Editorial: When innuendo says goodbye to objectivity

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Cardinal Pell pictured in a 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS
Cardinal Pell pictured in a 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS

It is a remarkable experience to watch what seems to be a lynch mob maneuvering to execute a victim. It becomes bizarre when the victim is one of those who acted to prevent the crime for which the mob want to hang him. That’s the problem with a lynching: blindness to the facts due to a passionate conviction that the mob, and only the mob, knows the truth.

This was the feeling, at least, after reading the latest piece by David Marr in The Guardian’s Australian edition of 24 November, purporting to report in a general way on the evidence, atmosphere and general direction surrounding the Royal Commission hearing into sexual abuse in Melbourne.

What is presented as a journalist’s report is more like an attempted assassination – the latest thrust in a seemingly unending vendetta pursued by Mr Marr against Cardinal Pell, a kind of long, slow attempt to bring about – in the absence of actual evidence – death by innuendo.

Taken at face value the Marr piece seems to demonstrate that Cardinal Pell can expect little to zero objectivity from significant sections of the media who appear to have already reached a verdict. It also demonstrates that there are really two commissions sitting in judgment on the issue of sexual abuse: one a royal commission acting to the highest legal standards in its search for the truth, the other a self-appointed commission of the fourth estate which seems to believe an opportunity presents itself regardless, we might almost say, of the truth.

So how, precisely, does David Marr write about the cardinal?

Despite the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence and the universal entitlement to defend oneself in any court of law, we learn from David Marr that: “The cardinal has broken with the church’s legal team and its gentle determination not to cross-examine victims … The commissioners are circling Pell … That he did nothing effective to deal with [the crazed Fr] Searson in those years hangs over Pell’s reputation today … Pell’s Melbourne Response paid victims so little … In Melbourne the tariff [for victims] was $46,000. It’s a little miracle.” It’s restrained, but the nastiness is definitely there. Meanwhile, we can do little better than refer to Fr Frank Brennan SJ’s recent article in Eureka Street supporting Cardinal Pell’s right to legal representation and to cross-examine evidence, if necessary, so that truth and justice for all may be served.

However, the Marr approach appears to veer dangerously close to taking advantage of the circumstances – the evil of sexual abuse and its investigation by the properly constituted legal authority in accordance with the highest standards of evidence and legal practice. If this were the case it would, above all other things, be a betrayal and a disservice to those whose interests should be of primary concern to everyone regardless of their position – the victims.

What is so strange about his sniping is to contrast it with what is already known to be true: the newly-appointed Melbourne Archbishop who dealt with the repulsive Fr Searson swiftly and introduced his own Melbourne Response, whatever criticisms may be made of it with the benefit of hindsight. Soon after, the Australian bishops produced Towards Healing, the first thoroughly modern and effectively-national attempt in the Church in Australia to deal comprehensively with the phenomenon of abuse.

It is here that something strange emerges in Marr’s attempt to tar and feather Cardinal Pell. The cardinal appears to be – in the Marr universe – an ultra-conservative determined to slug it out with his political, ideological and theological opponents, incapable of allowing for nuance, a sort-of clerical bruiser clever enough to climb the ranks of the Church’s Byzantine politics and intrigue to enjoy the comforts of a privileged and powerful life; an individual blind to the evil of celibacy and obtuse about sexuality.

Yet, if the Marr picture be believed, an individual widely regarded as the toughest and most straight-talking of his generation of Australian clerics and bishops suddenly appears to have been unwilling or incapable of rocking the boat of mere clerical convention to confront sexual abuse. Paralysis. As the two recent Synods on the Family should remind everyone, George Pell can hardly be accused of not speaking his mind when he feels it is important to speak. Something about Mr Marr’s picture doesn’t quite add up.

Yet the venomous asides and epithets casually tossed into Marr’s prose – despite any supporting evidence and even before Cardinal Pell has had a chance to defend himself (for the third time before the Royal Commission in two years) – seem to serve to make his writing about George Cardinal Pell only more reptilian. For this, we can in a sense be grateful, because it’s so obvious. There is nothing so ugly as a mob which so blindly pursues the innocent man that it appears to have forgotten the victim.