Shredding the ribbons of George Pell’s legacy | Guest post

It was the day before the funeral of Cardinal George Pell, whose body had been shipped from the Vatican to lie in state at St Mary’s Cathedral after his death a couple of weeks earlier.

A friend and I joined others at 7.30am in the forecourt of the Gothic pile in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. It was a vigil to tie ribbons in memory of victim–survivors of abuse. The mood was peaceful but determined. Some shed tears or talked quietly with others. Large bags of ribbons were shared around. All of us were busy lacing the ironwork fence that rings the citadel. Within an hour, there was an extraordinary display of solidarity. Ribbons of every colour of the rainbow, densely packed, animated by the morning breeze as the sun rose higher in the sky, making spectacular shadows across the flagstones. Each and every ribbon was the voice of a victim or survivor, no longer silenced, raised against the atrocities of the clergy in the symbolic house of the perpetrators.

Pell’s carcass was to arrive that morning. We do not even need to go to the question of his personal innocence or otherwise of heinous abuse of children. Read the testimonies of those who spoke out about him: they are compelling.

Ribbons are illuminated by the sun during an early morning survivors’ vigil at St Mary’s Cathedral. Pic: AM Jonson

On his watch, members of a ruthless multinational organisation – of which Pell was, in the end, the most senior Australian leader – systematically and criminally abused thousands of the most vulnerable – defenceless children entrusted to church schools and presbyteries. Infant and primary school kids, pre-teens and teens; fondled, penetrated, fellated, forced to perform sex acts, raped, damaged beyond repair, threatened that they must not tell – and blamed if they did tell. They were told they were sinners; that it was their fault; that they deserved it. Children whose sense of personhood and safety – the integrity of their being – was repeatedly violated at a level so profound, so cellular, that it was incompatible with life. Betrayed children who internalised the shame of their violation like a cancer.

The consequences are familiar. Some of us never recovered, and struggled with lifelong trauma and mental injury. Some grew up and drowned their misery in a bottle, or decided their only recourse was to permanently end the pain. My own brother was a clever, sensitive child, who went from dux of a Catholic school, to alcoholic, to junkie, to the disability pension. He contracted hepatitis C and liver cancer, and died early. He had tried to tell but was met with punitive disbelief at his boarding school, which said he was disturbed, a liar and a fantasist who needed reforming.

Pell’s role in the institutional sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church is well documented. To protect the church, pedophile perpetrators were moved from parish to parish like chess pieces in an insidious game. In other words, they were actively enabled to continue to perpetrate, and the children were their helpless pawns. Amongst many, the most notorious of these was Gerald Ridsdale of the Ballarat diocese, the epicentre of clerical sexual abuse in this country. As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found, Pell was involved in decisions to move Ridsdale from parish to parish, and aware of Ridsdale’s offending. In his role as Episcopal Vicar for Education, Pell had been alerted to allegations about abuses of children by clergy in Ballarat as early as 1973.

Yet, there was Pell in 1993, steadfast at Ridsdale’s side, acting as support person as Ridsdale entered Court to be tried and convicted. Many of the victims of Ridsdale and others in the diocese did not survive. The Commission was told that of the 33 children in the Grade 4 class of 1974 at St Alipius Ballarat, twelve took their own lives.

The fences around St Mary’s Cathedral were covered with hundreds of ribbons, each one representing the voice of a victim or survivor of child abuse by Catholic clergy. Pic: AM Jonson

In short, the Commission established once and for all, that Pell knew about child abuse and failed to act, rejecting much of his evidence as “implausible” or “inconceivable”.

Survivors who raised the alarm were disbelieved, their claims minimised, their accounts silenced. Pell’s engineering of the egregious Melbourne Response when he was archbishop there is a case in point. This was an aggressive organisational damage-control scheme designed to limit the church’s liability at the expense of victims. People were paid a pittance of $50,000 to shut up and required to sign away any right they may have to a future legal claim against the institution. Survivors have spoken about the harm done by the scheme.

Those who appealed directly to Pell were brutally rebuffed. Chrissie and Anthony Foster’s two daughters were in primary school when they were repeatedly raped by Melbourne priest Kevin O’Donnell. One took her life, the other turned to drinking and is permanently incapacitated after being hit by a car. The Fosters said that Pell, then archbishop of Melbourne, showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy” when they approached him in 1997 – after O’Donnell had been tried and convicted of abusing other children – threatening that they had better be able to prove their allegations in court.

In Sydney, as archbishop, he was a central architect of the Ellis defence, the strategy designed to shirk the church’s responsibility for the clergy’s crimes, and render it immune to liability for compensation by asserting that the church does not exist as a legal entity, and therefore cannot be sued. Perverse legal abuse was, in other words, heaped on sexual abuse. The NSW LNP government found this so unconscionable that it stepped in to make laws allowing survivors to sue the church.

That day, at the ribboning vigil at St Mary’s, Pell’s former stronghold, there was a temporary victory of sorts. During the week prior to Pell’s funeral, church authorities had been removing ribbons placed by survivors. That seemed to be the policy of the archdiocese, unlike, for example, in Ballarat, where the practice of tying ribbons originated. On this day, a church official – a coiffed lady with a clipboard bearing documents with the St Mary’s logo – came to address the victim–survivors. She spoke to Paul, a Ballarat leader and St Alipius survivor who was there to raise his voice on behalf of his brother who took his own life 10 years ago. The functionary said that the dean of the cathedral had agreed that ribbons would be removed only from the side of the church and would remain at the front. Paul, dignified and gracious to a fault, thanked her.

The ribbons remained all day, and drove hundreds of media stories, bearing witness to the record of the man about to be interred.

Later that night of the vigil, my friend and I walked back by the cathedral. All along the fence, front and side, were beefy men in plain clothes, wielding box cutters, hacking off the ribbons and throwing them in garbage bags – self-appointed custodians of, as one told me, “the house of god”, which the ribbons “disrespected”. Some had brought their wives and children, who were also busy removing ribbons. I tried to talk to the men about what the ribbons represented but it was pointless, and the situation was intimidating. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to call the police: it is an offence to carry knives in a public place without a reasonable excuse. By the time their work was done, the ribbons were gone. Every single one.

Pell’s requiem mass went ahead the next day. The faithful attended to honour their man – applauding loudly as eulogist Tony Abbott proclaimed Pell a “saint for our times”, a “soldier of truth” – while members of the LGBTQI+ community gathered across the road to give Pell a rousing send-off to the strains of ‘Highway to Hell’ (Pell remained a virulent homophobe up to his final years). Not even Opus Dei member, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, could bring himself to attend, and the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, were an emphatic no-show (Andrews’ response when asked if he would have a state funeral for Pell brought comfort to many: “I couldn’t think of anything that would be more distressing for victim-survivors than that… I will not do that.”)

Let’s allow the dead man to have the last word. On the church’s duty of care to children, he infamously said that it was no more culpable for priests’ actions than a trucking company would be for a driver who molested a woman. On the Catholic clergy’s sexual crimes against children, he said “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests abusing young people”. At the Royal Commission, where the catastrophic scale of Catholic priests’ crimes was laid bare in excruciating detail, Pell – this prince of the church, this saint – was asked about Gerald Ridsdale’s offending. His reply drew gasps from the audience and is etched in survivors’ memories: “it was a sad story” he said, but “not of much interest to me”.

These immortal words stand as his epitaph.

For Paul J.

AM Jonson is a crumb-free maiden.

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AM Jonson is a crumb-free maiden.