George Pell has been sentenced to jail for a total of six years, after being found guilty of five charges – one offence of sexual penetration of a child under 16 years and four offences of committing an indecent act on a child under 16 years.
The sentencing remarks by Chief Judge Peter Kidd were lengthy and considered and, while Pell could have been incarcerated for up to 10 years, Kidd decided to strike a balance, taking into account Pell’s advanced age and medical condition.
Is six years long enough?
Pell will be eligible for parole after three years and eight months, and many are suggesting this is not sufficient, in account of the nature of the crimes, the position Pell had within the Catholic church, and his actions during the Melbourne Response, where he was more determined to protect the church from liability and limit damages payouts, than seek any meaningful retribution and rehabilitation for victims.
It’s always difficult to find the right balance in sentencing: child sexual assault is a serious crime and usually results in a lifetime of psychological trauma for victims, future mental health problems, drug abuse, and high suicide rates.
Because of this, punishments need to be severe, but my solution is more extreme and has nothing to do with Pell. Sure, it’s absolutely fantastic that he’s been sentenced to jail for at least three years and eight months, and it was important that he be punished for his crimes, and as a deterrent to others. But what more could be done? We’ll get to that soon.
My Catholic schooling
My own Catholic experience is instructive. I attended a Catholic boys school on the edge of the Perth CBD for nine years and, undoubtedly, these were the worst years of my life. The first few weeks were spent becoming accustomed to the aura of the new school but, after this, it was all downhill.
My first hideous experience occurred within a few weeks. I was in Grade 4 at the tender age of eight, when a relief teacher, Brother Greene, decided discipline was best administered not by just throwing a chair at me, but the table as well. Greene was dark-haired, tall, incredibly strict, and wore the traditional buttoned cassock, a black ankle-length garment, typically worn by the more conservative brothers. For an eight-year-old boy, he was an offensive and repugnant sight. My crime? Talking in class, but for someone ill-equipped to teaching young students, it was the only method of discipline Greene knew of.
There’s a host of many other acts perpetrated by others in the religious cloth: a blackboard duster thrown point-blank which hit me just above the eye.
A leather strap with a solid lead implant, six times on each hand, which left my fingers swollen and bruised for a week, and impossible to close. Administered by Brother McMaster, he even had the gall to utter that old fashioned cliché: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you”. Somehow, I doubted that very much.
A cricket bat swung onto my backside, four times, with so much pain I had to sit on the edge of the chair for the rest of day and walk with a limp to get home.
And then there were the psycho-sadistic sexual punishments. As punishment for whatever the misdemeanour might be, bending over to receive a swinging leather strap on the buttocks, sometimes with pants dropped, and on one occasion, the underpants as well, to inflict the pain but extend the humiliation. And provide some sexual gratification for the teacher instigating the punishment.
A different Brother Green (that’s “Greene” without the “e”) smashed his left hand into my jaw at lunch, for dropping a football onto the grass ground seconds before the regulation play bell allowed. I was only 11 at the time, but it was the first time I’d ever seen stars from a hit, and my jaw, probably dislocated, hurt for about two weeks. Over 40 years later, I still find it difficult to close my jaw without discomfort.
These are some of the worst of the experiences I can recall (there were many others), but for nine long years, psychological humiliation and physical punishment seemed like a regular event and, with no one to talk to about it for fear of further retribution, it’s a lot for a young child to hold in and comprehend why it’s happening.
Obviously, these are not normal behaviours for any person in a position of authority at any school. These people were brutal animals and while I can accept that not all were like this, many were. If any of these acts were carried out today at any school throughout Australia, a common assault charge would be lodged, with a likely suspension, sacking or even jail time. But the times were different then.
As painful and psychologically damaging these incidents were, among the many others during my nine years at this Catholic school, the most distressing was during ‘pastoral guidance’ with the school priest, Father Paul Kyte.
Father Paul had an avuncular look to him and spoke in well-mannered and deep dulcet tones. Grey haired and bespectacled, he seemed innocuous, and the guidance session took place in his small office room, with two lounge chairs adjacent to each other. After buttering up the conversation with small talk and how my school subjects were going, he rested his hand on my knee, moved his hand towards my groin and asked: “have you had the calling?”.
As a twelve-year old, I had no idea what to expect or what to do. I was petrified and can still smell the pungent priestly aftershave and cigarette breath of Father Paul, as he retracted his hand, levered on my knee to get up from his chair, and turned around to get two glasses of water. What was going to happen next?
While he had his back turned, I got up and left the room and, as it was class time, went to the toilet block and hid in a cubicle until the lunch bell. Was Father Paul going to come looking for me? Is he going to tell anyone? Will I get into even more trouble?
After the lunch bell, I left the cubicle, still unsure about what to do, but the daily angst about running into Father Paul receded by the day, and the only times I ever saw him again was from a distance behind a pew at the regular school mass. I never spoke to Father Paul ever again.
Years of psychological and physical trauma takes it toll and, for sure, I wasn’t sexually abused like so many others at the hands of the Catholic church. But I came close.
What happened to other students in that room with Father Paul during the ‘pastoral guidance’ sessions? He was a priest at the school for many years. How many other students did he ask about ‘having the calling’?
Why was old Brother Collopy so keen to assist the Grade 4 boys change into their swimmers during swimming carnivals? I still recollect the gleeful look on his face helping young kids get undressed and slowly pulling up their swimmers, just to extend his ogling time.
Why were so many priests and brothers keen to cram into the change rooms after a football game, win, lose or draw? It makes sense now: it was to check out the nude adolescent bodies, to catch glimpses of well-formed penises, to salve their lust of seeing hot water and steam run over the young skin of naked teenaged boys. In the pre-internet age, it was their version of free downloadable pornography.
One of those who was a frequent visitor during the after-game ‘celebrations’ was Brother Daniel McMahon. While I was researching a story about child sexual abuse many years ago, I uncovered some details about McMahon, and discovered he’d been accused of child sexual abuse, molestation and rape, yet over a 20-year teaching career, was moved from school to school, despite a number of reports made to those schools at the time.
He was finally moved as far away as possible, over to Tasmania, where he was hidden away in the seminary, and was even upgraded to priest status. Despite the many allegations, nothing was ever done about McMahon and he died in 2012.
Clearly, there was something very wrong in many Catholic schools and over a long period of time.
These were God’s people, but they were doing the work of the Devil.
Cover ups and obfuscation
It’s one thing to accept there’s something wrong, but for many years, the Catholic church engaged in cover up, moved priests and brothers to other locations when problems arose, and sought to deny any wrongdoing.
This was a process the Catholic churched engaged regularly, not just in Western Australia or Victoria, but worldwide. I often wondered why a brother would appear at the school for one or two terms, but then disappear and never to be heard of again. After the evidence presented during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we now know why. Offending priests and brothers were simply moved from parish to parish, or from school to school, where they could continue their abuse.
Whenever there’s any reporting in the media about a Catholic priest or brother being sentenced for child sexual abuse – which has become more prevalent in recent years – my anxiety levels always increase.
I watched most of the live broadcasts from the Royal Commission: the pitiful figure of former priest Gerald Ridsdale who was found guilty of 217 offences against 65 victims – 65! – and didn’t seem to understand his wrong doing; Pell’s woefully inadequate and hostile evidence broadcast from Victoria in 2015; the ongoing coverage of Pell’s trial; and, finally, the 70 minutes of Chief Judge Kidd’s sentencing remarks.
It was painful, riveting, cathartic and, ultimately, satisfying. My overall reaction: these bastards are finally being caught. Not all, but the most important ones.
I’ve often compared my own son’s development – he’s 16 now – with my horrible schooling experiences: I looked at the size of him at the same age when I had a chair and desk thrown me (eight); the beatings on the backside with a cricket bat (nine); bruised and battered hands (ten); a punch in the face (11); or a sexual advance (12). It’s hard to imagine how any adult, no matter how psychotic, could do that to a child and consider it might be the right thing to do.
And with the continuous coverage over the past five years during the Royal Commission and Pell’s trial, it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the future will consider it could ever be the right thing to do.
The future of religion in Australia
So, my solution? Pell and his associates can be sent to 10 years, 20 years, 50 years: in reality, it’s of little consequence. They’ll do their time in jail, a strong message has been sent to the community, and any other perpetrators that are caught for historical child sexual abuse now have a sentencing benchmark. That is, if they are caught before they die.
And it doesn’t really matter how much the conservative media, especially Rupert Murdoch’s empire, tries to downplay the gravity of Pell’s crimes and claim his innocence in all different shades of vanilla. They’re only doing this because he’s a member of the Institute of Public Affairs and a key member of their culture wars battalion, but the public can see right through this.
No, it needs to far more reaching than this. The institution of the Catholic church, like so many other religious institutions, is corrupt and rotten to the core, and has been for thousands of years. It’s hard to believe their sexual abuse of young children is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century only.
I’d suggest that having your way with young boys has been one of the implied perks of Catholic office for millennia, and the priesthood and brotherhood have been magnets for paedophiles for a long time.
There is no special place for them in the public realm, and these institutions need to be removed from their pedestal and treated like everyone else in the community.
For a start, all religious schools throughout Australia should be closed down, and converted to public schools or other worthwhile community enterprises. Australia is a secular state, and there is no room for religious instruction in public education. In most cases, these schools were built on land the churches were given after settlement commenced in Australia, and it’s only right that it be handed back, if not to the state, then to the traditional owners.
The option for religious instruction in NSW public schools (and in any other state or territory) should be removed. These are usually run by religious fanatics who see their main purpose as inculcating the minds of young students and to act as a recruitment drive.
Remove the sanctity of the confessional. This is one of the recommendations from the Royal Commission, and should be introduced immediately. Mandatory reporting of crimes and sexual abuse is obligatory for many people, so why should those in religion be treated any differently?
All religious institutions in Australia must pay taxes. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar, and all profits and surpluses earned by these institutions should be taxed, just like any other institution. And they must all become incorporated, so they cannot evade the law when claims of compensation are made against them, as was the case in 2007 when abuse survivor John Ellis made a claim against the Catholic church, only to find unincorporated entities could not be held responsible for the actions of individuals.
This would all be a great start.
It will never undo the crimes committed in the past, but it really is time for the Catholic church to serve its penance and contribute to the community in a far more meaningful and relevant way.