In Aus­tralia, Catholic Church’s bank is full, but pews are empty af­ter abuse scan­dals

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Damien Cave and Livia Albeck-Ripka

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.”

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