Tony Abbott defends Cardinal Pell’s role in church handling of abuse
- November 14, 2013
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has defended Cardinal George Pell’s role in the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, saying he deserved credit for being the first senior churchman to act.
Interviewed on Fairfax radio on Thursday following the release of a Victorian parliamentary report into institutional sex abuse, Mr Abbott said the church hadn’t handled the issue well, but defended Cardinal Pell.
“The only thing I’d say … is that my understanding is that the first senior cleric who took this issue very seriously was in fact Cardinal Pell,” he said.
Mr Abbott said it was well known that he had a lot of time for Cardinal Pell.
“Does that mean that he is perfect? No. Does that mean that he doesn’t bear some responsibility for the errors of the church? Of course not,” he said.
But he said Cardinal Pell was “a fine human being and a great churchman”.
Mr Abbott had not read the Victorian government’s report on clergy child sex abuse, but said that in the past the issue “wasn’t handled well” by the Catholic Church and had to be taken seriously.
“Of course, all of the institutions which have in the past – and maybe even still – not handled this thing well need to lift their game, and obviously anyone who has committed the hideous breach of trust involved in child abuse needs to be brought to justice,” he said.
He added: “I suspect that it wasn’t just the church that didn’t handle these things well.
“A generation ago, there was this general view in our community that certain things just didn’t happen. We all know now that they did happen. It was hideous, it was gruesome. It cost some people their lives. It cost some people their sanity.”
The 800-page parliamentary report said Cardinal Pell’s evidence revealed “a reluctance to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the Catholic Church’s institutional failure to respond appropriately to allegations of criminal child abuse”.
It was scathing of the Catholic Church’s leadership prior to the 1990s, giving specific examples in which former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns and former Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little moved known sexual offenders between parishes without reporting them to police.
Mr Abbott said the issue could have, and should have, been handled better, but he didn’t know about cover-ups.
“I just don’t know for a personal fact what was done,” he said. “I absolutely know that it wasn’t handled well.”
His comments came as the Catholic Church said it was prepared to fund an unlimited national compensation scheme for child sexual abuse victims.
The church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council – a national mouthpiece established after the royal commission was announced – issued a statement saying that it would ask the attorneys-general of the federal, state and territory governments to begin working on the scheme.
The Victorian parliamentary report recommended an independent redress scheme run by the government but paid for by non-government organisations to replace the Catholic Church’s internal systems for dealing with victims – called Melbourne Response, and its national equivalent Towards Healing – which victims criticised throughout the inquiry as lacking transparency.
The Catholic council chief executive Francis Sullivan said governments should consider extending the state inquiry’s proposed scheme nationally, and that it should have consistent investigative powers and payments.
“A national compensation scheme, funded by the church and other organisations, and with no caps on payments, is an important first step in taking away from institutions such as the Catholic Church the role of investigating complaints and determining compensation for victims,” he said.
This departs from the church’s traditional position to argue that its internal processes were proof that its approach to abuse had improved over time.
The Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response scheme currently places a $75,000 cap on victims’ compensation claims in Victoria, while its national equivalent, Towards Healing, is unlimited.
In Good Faith & Associates director Helen Last has said that the church had settled thousands of claims outside of Melbourne Response, in an attempt to silence them.
Mr Francis said the state inquiry’s recommendation, coupled with the royal commission’s potential to do the same, should be enough for governments to consider a national approach to child sexual abuse and child protection.
He said: “We will also call on all governments to start working towards a national approach to uniform police reporting requirements and statutory complaint-handling processes.”