George Pell, a high-ranking cardinal at the Vatican and a major figure in Australian politics during the late 90s, has been convicted of the sexual abuse of two boys in 1996. He received a sentence of only 6 years, and can be released in less than 4 with parole.
These were by no means the first or only allegations against him, and a trial on another matter was due to go before the courts this month until a key complainant died in January.
Even before his recent conviction, Pell was accused of covering for the crimes of Catholic priests who raped children. He repeatedly claimed to have limited knowledge of the abuse happening within the Church, but there were always signs that this was a lie.
For example, Pell was involved in several internal meetings about Gerard Ridsdale. Ridsdale was a priest who abused young children across Victoria from the 1960s to the 1980s. Pell was part of a meeting that decided to move him out of the town of Mortlake, where the priest’s crimes had become an open secret. Pell stood by Ridsdale during his eventual trial.
The epidemic of abuse in the Catholic Church has made global headlines in recent years. In 1996, after a similar wave of outrage at abuse within the Church, Pell himself pioneered a scheme known as the ‘Melbourne Response’. Under this scheme, victims of abuse within the Church can apply for compensation – up to certain limits. It has been criticized for keeping payouts to victims as low as possible.
An Age investigation in February last year estimated the Church’s wealth in Australia at $30 billion, in the same league as the wealthiest property-owning corporations. Peter Johnstone of the group Catholics for Renewal described this as “a conservative estimate”.
The total compensation paid to victims of abuse under the Melbourne Response was $11.3 million by the start of 2018. This was spread out among more than 300 people, less than $35,000 each on average. Considering the massive impact of abuse on a person’s mental health, working life and wellbeing, this is woefully inadequate. By way of comparison, in 2015 the Church paid $39 million just for new office space in Melbourne.
Sexual abuse is rife in our society. At its core it is a crime based on power in a patriarchal, capitalist world, and children are among the most vulnerable to abuses of power.
Class society is based on the power of the capitalist class over the rest of us. A culture of domination is reproduced over and over throughout society in various ways, even in the most progressive sectors of society. The Catholic Church is by no means the only institution that has tolerated crimes of sexual abuse. But the scale of the cover-ups carried out by Church authorities is breathtaking.
Socialists call for the prosecution of abuser priests, brothers, bishops and cardinals, as well as all those who are complicit in covering up abuse. We also call for proper compensation for victims of Church cover-ups, paid for through the sale of Church assets.
The Church hierarchy helps to maintain class society, for example, by justifying the oppression of women and LGBTIQ people. This is why Pell has received support from powerful people despite his conviction, including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. While shielding perpetrators of child rape, the Church has pushed a sanctimonious, bigoted view of women and LGBTIQ people, and used public funds to do so.
The Catholic Church runs 1700 schools in Australia, teaching one in five students. These schools claim the right to sack teachers for being gay, and promote institutional bigotry toward LGBTIQ people, often encouraging a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture. They receive millions of dollars in public funding every year. Church-run hospitals, which are able to refuse to perform abortions, also receive hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding.
While fully supporting religious freedom, socialists call for the complete separation of church and state. We call for religious instruction to be taken out of the classroom. School chaplains must be replaced by real social workers and counsellors. Church authorities should have no power over health and education providers. Schools and hospitals should be publicly owned and run by democratic bodies made up of representatives of their workers, users, and the broader public.
We aim to build a socialist society based on democracy, not on the entrenched power of a small elite. We have to get rid of this system where the positions of powerful men are more important than the lives and safety of children.
By David Elliott