Australian Commission to Investigate Abuse: Sydney Cardinal Provokes Backlash in Citing Media 'Smear' Campaign

By Crittenden, Stephen | National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

Australian Commission to Investigate Abuse: Sydney Cardinal Provokes Backlash in Citing Media 'Smear' Campaign


Crittenden, Stephen, National Catholic Reporter


SYDNEY * Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Nov. 12 that a national royal commission would investigate institutional responses to allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.

The commission will look at a wide array of public and private institutions that serve youth, from schools and residential homes to the Boy and Girl Scouts, but the abuse of minors in the Catholic church is undeniably an impetus for the announcement.

The decision, taken at a meeting of the federal cabinet, has received over-whelming public support; 95 precent of Australians approve of the commission, according to a Herald-Nielsen opinion poll.

Pressure for a national royal commission has been mounting for years, led by abuse victims and some sections of the Australian media. Child sexual abuse is already the subject of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry in the state of Victoria, and in early November another inquiry was announced in the state of New South Wales.

Victims' advocates have warned that it may take up to 10 years to complete, and that thousands of people may want to give evidence about incidents of abuse that occurred as long ago as the 1930s. Up to half a million Australian children were in care during the last half century. Cardinal George Pell of Sydney provoked a furious backlash when he suggested pressure for the royal commission had been provoked by a one-sided media "smear" campaign against the Catholic church. He said abuse by Catholic clergy had been singled out and exaggerated, but he welcomed the royal commission as "an opportunity to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction."

Speaking at a news conference the day after the commission was announced, Pell said, "We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic church. We object to it being exaggerated. We object to being described as the only cab on the rank."

In stark contrast, Australia's most senior Anglican bishop, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane, enthusiastically endorsed the commission, even revealing that he had lobbied for it 10 years ago.

Pell's ambivalence about the commission earned him criticism from other corners of Catholic Australia.

Retired Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a former head of the church's national professional standards committee and himself a victim of child sexual abuse, described Pell as "an embarrassment to me and a lot of good Catholic people," and said that his response to the royal commission had been "a disaster for the Catholic church."

"He's not a team player, he never has been," Robinson said. "He's not consulting with anyone else, he's simply doing his own thing. I personally believe he's doing it very badly indeed and I think the other Australian bishops, as one of the very first questions they need to face, they've got to confront him and determine who it is that speaks in their name and who doesn't."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, Australia's most prominent lay Catholic and a close associate of Pell's, also distanced himself from the cardinal's remarks.

More embarrassing for Pell has been the response of leading child protection expert Patrick Parkinson of the University of Sydney. The bishops hired Parkinson to provide an independent assessment of its national sexual abuse protocol, "Towards Healing," which was introduced in 1996 and has since been twice revised.

At his press conference, Pell invoked Parkinson's endorsement of "Towards Healing" as confirmation that the church had cleaned up its act and that any inadequacies in dealing with abuse allegations were all in the past. …

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