Rules Are for Schmucks: How to Succeed in Rome

Photo by Britta Campion / The Daily Telegraph

You can get jaded reading too much news, especially too much religion news. Muslims murdering innocents in creative new ways … Jews kicking more non-Jews out of their Palestinian homes … Evangelicals squashing the teaching of basic science … the umpteen millionth manifestation of the Catholic sex abuse saga. Enough already!

Sometimes, though, an item is astonishing enough to command attention amid the squalor. Such is the case with the report of Australia’s “Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse” released earlier this month. This document is not the work of some quick-buck plaintiff’s lawyer or on-the-make journalist. It is a comprehensive, thoughtful investigation of how the response to these abuses unfolded, authored by the most respectable people in the land. The evil it reveals, at the highest levels, is hard to believe.

John Ellis was an Australian altar boy who was routinely assaulted by Father Aidan Duggan, starting at the age of thirteen and continuing for many years afterward. The psychological impact on Ellis was devastating, as it has been for many other victims—he could maintain neither a family nor a job because of his alternating depression and fits of uncontrollable anger. In 2002, Ellis tried to enter a program the Australian church had instituted with much PR ballyhoo to help victims “recover,” only to be informed in writing by Sydney Archbishop George Pell that “I very much regret any hurt that you have experienced that a clear resolution of this matter is not possible, but under these circumstances I do not see that there is anything the Archdiocese can do to help you bring this matter to some resolution towards this end.” The black-lining shows how Pell changed the draft originally prepared by a staffer to make it more harsh.

Despite being told that resolving matters through the church program was “not possible,” Ellis persisted. Independent investigators retained by the church concluded that Ellis was probably telling the truth, both about the abuse and the damage it caused him. Ellis also learned that the church was making financial payments to victims—not because money can undo the harm, but in order to restore their faith that some effort was being made in the direction of justice. He asked for a payment of $100,000, at about the same time he was losing his job due to erratic behavior. Pell flatly refused, even though requirement number one for payment of any amount at all was that Ellis would release the church from all other possible financial liability.

Ellis then brought a lawsuit, seeking a higher damages amount. The archdiocese responded first by dropping its standing offer to provide him with a spiritual advisor and then by bringing in high-powered lawyers to defend the case. They refused to participate in the court-sponsored mediation process that applies in other civil litigation and instead tried to make Ellis an example of how tough they could be, to discourage anyone else from suing the church. They argued that no abuse had ever occurred, contrary to their own findings that it had. They subjected Ellis to a grueling two-day cross examination about the details of his abuse and whether he was really a closeted homosexual, systematically trying to convince the court that he was a greedy liar. They hired a public relations expert to help smear Ellis in the court of public opinion. According to the Royal Commission, they spent over $550,000 trying to destroy a victim who had only asked for $100,000 in the first place, just to make him an example to deter everyone else.

Ellis ultimately lost his case. Not because the abuse didn’t happen or because he didn’t suffer harm, but because the Australian courts decided that the church institution itself should not have to pay for the wrongdoing of one of its priests (who was dead by the time Ellis brought his case). Pell, now a cardinal, chortles that it’s just like the case of a truck driver who abuses a child off the job—the trucking company shouldn’t have to pay the child any damages for that. Of course, it’s nothing like that at all—it was the church, as an institution, that brought the priest and the altar boy together and that created the aura of holiness and obedience around the priest that makes children believe they need to submit as they are told. The Royal Commission report concludes, in excruciating detail, that Cardinal Pell and the church acted abominably toward Ellis throughout the entire ordeal.

Now, if I try hard enough I can work up a shred of sympathy for pedophile priests. Sexual urges don’t make logical sense. If you see others in your position getting away with anything they want, succumbing to temptation is still disgusting, but at least remotely understandable. Try as I might, though, I can’t get beyond total revulsion at a powerful person who, with cold rationality, calculates how best to destroy an innocent in order to set an example for everyone else.

Crushing sex abuse victims is far from Cardinal Pell’s only claim to fame. He is one of the church’s leading climate change deniers, he told Catholic politicians who vote to fund embryonic stem cell research not to bother showing up for Holy Communion, he once described Jews as “intellectually and morally inferior,” and he condemns “people without religion” as being “coarse,” “uncaring,” and “without constraints.” One longtime Vatican watcher recently interpreted a Pell speech as threatening a schism in the church if it proceeds down the line of showing more mercy to divorcées.

So how does media darling Pope Francis treat this guy? He promotes him—to the single most important position in the church. Cardinal Pell is now in charge of all the church’s money, including the notorious Vatican Bank. The fine moral sensibility he displayed in spending $550,000 to defeat a $100,000 claim (again, to set an example for others), will now guide an institution unregulated by any government and that has a long history of financial fraud, tax evasion, facilitating Mafia money laundering, and possibly much worse, as laid out in gory detail in Gerald Posner’s new book God’s Bankers. Apparently, Francis figures that Pell is the perfect fit for the job.