Friday, August 30, 2019

"George Pell AC (born 8 June 1941) Is an Australian Cardinal of the Catholic Church and Convicted Child Sex Offender": Questions We Might Ask

Plus ça change: for people who profess to be all about taking history and tradition seriously, many self-professed Catholic conservatives/traditionalists seem uncommonly unwilling to learn anything at all from history. Several decades ago, there George Weigel and the folks at First Things were, loudly proclaiming the innocence of the notorious serial abuser of youth and drug addict Father Marcial Maciel and defaming those like Jason Berry who did their journalistic duty and told the world the truth about what Maciel was doing — and how top Catholic officials were covering up his activities.

Then the piles of evidence of what Maciel was about — and of the cover-up from the top of the church — became impossible to discount, and Weigel and the folks at First Things stopped the special pleading. Because they had no choice except to do that, if they expected anyone in the real world to take anything they had to say about anything at all seriously any longer….

Now here we are all over again, with the recent upholding of Cardinal Pell's conviction by the Australian judicial system, and the usual suspects are crawling out of the woodwork all over again, declaring Pell innocent and suggesting that they have gnostic, extra-judicial knowledge of his case which proves that the entire judicial and police system of Australia (a nation in which Catholics are the largest Christian denomination) is rife with anti-Catholic bias and willing to pursue a shaky conviction of a top Catholic prelate on the basis of insubstantial evidence for that reason.

In its just-published editorial entitled "Those who dismiss Pell verdict ignore integrity of legal process," National Catholic Reporter names names: George Weigel; Edward Peters; Matthew Schmitz; John Allen; Michael Warren Davis.

Have. Not. Learned. A. Blessed. Thing. From. History. And. Past. Mistakes.

For a church that claims to value history and tradition supremely, this reflex "traditionalist" response to events like the upholding of Cardinal Pell's conviction is extremely destructive — to the church itself, and its primary claims about itself. How to take the claim of valuing history seriously when its loudest defenders clearly do not do that themselves? 

One would think the ensuing 15 years of hard experience should have encouraged a sense of epistemic humility, and a sense of charity for victims. 

How to take the claim of the church to be based on the gospel — on good news proclaimed to the poor, the abused, the broken, the marginalized — seriously, when those who profess to be the church's loudest defenders want to bully abuse survivors into silence and to frame any testimony survivors might have to give about how the church has really operated in their lives as anti-Catholic? As the NCR editorial says,

In the interest of helping others care for victims — assuming, of course, that those defending the convicted cardinal have such intention — it seems only reasonable that basic courtesy is a minimum. When a person comes forward alleging that they have been abused by a minister in the Catholic Church — be it a priest, bishop, sister, teacher, parish worker or otherwise — they should be listened to, treated with respect, and presented with avenues for justice. 
The primary responsibility for assessing the truth of the alleged victim's claim falls to those taking part in the court proceedings, and unless something's gone strangely awry, we still trust that the court systems of major advanced democracies, such as Australia, are reliable arbiters of justice.

And as it concludes,

Hysteria serves no purpose. An ongoing, sober accounting of what happened and an unblinking search for why and how it happened are the questions and answers that will best serve the people of God.

As Brigid Delaney asks in The Guardian today, 

What do those of us – the unmolested but disgusted, confused or defiant – do with our tattered church?

The bottom line is that Pell was convicted of crimes unanimously by a trial jury. You either accept that this is the best our legal system can offer or you throw out trial by jury. And that's not going to happen.

The danger for the Church is to be seen as standing in judgment over criminal courts. It must render to Caesar what is Caesar's. Now is the time to put aside tribal loyalties, and look for a survivor-led response to abuse. Complainants have to be listened to with compassion and sensitivity, regardless of the rank or prestige or notoriety of those they accuse. Compassion must also be shown to George Pell, for whom this case may be a tragic and ignominious end to many years of service to the Church, including an honourable role in making the Vatican’s tangled finances more transparent. 

[W]hy is the Catholic establishment so reluctant to accept what has convinced a jury and the highest court in the Australian State of Victoria, after a trial and appeal that scrupulously observed due process? Why, for instance, did Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne speculate that it might have been a case of mistaken identity, when no evidence of that has ever been offered on Pell's behalf, even by his defence team. And why have the right-wing Catholic media, especially in the United States, taken up Pell's case as a cause célèbre with such extraordinary zeal? 
This is an evasion of reality, with an ideological undercurrent.  

But the facts, when stated, are stark. George Pell's Wikipedia entry now begins like this: "George Pell AC (born 8 June 1941) is an Australian convicted child sex offender and prelate of the Catholic Church". The most imminent edit is the removal of that "AC."*

To repeat the question: how to take seriously the claim of the church to be a living vehicle for transmitting and embodying the good news of Jesus to the poor, abused, broken, and marginalized, when the loudest "defenders" of the church are people who never have to face being beaten down, demeaned, disempowered, taken for granted because they enjoy unmerited (and unacknowledged, and unreflected-on) power and privilege as straight heterosexual males? This is a question I ask myself constantly, of course, as an openly gay man married to another man, both of whom have theology degrees from a Catholic school, but neither of whom was given any chance within Catholic institutions to use his talents and knowledge to further theological discussions.

This is a question I ask myself as someone once shoved roughly into a doorway at the Rome airport by one of the gentlemen named above, who is now defending Cardinal Pell.

This is a question I asked myself recently as I read an article by a Catholic theologian suggesting that the solution to the abuse crisis in the Catholic church will be to return to the gospel. What I asked myself quite specifically as I read the article was, "Do theologians like this even listen to themselves? Do they listen to themselves as they call for a return to the gospel, but never issue any call at all for the church to listen to those who have been denied good news and gospel by the church — by the Catholic institutions in which they are cozily embedded as white heterosexual married folks?

Have they ever called on those institutions to set up listening spaces in which those who do not experience the church as good news can provide testimony?

How can the church seriously claim it wants to correct itself and choose a gospel course again if it's unwilling to listen to those most equipped to tell the church how it has failed at embodying the gospel — the poor, abused, broken, marginalized?"

I keep asking. And the answers I hear from people like Messrs. Weigel, Peters, Schmitz, Allen, Davis and others like them — they're legion in male-entitled heterosexist (or pretend-heterosexist) Catholic institutions — are hardly reassuring, so that, like Brigid Delaney, I have learned to keep my distance.

* The title of the posting provides the latest redaction of the opening sentence of Pell's Wikipedia biography. Wikipedia entries are a notorious battleground for hard-right Catholics who monitor Catholic-related pages like hawks, and who edit and re-edit those pages to cover information damaging to the Catholic church — so it's entirely possible that, in days to come, this Wikipedia page will be rewritten. 

The photo at the head of the posting is by Kerry Myers, and shows Pell at Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Sydney in 2012; it has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

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