The call to hold George Pell accountable for the horrors perpetrated by others

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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 more than 50 years since 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death just metres from her apartment in Queens, New York. Winston Moseley had seen her returning from work about 3am and grabbed her from behind. Kitty screamed for help, yelling that she had been stabbed. Lights in some apartments switched on, and someone was heard to yell: “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran away, then returned minutes later to stab her to death.

At the time, it was reported that 38 people witnessed the attack but did nothing. They did not even call the police.

The number of witnesses is disputed, but there were definitely people who witnessed either or both attacks and did nothing.

The March 1964 case gave rise to the theory of the “bystander effect”, which says that the more people who see a situation, the less likely it is that anyone will do anything about it.

The theory of the bystander effect has been on my mind as we have been witnessing another round of Royal Commission hearings, with this latest session again focused on the Catholic Church. For these two weeks, the Royal Commission has been looking at the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and has paid particular attention to the appalling case of Holy Family Church and Primary School, Doveton.

The Holy Family story is unquestionably horrific, with four abusive priests serving consecutively as pastors of the parish over a period of 25 years. Of particular interest to the commission has been Fr Peter Searson, who was parish priest therefor around half of that time.

In addition to a complaint that he sexually abused a young girl inside a confessional being documented at the time it occurred, there was a litany of other incidents involving Searson. It was said he held a knife to the chest of a female student, and pointed a gun at others. He tape-recorded confessions of primary school children and made them kneel between his knees during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He killed a cat in front of students by swinging it around his head, and killed a bird with a screwdriver. He showed children a body in a coffin. He was caught shoplifting and misappropriating parish funds.

From evidence before the commission and available on its website, it appears that many people knew about Searson’s disgraceful and criminal conduct.

There were letters from the school principal to the Catholic Education Office and archdiocesan officials. Police reports referencing many of these matters (including an interview with the child he abused in the confessional) date back to 1990, with additional reports in 1994-95. A newspaper article suggested that police were even investigating as early as 1982.

Evidence given previously at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry also shows that police officers interviewed children from the school but were unable to gather enough evidence to lay charges against Searson.

But even with this widespread knowledge and numerous complaints to police, there still appears to be a desire in some quarters to lay the blame for the horror Searson inflicted at Doveton on a singular “bystander” in the person of Cardinal George Pell, who from 1987-96 was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne for the region which included Doveton.

This desire exists even though a cursory look at the facts surrounding this case show quite clearly that he had no authority to remove Searson prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and that he moved swiftly thereafter to have Searson out of Doveton and ministry altogether.

Witness after witness so far in these proceedings has given testimony that an auxiliary bishop had no authority to discipline, suspend or remove a priest. Fr Thomas Doyle, director of the Catholic Education Office at the time, Bishop Peter Connors, former vicar general and auxiliary bishop (and emeritus Bishop of Ballarat), and Archbishop Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne, have each told the commission that an auxiliary bishop cannot act against a priest because that authority rested solely with the archbishop.

Even without this testimony, it is likely that the unique authority of an archbishop is something about which the commission would already know, given it has been analysing the structure of the Church for more than two years now. It is also knowledge which could be obtained by even a brief introduction to the Code of Canon Law.

But glancing at social and mainstream media during these times, it seems that there are people who are eager to extrapolate any discussion in the commission about the knowledge, role and authority of the auxiliary bishop to a condemnation of Cardinal Pell.

No one as yet has seemed to propose exactly what they expected an auxiliary bishop at the time to do (apart from continue to petition the archbishop to act), but this hasn’t stopped the constant suggestion that he should’ve done this unnamed something to end Searson’s reign.

Undoubtedly, these intimations about Cardinal Pell’s culpability in the Doveton matter will only increase in volume and decrease in subtlety as the time for his appearance before the commission draws near.

Indeed, Four Corners presenter Quentin McDermott has been all over social media posting a story he did on that program last year, which makes Cardinal Pell look guilty of wrongdoing in Doveton by ignoring the sole authority of Archbishop Little and the numerous police investigations which did not result in charges being laid.

But facts matter because they not only tell you what didn’t happen before and during the period Cardinal Pell was an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, they also tell you what happened immediately after he was in a position where he had the canonical authority to act.

Once he became Archbishop of Melbourne in August 1996, things moved very quickly. By October of that same year, Cardinal Pell had put in place and announced the Melbourne Response and appointed Peter O’Callaghan as the independent commissioner to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse within the archdiocese.

Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Pell confirmed to media that Mr O’Callaghan had investigated the allegations against Searson and, on 14 March, 1997, Searson had been suspended from ministry.

Before Cardinal Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne, the police lacked the evidence to do something about Searson; the auxiliary bishops, teachers and principal lacked the authority to do something about Searson; and Archbishop Little seemingly lacked the will to do anything about Searson, so he remained in the Doveton parish for 13 years.

After becoming Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell acted swiftly to establish a new, independent investigatory body and ensure it was operational so that investigations could begin quickly.

This action was almost revolutionary, because it was the first such process to be established in the Church in Australia, and possibly in the world. In total, it was seven months from Cardinal Pell being in charge of the Archdiocese of Melbourne to Searson being disciplined.

Cardinal Pell cannot legitimately be accused of dropping the ball in Doveton, at least not by any person who looks at the testimony and evidence provided thus far to the Victorian inquiry and the Royal Commission.

Pointing out these facts is not an attempt to defend the indefensible horrors of child sexual abuse and other misconduct at the hands of anyone, including priests. Accusing someone of inaction affects not only that person, but our future attempts to ensure the inaction is not repeated.

It is understandable that we want to punish someone for Searson’s crimes because Searson himself died without ever facing charges.

We would not be human if we did not look at this situation and get angry that with so many witnesses, no one acted in a way which managed to remove the problem.

But no one is served by ignoring facts and looking for a scapegoat. In trying to make a singular person responsible for what happened with Searson, we run the risk of even implicitly absolving others – including ourselves – from the responsibility to act in the future.

And we must do better than that.