In Australia, Catholic Church’s bank is full, but pews are empty after abuse scandals
SYDNEY – Despite a series of sexual abuse scandals stretching back decades, Australia’s Roman Catholic Church displays a veneer of strength.
Across Australia, more Catholic parishes have stayed open than in other countries that have weathered abuse scandals and Catholic schools are still filled with children – owing largely to the financial and legal savvy of Australia’s most prominent cleric, Cardinal George Pell.
But it is not the bank accounts that are empty in the Australian church. It is the pews.
In December, Pell was convicted of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, making him the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman in the world to be found guilty of such a crime. The shocking charges and subsequent conviction have hardened distrust and anger among Catholics in Australia, pushing the country’s once robust church further into a precipitous – and perhaps record-setting – decline.
“It’s been disastrous,” said Peter Wilkinson, a former Catholic priest and researcher in Melbourne, Australia, where Pell served as the archbishop. “I’d say we’ve lost about two, possibly three generations of young people, and now I think the situation is worsening. The older generation is following the young.”
Even compared with other countries facing abuse scandals, Australia’s decline in church attendance is remarkable: In the 1950s, 74 percent of Catholics in Australia attended Mass weekly. In 2011, only 12 percent of the country’s 5.3 million Catholics went to Mass periodically (not even weekly), and that is expected to fall again when new data is published this year.
The exodus in Australia is a far more dramatic defection than in the United States, where 39 percent of Catholics say they attend church at least once a week, according to a Gallup poll last year, or Ireland, where weekly attendance has fallen to 44 percent.
And it is happening in a country where Catholic schools are still an institutional force. They educate roughly one in five Australian children and receive nearly 80 percent of their financing from the government – the legacy of a crisis in the 1960s, when the Labor Party agreed to rescue Catholic schools from debt and deterioration.
The result is an unusual dichotomy. Australia’s Catholic Church is financially stronger than its counterparts in many countries. It is also more spiritually abandoned. And Pell, 77, a domineering figure who was until recently the Vatican’s chief financial officer, shaped both trends in ways that many Australians are now questioning.
As archbishop of Melbourne in October 1996 – two months, it turns out, before the incidents that led to his recent conviction – Pell set up what would become a firewall for the church’s finances and reputation. He called it “The Melbourne Response.”
On paper, it was an alternative resolution process for abuse survivors. Pell said it aimed to “make it easier for victims to achieve justice” outside the courts. But it capped payments, initially at 50,000 Australian dollars, or $35,000, and usually forced victims to keep their traumas confidential.
Pell brought a similar approach to Sydney, where he served as archbishop from 2001 to 2014. He fought hard to discourage victims from going to court, even as he could often be heard condemning homosexuality and raising money for conservative causes and politicians, like former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. Both men expressed support for Pell after news of his conviction became public.
Most notably, he led an aggressive defense against a former altar boy, John Ellis, who said he had been raped and abused as a child by a priest in Sydney, the Rev. Aidan Duggan.
Duggan died in 2004 before the allegations from Ellis and several others surfaced. Ellis argued that the church’s main resolution process had failed him but that when he sued and then tried to settle, Pell refused.
In 2007, Ellis lost. An appeals court ruled that the Catholic Church in Australia could not be sued because it did not exist as a formal legal entity.
His combative approach – a “covert war on victims,” as Ellis described it in a recent editorial – did its job, at least financially.
The “Ellis defense” was invoked repeatedly to deter civil suits. Internal church documents from 2015 showed that the Melbourne Response saved the church as much as 62 million Australian dollars, or $44 million.
For many victims, Pell’s case and his sentence – due to be delivered today in Melbourne – will be seen as a test of both legal and moral authority. “For a lot of people, George Pell is the Catholic Church in Australia,” said Andrew Collins, a victim of childhood sexual abuse in Ballarat whose family was close to Pell for years.
Among victims, expectations for a lengthy sentence are low.
“They are accustomed,” Collins said, “to the church and the power of the church overriding what’s good and correct and right.”