‘He’s Roman and that’s the Roman Way’: David Marr on George Pell

Review Essay by Genevieve Rogers

David Marr: The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell, Quarterly Essay, Issue 51, 2013. ISSN: 1832-0953

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Sometimes it’s just better to say nothing. True story. Written response of George Pell’s office to David Marr’s essay:

A predictable and selective rehash of old material. G K Chesterton said: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.

Well, quite. And a bad response tells us something about the responder. Leaving aside the obvious, though significant, difference between fiction and essay-writing, the response is telling. It is lofty, arch and dismissive – and completely misses the point. In short, rather princely. And it evokes, in all its splendid incisiveness, a quote for the ages from Mandy Rice-Davies: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

'Not the principal culprits.' Cardinal George Pell

‘Not the principal culprits.’ Cardinal George Pell

If the essay does tell us anything about David Marr it is that, as an essayist, he is painstaking in making his case, patiently revisiting decades of detail. Much of his material is already known but the achievement here is to have brought it all into one coherent narrative and, in the process, to have allowed a nuanced picture of his subject to emerge. The picture is not an easy one from anyone’s point of view, but it is drawn without the hysteria which often accompanies the issue of clerical child abuse. All of which makes some critical reaction misconceived e.g. Gerard Henderson’s  ‘All smoke and no smoking gun’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 2013). As a headline it has a certain melodramatic charm but the substance quickly palls. The problem is that its premise is wrong: Marr is not looking for a ‘smoking gun’ or a ‘gotcha’ moment. He doesn’t need to. His point is that on the watch and on the patch of George Pell, both product and exemplar of church hierarchy, ‘believing Christians’ were abandoned by a culture of institutional self-preservation. Ask Christine and Anthony Foster. No smoking gun required.

Old understandings’

Pell is a product of a period of institutional – some would say ‘messianic’ – certainty, of ‘years of triumphalist high confidence in the mission of the church’, in which a culture of deference effectively screened it from critical view. It must have seemed to him and other Werribee seminarians of the late 1950s and early 1960s that that would always be so. But it was not to be. The 1960s threw numerous curve balls at all forms of institutional certainty – and the church was not immune. In subsequent decades a rising tide of secular liberalism chipped away at the culture of deference, eroding ‘old understandings’ about what was and what was not legitimate subject matter for scrutiny. Those ‘old understandings’ – by nature intangible, tacit and unreviewable – were on a collision course with a more open, less complaisant society. It is the breakdown of that culture which perhaps explains the indignant tone of Pell’s response to the media in the context of the abuse scandals. There is a brittleness there which may best be explained as an attitude of thwarted entitlement. Time and again Pell has seemed not to understand that the zeitgeist has changed; that ours is a civil not a clerical society; and that the church has not been gratuitously singled out by the media. It has been challenged and scrutinised because it was failing tests of civic decency (by harbouring and protecting paedophiles) and the media were not content to let that lie. That’s their job. As Marr notes:

…very little of this scandal would have emerged but for newspaper and television investigations. Over thirty years, beginning with scattered reports of apparently isolated outrage, paedophile abuse and its cover-up by the religious had become one of the biggest stories in the world.

As recently as November 2012, on the announcement of the Gillard Government’s Royal Commission of Inquiry, Pell appeared not to get that.

‘Ireland is not Australia’

The world intruded uncomfortably during the first decade of the century with the publication in Ireland of four reports arising from inquiries into clerical child abuse – Ferns (Diocese, 2005) ; Ryan (Industrial Schools and Orphanages, 2009); Murphy (Dublin Diocese, 2009); and Cloyne (Diocese, 2011). As the mother-ship of Australian Catholicism, Ireland could reasonably have been expected to share some of its attitudinal and institutional characteristics, and to have had some lessons for its Antipodean offspring. But Pell would have none of it. ‘Ireland is not Australia’ was his response to the devastating revelations of the Ryan Report. Maybe not, but it was, for those who wished to see, the paradigm case of what happens when the civic and the clerical worlds become enmeshed in the absence of oversight. Those reports, the product of a decade’s work and of the expenditure of €133.8 million, must have sent chills down some local spines as they laid bare practices which, it is now apparent, had long been common both here and in other parts of the world. That comes with the territory of a global institution. The Irish reports are rightly regarded as models for work of this kind. In particular, there was a history of moving abusing clergy and religious from one parish or school to another to conceal offending and to protect the church from ‘scandal’. So frustrated was the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, that he was moved to re-declare Irish Independence in the Dáil:

This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of ‘morality’ will no longer be tolerated or ignored…when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself cannot, and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic.

Enda Kenny, Dáil Debate, 20 July 2011

The echo was heard half a world away. The message was that accountability to civil standards was coming. And still there was resistance.

 Sin or crime?

Kenny had struck at the core of the issue: who draws the lines and by reference to what?  The Vatican or the State? By special claims to ultimate authority or by reference to civil authority?  Canon Law or Civil Law? And how is the offending behaviour to be characterised? Is it sin or crime? Is it forgivable or reportable? To most of us these would not be vexed questions. Sexual abuse of children is a crime. It is a crime because it is an assault (a particularly vicious form of assault). It is a crime because our law criminalises such assaults. Or, to put it another way, when was it not a crime? As Marr records, according to Pell at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2013, the answer is – until and including the 1970s:

‘With due deference,’ Pell replied, ‘I take you back to the 1970s. It was only in the 1970s that articles started to appear about the significance and importance and the terrible crimes of paedophilia. This crime, I suppose – what was it? The sodomy of children. That was always regarded as being totally reprehensible.’ But not so reprehensible that priests at that time should be handed over to the police or expelled from the church…Last year he told The Australian: ‘Back in those days, they were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of.’ (emphasis added).

A reasonable person, on hearing this spluttering confusion, might question that it was the utterance of a prominent public figure with an Oxford doctorate. What could so have white-anted his thought processes as to produce this?

Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell

Marr’s answer is that Pell is essentially ‘a Roman’. From the time of Vatican II, when he was a student there, Pell loved Rome, ‘the city, its pomp and its history. From this point, Rome would be his other country. He would always have a life there.’ It’s an astute observation borne out by Pell’s career. By 2013 Pell ‘had been a bishop for twenty five years, a cardinal for ten, archbishop in turn of Australia’s two biggest cities and a big figure in Rome since the time of John Paul II.’ Scarcely a backward glance at Ballarat and faith lived close to the ground. Unfortunately, that makes him complicit in ‘the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the Vatican to this day.’ (Enda Kenny, 2011) After a brief flirtation with the reforms of Vatican II, Pell joined B A Santamaria as an opponent of the ‘ “the principle of the moral autonomy of the individual” ‘ and as an enthusiastic advocate of the authority of the Papacy. Nothing in his subsequent history diverges from that: nothing in Marr’s account suggests that Pell has ever second-guessed that choice. And if the Vatican didn’t consider clerical child abuse the business of civil authorities – and it didn’t, as the Irish inquiries showed beyond doubt – neither would the Vatican’s Man Down Under. Until there was no choice, that is. Despite the fact that this brand of Catholicism is unpopular with many Australian bishops he appears not to understand that he is on the wrong side of history. Nor does he seem to care. In fact, he ploughs on with vigour because he believes that the ‘pruned tree’ will regrow more abundantly than before, because in ‘the hard things of Christ’ lies the real future of the church. A truly striking feature of the Pell story is the complete absence of the ‘pastoral’ and the almost total immersion in the ‘institutional’. Whether his apparently tin ear in dealing with victims and their families is personal inadequacy or an effect of his hierarchical remoteness from his flock is hard to say but maybe, as Marr reports, it is because ‘He’s Roman and that’s the Roman way’.

‘Believing Christians’

It is in no way relevant to his fitness to write the essay that David Marr is not a Catholic, is gay, is a former Anglican and is occasionally controversial. It is even less relevant to his account of the career of George Pell, especially in relation to Pell’s approach to the abuse scandals, that David Marr ‘has no idea of what motivates a believing Christian’. He doesn’t need to know that, in order to hold Pell’s response up to the light of day and to find it wanting. Any reasonable person who sifts the evidence and writes clearly is qualified for the task. The standard is ‘believing citizen’, not ‘believing Christian’. But Cardinal Pell, prince of the church, needs to have an idea that the victims and their families were ‘believing Christians’ whose belief and whose Christianity put them in harm’s way in the first place. He needs to remind himself – as a holder of his office could be expected to do, and as a ‘believing Christian’ himself – of the level of trust that accompanied the cultivated ‘mystique and aura of the priesthood’. He needs to have a very clear idea about that.

The portrait –‘the strange ordinariness of George Pell’

Marr’s portrait is ultimately of a man ‘of strange ordinariness’ who has sealed himself off behind various glass walls – rank, power, celibacy, the imperium, legalism; a man who peers out through them, unable to grasp the irrelevance of princes to the modern world. It is not, however, entirely without a note almost of sympathy for Pell’s genuine bafflement at the disconnect between his own and the wider world. But if that raises the prospect of a deflection, Marr’s concluding paragraph suggests otherwise:

The gamble such men take is that they may live their whole lives without learning the workings of an adult heart. Their world is the church. People are shadowy. Pell is one of these: a company man of uncertain empathy. He has the consolations of friendship, music and a good cellar. And he has what inspired him from the start; a place at the highest levels of his church and a voice in the nation. He has power.

The ‘Good News’

The Age of 3 October 2013 reports that Pell is in Rome as a member of the ‘G8’ group of cardinals advising the new Pope on reform of the Vatican. Meanwhile, back on his own patch, the Truth, Justice and Healing Council – set up to co-ordinate the church’s response for the Royal Commission – has rejected the current ‘legalism’ of the flawed Towards Healing process. It proposes a ‘pastoral’ response and admits to past ‘inexcusable’ betrayals of trust by the church. It concedes that concealment of abuse was ‘indefensible’ and that many lessons have been learnt.

Not the least important lesson the Australian Church has absorbed was the need to replace Cardinal Pell as its public face on the abuse issue…After his ‘catastrophic’ press conference ‘welcoming’ the announcement of the royal commission last November, in which he blamed a ‘persistent’ anti-church ‘press campaign’, the nation’s bishops moved swiftly to appoint a lay-led council to represent the church to the commission, and to the faithful and the public.

 Barney Zwartz, ‘Remarkable U-turn comes after lessons learnt the hard way’, The Age, 3 October 2013.

There is, as yet, no flesh on the bones of the Council’s overhaul proposals and there are doubting voices still. At this stage the proposals are merely statements of intent: but they have the ring of chastened recognition about them and, at least at face value, suggest that ‘the church accepts its days of secrecy and autonomy are over’ (Zwartz). They appear, in fact, to take David Marr’s point after all. All of which suggests that when the next chapter in Australian church history is written readers of ‘The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell’ will absorb its narrative with a degree of incredulity. It was all so obvious, they will say.

So why?

Further Reviews of Marr’s Essay:


Genevieve Rogers, a retired teacher and lawyer, has previously commented on the Ryan and the Cloyne Reports for Tinteán (see Tinteán Archive, issues 10, pp.20-1 and 18, p.29), and is the author of Territory Kids: A Memoir.


6 thoughts on “‘He’s Roman and that’s the Roman Way’: David Marr on George Pell

  1. A cleverly crafted essay which documents the failings of the church and its leaders to deal with this vexed problem – both in terms of its perpetrators and victims – in an open and just manner. This reader was certainly convinced that the priorities and policy were wrong. It is not just a review but a detailed examination of Marr’s reasoning and judgement, backed by a huge body of historical detail with very credible sources.

  2. The support for Marr’s body of work on the hypocrisy and arrogance of the church through it’s leaders and church policy, particularly on this issue, has been soundly backed by much research and fact finding.

  3. Neither Zwartz nor Marr speak for us. Both are great haters, not lovers, & their viewpoints are promoted by the very people who would drive us back into Connaught.

  4. I can’t imagine Jesus of Nazareth remaining silent when Prince George basks in his world of non-Christian privilege.

    • We can only hope that now he has been baptised, the Christian message of helping the poor will slowly percolate into his developing mind.

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