Pope Social Distance Pell
The parish priest, Jorge Bergoglio could afford the luxury of welcoming with open arms an old colleague whom he believed to have been falsely accused of sexual abuse. Even as Pope Francis he could have indulged himself with warm greetings in private. But the public display in photographs and videos of unqualified acceptance – most headlines have called it vindication – has profoundly dismayed thousands of survivors and their families around the world.
We all know that each of us is in need of forgiveness. Just a few short years after Fr. Bergoglio was a student in Ireland, Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen forgave the IRA members who planted the bomb that killed his daughter, Marie. He condemned the violence even as he forgave the men just as Jesus of Nazareth forgave the thief without condoning theft. We cannot wash our hands of people we find dangerous or venal. We have been shown how to deal with compassion for the sinner even as we condemn the sin.
There are only two people who know with total certainty whether or not George Pell sexually abused his accuser – one of them is not Pope Francis. That being the case, in choosing how to deploy himself in relation George Pell the Pope should have made his public response a pastoral one. The heart of the problem is that Francis, in order to make a proper pastoral response to Australian Catholics, needed to place a much wider frame around Pell’s multi-layered and ongoing relationship with the sexual abuse scandal in this country. Francis must know by now that the cardinal is an extremely divisive figure in Australia. Many in this country believe witness J, many more believe that Pell has covered up sexual abuse by clerics for decades. Unfortunately, this is the wider context in which Pope Francis has chosen to rehabilitate Pell. In Australia, although the criminal justice aspect of this case is concluded the problems of the less than robust response of the Church is a running sore.
It would appear that, once again, Pope Francis has failed to understand the height, the length, the breadth and the depth of the problem of sexual abuse within the Church. First and foremost, are the thousands upon thousands of survivors, their parents, spouses, children, even mourners. Secondly, are the disillusioned, those who have walked away from the church with the words of George Pell ringing in their ears: we made “enormous mistakes” in relation to clerical sexual abuse. Dr. Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, testified to the breadth of pain of survivors. Referring to the large increase in phone calls after the High Court decision she said, “And not just the number. There was a depth of hopelessness and despair that they had not experienced before”. Photographs of the leaders of the Australian Church, Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell, smiling, shoulder to shoulder, in the Vatican, the one fully affirming the other, Santo Subito!, can only exacerbate these feelings of hopelessness and despair.