Cardinal George Pell's conviction and the murder of God

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexually abusing children in a church is more than a test of faith for Australian Catholics, it is the endgame in a crisis of belief that has been playing out for decades, if not longer.

In an echo of the type of rhetoric Pell himself has used to distance the Catholic Church from its paedophile clergy, Judge Peter Kidd went to pains to remind the court that it was Pell, not the Church, that he was sentencing.

And while technically that was the case, in the bigger picture, Pell and the Catholic Church are indivisible.

As one of the most high-profile and outspoken Catholics in this country, and a member of the Pope’s inner sanctum, his conviction represents an earth-shattering blow, not only for the Catholic Church, not only for its clergy and parishioners, but ultimately for the concept of divinity.

In short, the Pell decision and the crimes of the Catholic Church cast a deepening shadow over our ability to imagine and believe in God.

Faith in a mysterious deity requires an act of faith that must be supported by a broad community of belief, and that community is haemorrhaging.

For if we are able to separate Pell’s crimes from the crimes of the Church, then it is only a logical step to separate the Church from God.

Clergy, theologians and unequivocal believers will take umbrage at such an assertion, but I write from the conviction that, as a Catholic, the profound difficulty I experience walking into a church, even to celebrate the weddings of friends or the funerals of those I have loved, is the consequence of deep and unremitting shame.

As a Catholic, the profound difficulty I experience walking into a church... is the consequence of deep and unremitting shame.

And I am confident that these feelings are not mine alone, but are today shared by millions in this country and around the world.

I have been an altar boy and I have kissed the hand of a bishop, and like the rest of the church’s flock I have been told time and again, that the clergy of the Catholic Church have been selected by God to do his work on Earth, and that the cathedrals and chapels are the houses of God and his spirit lives within them.

Indeed, it had been earnestly drilled into me by my parents that if I was ever in danger, lost or troubled that I should seek the safety of the church. There no harm would befall me.

And so it has been a disturbing experience since the Royal Commission began its investigations to find that the great stone edifices that were built as houses of light often turned out to be the houses of darkness and betrayal.

The crimes cannot be overstated. In a place where we solemnly reflected on the sacrifice of Jesus, innocent children were sacrificed on the altar of lust and depravity.

To discover that the very people we placed our trust in were demons, or as Pope Francis calls them, "the tools of the devil", was a shattering betrayal.

The people who should have prayed for us, were preying upon us, preying on our children, preying on our innocence. They are the murderers of God.

And bewilderingly, Pell seemed to have their back, diminishing the extent of their sins, being involved in purchasing the silence of victims cheaply. Who could not have been appalled at his response to Gerald Ridsdale's horrific crimes, which he found to be "not of much interest" to him at the time.

The Catholic Church has always demanded our confessions, but I have been outraged by the lack of remorse they have demonstrated, the callousness with which they have treated victims and their families, their obvious and petty fear of lawsuits and financial exposure. 

I have been staggered by their temerity, their continued willingness to stand upon moral pulpits and preach the rightness and wrongness of our behaviour, to tell us who is to be included and who is to be excluded.

The primarily silent response to crimes of the Church has been punctuated by sporadic statements of contrition that seem so carefully worded they appear insincere and calculated to mitigate guilt.

In the face of the undeniable, defenders of the Church have insisted it is a victim of a media lynch mob, a conspiracy, and even after Pell has been found guilty, two former prime ministers have defended his character.

I can't think of another convicted sex offender that has somehow been deemed "not guilty" until an appeal process has been undertaken.

There is an insistent inference in statements made from supporters of Pell that the court has got this badly wrong, and with that comes the implication that the victim is once again at fault.

Simon Bourke is an ACM journalist.