The trial of Cardinal George Pell comes at the end of a long and heart-breaking commission into child abuse that plumbed the depths of human misbehaviour.
Whether George was party to such crimes is for the courts to decide and is of only passing interest to me. But I am fascinated by another aspect of the tragedy, one that has barely been touched upon: how did the priestly perpetrators – all 1880 of them - come to engage in such shocking behaviour? And how did they square their consciences with the desperately hurtful things they were doing to the children in their care?
It is impossible to know with certainty, because they have either denied their crimes or pleaded guilty, so have never been questioned in depth. If they unburdened themselves to fellow priests in the confessional, their words remain in camera. And a similar doctor-patient stricture applies to the rare psychiatrist who has heard the story from the paedophile’s point of view.
Some of them claim that they too were abused as children and this compelled them down the same path. But if so, then surely that would only increase the anguish they felt and the need to somehow expiate the sin. But they did it again and again and again.
Some, like the notorious Gerald Risdale, were so obsessed with seeking new victims that there was scarcely time for him to consider his actions; he had virtually no other life but that of the dedicated predator. But that leaves many hundreds who must have known that what they were doing was very wrong. They could see the way their victims were affected, how their behaviour deteriorated, their school grades collapsed, and self-harm became their way of dealing with the assault on their trust and their innocence.
We can only speculate, but there must surely have come a time when they realised that their lives were a sad façade, that perhaps the product they were selling was without substance, that they were engaged in a religious ponzi scheme where all the benefit goes up the line to the men at the top. Their role was merely bringing in more consumers who supported the whole unhappy edifice.
Perhaps they signed up to do good, to make a contribution to the congregation and the Church. But once inside the system, did they see how cynically their superiors played the game? Did disillusionment set in and they gradually abandoned their idealism and ‘joined the club’, became part of what corrupt policemen call ‘the joke’?
Not all, of course. Those 1880 predators were by no means the majority, but it’s hard to believe that the others were unaware of the activities of such a percentage of miscreants in their ranks, especially since they were so often moved about when the complaints became too voluble to ignore. Yet they buttoned their lips and let it happen…again, and again, and again.
Of course, there’s nothing new about the priesthood feeling it’s above the law and playing cynically on the common people with their fears and superstitions, or joining the ruling elite as handmaidens in their quest for power. That’s ancient history, from Egypt to Israel to Nazi Germany.
And woe betide anyone who challenges their authority…as a certain preacher from Nazareth discovered all those years ago.