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The biases of a Royal Commission

Cardinal Pell has been under sustained assault from the Australian media, Australian social and political activists, and ecclesiastical opponents for more than two decades.

Australian Cardinal George Pell delivers a statement in the Vatican press office June 29, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A brief dip into Latin helps us understand how preconceptions can lead to biased judgments that falsify history — as they did when an Australian Royal Commission on sexual abuse recently impugned the integrity of Cardinal George Pell.

The Latin maxim is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – literally, “what is received is received according to the mode [or manner, or condition] of the receiver.” Less literally, the maxim holds that our predispositions – our mental filters – color our perceptions. Put another way, we often perceive things, not as they are but because of what we are.

However abstract it may seem at first blush, the maxim is confirmed by everyday experience. People draw different conclusions about the same facts, the same personalities, and the same situations. More often than not, those differences are explained by different filters at work in our minds.

Which brings us to the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell has been under sustained assault from the Australian media, Australian social and political activists, and ecclesiastical opponents for more than two decades. His defense of classic Catholic doctrine and morality offended some. His politically incorrect views on climate change and the sexual revolution angered others. His relish in debate and his vigor in debating shocked, then outraged Australian cancel-culture bullies, accustomed to their targets caving-in to shaming, denunciations, and threats. What was the matter with this man? Why didn’t he truckle as others — including many Church leaders – had done?

Given their belief in their own infallibility, Pell’s political and ecclesiastical critics could not concede that they might be wrong. And a highly intelligent man with an Oxford doctorate couldn’t be dismissed as a mere fool. So his critics and enemies seem to have concluded that George Pell must be wicked — and must be lying about his role in Australian Catholicism’s grappling with clerical sexual abuse.

No matter that, on becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell quickly instituted the first diocesan program in Australia to reach out to abuse victims and try to meet their needs — a program designed in cooperation with the police and praised by public authorities. No matter that, in Melbourne and Sydney (after his transfer to that city), Pell dealt severely with clerical abusers and saw to the removal of more than two dozen of them from the clerical state — the Church’s nuclear option for dealing with abusive priests. Those demonstrable facts didn’t count, either to Pell’s critics or, it now seems, to the Royal Commission. Why? Because they didn’t tally with the regnant preconceptions about Pell and the false judgment about his character his critics had made, based on those preconceptions.

Royal Commissions do not operate by the rules of evidence of a criminal court. Their integrity depends not on sound judicial practice, but on the fairmindedness of the Commissioners and their staff. That fairmindedness was not apparent in the way the Royal Commission dealt with Cardinal Pell, in its hearings or in its report.

In the Commission’s hearings, witnesses were allowed to make outrageous charges against the cardinal, suggesting that he had been present when children were molested by priests, that he had tried to bribe a victim to keep quiet about his molestation, and that he had made lewd remarks about sexual abuse. These absurdities were shown to be lies. But why were they permitted to be made, in public, in the first place?

Moreover, the Royal Commission manifestly applied different standards to different witnesses. An abuse victim informed the Commission that he had told a priest, Paul Bongiorno, about being molested by Father Gerald Ridsdale; Bongiorno said he didn’t recall being told of Ridsdale’s assault; the Commission punted, saying that it “could not resolve the differing accounts” of the victim and Bongiorno. Yet the Commission refused to believe Cardinal Pell’s sworn statements (buttressed by the sworn testimony of others) that he knew nothing about Ridsdale’s predations; the Commission, effectively, called Cardinal Pell a liar. Why the difference? Might it be because Bongiorno, having abandoned the priesthood, became a politically correct media personality, whereas Pell was the embodiment of Australian political incorrectness and the premier defender of Catholic orthodoxy in Australia — and therefore must be a bad man who lies?

As Cardinal Pell has said, the Australian Church behaved shamefully for decades in dealing with clerical abusers. Yet Pell, the Australian first bishop to address that scandalous situation forcefully, was scapegoated by the Royal Commission for the gross failures of other bishops. Why?

Ponder that Latin maxim once more.


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About George Weigel 296 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

10 Comments

  1. In the eyes of the Lunatic Left in Australia, Cardinal Pell will always be guilty, even if they are not sure what exactly he is guilty of.

  2. What happened to Cardinal Pell can happen to any faithful believer, not only in Australia, but in virtually any nation possessed with the evil of political correctness. The persecution will manifest itself with differing particulars. But every believer should be prepared to face some level of it in some measure, even in those nations that at one time were thought to protect religious liberty.

  3. What you have said is quite correct; however, no article, of course, can exhaust every angle of a story. Pope Benedict saw both Hitler and Stalin — who divided Poland and began WW II — as being under the power of Satan. What you have said in your article could be read and understood by any atheist, which is quite correct, but a Catholic (even if he can’t say so to the general public) should always be aware of our unseen enemy who uses people like ignorant, unsuspecting pawns in his struggle against the Church.

  4. What has become obvious is that the progressive power elite are doing the explicit work of Lucifer.

    Australia’s public crucifixion of Cardinal Pell was an eye opener.

    The USA is now a pretentious joke. Pretending that psychologically disoriented biological men are women, like Bruce Jenner.

    Now writing court decisions that set the premise for destroying the businesses and jobs of psychologically balanced citizens who refuse to kow-tow to gender ideology dictatorship.

    Pretending that unborn human beings aren’t “persons” under their gruesome, homicidal “laws.”

    Our country has now veered toward being nothing worth defending or dying for…an extremely dangerous posture.

    The future seems to mean nothing except the slow-motion slavery of all.

    • Chris, what do you think the world was like when Jesus the roads and streets of Israel? He did not call for the laws of the land to be changed to impose the standards and virtues of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather he called for individuals to turn from their own distancing from God in all its expression of their lives and follow him as a people to be the change.
      I might add that i see this whole saga as a call for the church to turn from their own distancing from God in all its expressions of their corporate lives. Where there is corporate sin nothing less than a public confession and observable repentance will suffice. What you and by implication many others including Me Weigel call ” Australia’s public crucifixion of Cardinal Pell is in reality a call for the Church to be held accountable for its actions regarding the sexual abuse of children. To shine light on the church structures, Canon Law, and all other relevant systemic factors that contributed to the utter discrace that has exposed the church as profoundly failing to be who Jesus called the church to be. As for Mr Weigel it is my opinion he is a propagandist with little regard for the WHOLE TRUTH

      • “Where there is corporate sin nothing less than a public confession and observable repentance will suffice”

        So, are you confessing and repenting, then? And you still haven’t told us whether or not you reported to the authorities the abuse about which you were so knowledgeable in the 1980’s.

        • Leslie, by this statement of yours that you persist with, you seem to believe there is something you need to know:
          “And you still haven’t told us whether or not you reported to the authorities the abuse about which you were so knowledgeable in the 1980’s.”
          I could ask you to explain further however I assume you think there is the possibility of a “got you” moment? That what i expect of others in reproting matters to the police, I failed to live up to myself perhaps?
          It should be more than evident in re reading what I posted that you have made a false assumption, that you are barking up the wrong tree. ”
          I will re post here what I said, then speak to it. Context always helps . It was a reply to Peter Sommervillw who stated CM does not appear to have a deep understanding of the religious culture in Victoria.
          so the part of my reply that prompted your request for more infomation:
          [quote]In the 1980’s I was employed on behalf of the Catholic Church within an accountability structure of a committee of representatives from the major churches in Melbourne’s CBD to walk the streets of Melbourne and engage in the street life of the vulnerable youth of the city, one major task being to prevent the manipulation of cults from stealing these young persons freedom, another major task was to facilitate a healing journey for these young lives. There is a wealth of further info i could post regarding this question, suffice to say your assertion is merely a red herring. I know the street’s of the city of Melbourne, I know many of their secrets, I know something of the Catholic Church of Melbourne and many of her secrets. To have intimate knowledge is to have experiential knowledge. I have had cult members attempt to kidnap me from the city street, the corner of Bourk and Elizabeth. I do not have intimate knowledge of the matters of abuse but i have walked with and talked with those who do. Can I say that among the thousands of Catholics in Melbourne, relatively few would have anything near a comprehensive understanding of the scope of instances of abuse in the Parishes of Melbourne. Hardly anyone has an intimate knowledge of the goings on in the streets of the CBD in the 80’s I count it a great privilege and responsibility that I do. [end quote]
          My work on the streets of Melbourne in the 80’s did not involve youth who where survivors of Clergy sexual abuse. In fact from what i wrote it is difficult to see the specific relevance of your statement even. My knowledge and involvement in support of survivors of Clerical Sexual abuse began in the early to mid 90’s. After working on Melbourne’s streets I worked for a Govt welfare agency beginning 1985 and in that role i became aware of predatory behaviour around Flinders Street railway station and elsewhere towards state wards when they absconded. This was immediately bought to the attention of Police. A few years later when working for a Church based agency with provision of accommodation and support services to state wards we had a psychological screening program to asses volunteers for our Big Brother Big Sister program. It came to our attention that a pedophile psychologist had studied the screening program and informed other pedophiles he had contact with how to pass the screening tests. Police where immediately notified and all relevant information forwarded. Again this is before my involvement with my own church with respect to Clergy sexual abuse of children. My dismay at the Catholic hierarchy’s secrecy and consistent response when i became more specifically involved is surely understandable. Is there anything else you feel you need to know?

          • “Leslie, by this statement of yours that you persist with, you seem to believe there is something you need to know: ‘And you still haven’t told us whether or not you reported to the authorities the abuse about which you were so knowledgeable in the 1980’s.’ I could ask you to explain further however I assume you think there is the possibility of a “got you” moment? That what i expect of others in reproting matters to the police, I failed to live up to myself perhaps? It should be more than evident in re reading what I posted that you have made a false assumption, that you are barking up the wrong tree.”

            You have harped and harped and harped and harped on your opinion, and that of the disgracefully biased Royal Commission, that Cardinal Pell knew about abuse and didn’t report it. He denies that he knew, and I believe him.

            You, on the other hand, boasted, “Can I say that among the thousands of Catholics in Melbourne, relatively few would have anything near a comprehensive understanding of the scope of instances of abuse in the Parishes of Melbourne. Hardly anyone has an intimate knowledge of the goings on in the streets of the CBD in the 80’s I count it a great privilege and responsibility that I do…”

            So, by your own admission you had a “comprehensive understanding of the scope of instances of abuse in the Parishes of Melbourne.” I keep asking whether you reported it because if you did not then, yes, you failed to live up to it yourself. I’m not barking up the wrong tree, I am using your own statement. You said that you walked and talked with those who knew about abuse. You chastise the Cardinal and others – in fact, you gave the distinct impression that you would have been delighted for the Cardinal to stay in jail even though it was obvious that he did not commit the crimes for which he was tried – because you say they were told about abuse and did nothing about it. You were told about abuse and I thought it only reasonable to ask whether you did anything about it. (Or perhaps you just lied about your knowledge to make yourself seem important). And you kept not answering.

            “My work on the streets of Melbourne in the 80’s did not involve youth who where survivors of Clergy sexual abuse. In fact from what i wrote it is difficult to see the specific relevance of your statement even.”

            You wrote “I know the street’s of the city of Melbourne, I know many of their secrets, I know something of the Catholic Church of Melbourne and many of her secrets…. I do not have intimate knowledge of the matters of abuse but i have walked with and talked with those who do.”

            Part of what you keep saying makes the Cardinal guilty was the Royal Commission’s claim that someone who was not himself abused told the Cardinal about abuse [which the Cardinal denies, and I believe him] and the Cardinal didn’t report it. If you walked with and talked with people who had intimate knowledge of the matters of abuse as you said, then you are in exactly the same position the Cardinal would have been in had the Royal Commission’s claims been true. If you condemn him for not reporting it, then, if you did not report it, you should also be condemning yourself.

            “My knowledge and involvement in support of survivors of Clerical Sexual abuse began in the early to mid 90’s.”

            You talked about the 1980’s in your original statement and I took you at your word.

            “Again this is before my involvement with my own church with respect to Clergy sexual abuse of children. My dismay at the Catholic hierarchy’s secrecy and consistent response when i became more specifically involved is surely understandable.”

            Surely. But unless you have a lot more evidence, your constant posting of the Royal Commission’s report as if it is the be-all and end-all of everything and proves that Cardinal Pell is guilty of concealing abuse, is unjustifiable.

            “Is there anything else you feel you need to know?”

            I’m still wondering whether you believe in the presumption of innocence, and whether you believe that people on trial for a particular crime that all the evidence shows they couldn’t have done should be kept in prison because you think they knew about a completely different crime and didn’t report it.

    • Leslie, firstly, i don’t feel the need through my contribution to the comments of various articles here on Cardinal Pell, to change your mind on this subject. Most of my commentary is not directed at you unless i’m replying to a comment of yours, directed at me.
      Secondly my main aim, as I have often stated is to address and comment on Mr Weigles narrative regarding Australia, the state of Victoria the role of Media. Many times I have said I don’t know if the Cardinal was innocent or guilty, this was before his acquittal, and after, that I accept the High courts decision. You can not say with any credability that ” You say I have harped and harped and harped and harped on my opinion. Can I say I have a right to contribute and that looking through the many comments on many articles and subjects on this web page i have read and not commented on, you have a fair bit to say yourself. Therefore, what is your problem with me having a say? You don’t have to agree. I don’t expect you to agree. Also my contribution while it contains my opinions goes beyond opinion in some aspects of the various discussions.
      How that is received and worked through is of course up to each to review and think through.
      You have said what you have said regarding your opinion of my years of youth work and my support of those abused by clergy, the reality of which you have little understanding of. From your vantage point in America, think what you like about me.

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