by Barbie Latza Nadeau
An Australian royal commission on clerical crimes finds damning evidence that one of the Vatican’s most senior cardinals turned a blind eye to sex abuse. So why doesn’t the pope fire him?
ROME — Whatever one’s religious affiliation or belief, it must be argued that the Gods of Glorious Coincidence were at work this week. Just as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was handing out the Oscar statuette for Best Picture to Spotlight last Sunday night, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s No. 3 official, was seated in a dingy hotel event room testifying by video link about the very same sort of systematic clerical sex abuse exposed in the film.
But in what is really an unfathomable disconnect, accolades for breaking the silence and exposing serious clerical sex abuse in the United States seemed completely lost in Rome.
Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat on the Economy, was called to give voluntary evidence to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The 74-year-old spent a total of four very late nights answering a slew of questions about a number of clearly predatory priests in Australia from the time he was a young cleric to when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne. The hearings started at 7 or 8 a.m. in Sydney, which meant they began at 9 or 10 p.m. in Rome. The latest of the hearings wrapped up around 3 a.m. local time.
To whatever extent Pell was negligent, and, make no mistake, it seems a question merely of levels and degrees, it is completely baffling that Pope Francis doesn’t see this as a divine opportunity to put his foot down and show that “zero tolerance on abuse” really, truly means zero tolerance and, therefore, demand Pell resign.
This is especially true given Pell’s admission that, among other things, he knew first-hand a young boy was being abused by a cleric named Brother Edward Dowlan in 1974. “With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” Pell said.
In fact, if he had gone to the police or church officials then, he might have stopped Dowlan. Instead, the cleric went on to abuse dozens of other young children as Pell kept the secret and climbed the church hierarchy, all the while knowing about Dowlan and others like him.
When one of the attorneys for a sex abuse victim pushed Pell, asking why he, then head of an education division of a Catholic school, didn’t do something, he shrugged.
“You didn’t go straight to the school and say, ‘I’ve got this allegation, what’s going on?’” the lawyer asked.
Pell responded, “No, I didn’t. People had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was, and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning it.”