve bought a copy of Tim’s song.  Because he has more in common with those people than you do, George.

Copyright Imelda Evans 2016

10 thoughts on “George Pell and shame

  1. I want to have a good cry after reading this. It’s appalling that the church can be so supportive and wonderful in one area, and fail so utterly and cause so much damage in another. I went to a Catholic high school in Ballarat. Mum and I have donated to the amazing fundraiser (It’s nearly at $180,000 in just three days!). I had an incredible education, especially the final two years. The teachers (some of them ex priests) encouraged us to question things, to head out into the world and do our best. I have a really hard time reconciling that wonderful side of Catholicism with the truly awful disgrace of those in the hierarchy. On a personal note, I tried really hard to get faith. It just didn’t take. I still like sitting in church, it’s relaxing, comforting, calming. The tradition can be such a source of joy to so many. The community can be wonderful. The hierarchy failed though, and from the looks of things, they’re still failing their own community.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Ebony. I really appreciate it. It’s good to hear that people can see there is good as well as bad in the Church. From a faith point of view, I cling to the faults in the church being human and the good divine and if we cling to the divine we can make it right.

  2. Thanks, Mel. Very well put, and helpful. My comment is a bit of a tangent to your main point, but I want to put this out there to put the refining fire to thoughts that I have been putting together. It seems to me that, while the Catholic Church seems to have the highest profile of the organisations implicated in mishandling paedophilia, it is not the only one. Indeed, my observation (not willingly spoken by the media) is that everywhere where children are gathering, so gather the predators. This the case whether the organisations are ‘religious’ in any way or not. Unfortunately, in most of these (again irrespective of whether they are religious on not), most leadership has tried to preserve the good name of the organisation by trying to hide the crimes. Here I think the religious organisations got it 180 degrees wrong. I think their ‘good name’ would have been preserved much more by taking a zero tolerance approach right from the start; anyone for whom there was any evidence of paedophilia should have been reported to the police. Yes, people would have found that there were paedophiles in the organisation but it would have been very clear that it was totally unacceptable and will no be allowed to occur ‘here’.

    I am thankful that this is now the case; in my church everyone who is involved in any form of leadership (whether children are involved or not) must do child protection training every 3 years. The law says that the Pastor is a mandatory reporter to police of any suspected child endangerment. The Presbyterian church says that ALL of us in leadership are required to go straight to the police. I expect (hope) that this is now the case throughout the Christian Church.

    • Absolutely, to all that you said. The prevailing conditions of the times, particularly the ideas about how children should be cared for and what was appropriate contributed to these horrible crimes. But I understand why people focus on the church-run organisations, as it is an even greater betrayal of trust. Not to mention their responsibility to God. The sorts of changes you mentioned have happened, but I think we still need to take a good hard look at the whole structure of the priesthood as well. But that’s probably a conversation for offline! 🙂 thanks for coming, Chris.

  3. I was raised Catholic. I don’t go to church much anymore. Yet, it’s not because of the scandals. The world is my church.
    Story with black humor:
    I did costumes for a movie “Our Fathers” based on the book by David France “The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal” In this case Cardinal Law was hierarchy that covered up the abuses. It was very hard to work on this show, recreating pedophile scenes, depicting the turned upside down lives of victims & the denials by the church. Even Cardinal Law on the stand was not a satisfying reality. He eventually went to live in Rome, as a Cardinal, allowed by the Pope. The Pope had hopes for Cardinal Law to be Pope one day. Now not.
    We had lots of big stars in the movie.
    Adult victims, survivors came to set while we were shooting.
    It was all quite unnerving.
    Prior to starting prep on the movie, I read the book. It is the biggest book I ever read..humongous.. hard cover…couldn’t hold it on my lap. The part of the book we made into the movie was a small fraction of the book, as it went far deep into this very old.. as old a the Catholic Church history of sexual sins. Very bleak at the most optimistic points.
    One day the book, attacked my right foot’s next to my big toe’s toe. Okay, I accidentally dropped it. The toe broke.
    I hobbled through the 4 month prep & shoot with the broken toe taped to the toes on each side of it. There was constant pain…14 or more hours to a working day.
    I had to buy sneakers in 2 different sizes, the larger size for my right foot. The doctor was right. I needed to put my foot up for a few weeks, which I did after we were wrapped, & it got better.
    I chuckle in retrospect. Nothing was going to stop me from bringing this story into movie form, to the light of the many who didn’t know. I believed I was doing something good.
    The thought of you not letting the wrong deeds of some deter you from your faith is very honorable. It, also, made me think ….perhaps the book did attack my toe, after all.
    Much love to you

    • Oh wow, Resa. That broken toe story is powerful, isn’t it? I mean, at the time, mainly painful, but there’s something very significant in suffering to bring a story of suffering to the people.
      Look, it’s hard. I have studied Church history and I have looked into the abyss that is the unofficial history as well. The Church has much to be ashamed of. There are times when I want to throw that baby out with the bathwater and start again. But I’m stopped by the same things that stop me walking out on my husband when he drives me mental. 🙂 If we start again, we eventually get to the same place.

      People are flawed – evil sometimes. A system that says there is a greater good and a higher power will always be vulnerable to people perverting that to say that that good and power agree with what the people in charge want. But history also tells us that people are drawn to that higher power and the community of religion, so we have to work out how to do this better. And, as a person of faith, I figure that God has put me here, in this Church, in the family he gave me, for a reason. Maybe staying and staring down the old white guys – or just outliving the bastards! – is one of the reasons. I can only try to listen to the Spirit and hope I haven’t got my wires crossed! Thank you for sharing your story and for doing what you think is right. It’s all we can do, in the end and it’s enough to change the world, if we all do it!

  4. Pingback: The Honesty Ferret | Wine, Women & Wordplay

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