Why George Pell must go'
December 26, 2013
Last December, when I was about to leave Fairfax Media, I prepared a final column that was not published because I agreed to stay another year. It began: ''This is probably the world's most public job application - and the most futile. As I lay down my pen after 31 years as a Fairfax journalist, I believe I still have something to offer one large employer: the Catholic Church in Australia.
''I have generously given so much advice for free on these pages and in my blog, but it is human nature not to esteem what you get for free compared with what you pay for.
''All joking aside - and I've lost count of how many times I've been told that the Catholic hierarchy detests me - the one thing that George Pell and Denis Hart need is someone who will speak bluntly about how they are perceived inside and outside the church.''
A year on, as I really am saying farewell, I would no longer prescribe that. The church in Australia has made real progress, certainly in relations with the wider world.
There are two main reasons. Within Australia, the bishops have created the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, a lay-led advisory body, to liaise with the royal commission examining clergy sexual abuse and represent the church. Its chief executive, Francis Sullivan, who replaced Pell as chief spokesman on sexual abuse, has been excellent.
Second is the new Pope, whose humility, gentleness and pastoral priorities brought a swift and welcome rejuvenation of hope and energy to a church battered by the abuse crisis.
However, what the church needs, I suggest, is new archbishops in Sydney and Melbourne. It needs men with no connection to the clergy sex abuse crisis who are capable of inspirational leadership and example.
Sydney's Pell and Melbourne's Hart are now the figureheads for a discredited approach to tackling sexual abuse within the church and for a narrow, authoritarian clericalsim explicitly rejected by Pope Francis. The church in Australia must move on if it is to restore its credibility and appeal to those who are deserting in droves.
Francis has proved the value of inspirational, fresh, people-centred leadership. That he wants his bishops to emulate him is shown by his exhortations, his example, and last week's removal of hardline US cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican body that appoints the world's bishops.
Pell and Hart have explicitly identified with the church's two sex abuse protocols (Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response) that have been condemned by secular inquiries, and both exemplify the clericalist caste Francis wants to change.
Pell has constantly portrayed himself as the solution rather than the problem in tackling clergy sexual abuse. Secular investigators have not agreed. Both archbishops, as the key Catholic leaders in Australia (Hart is chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference), were excoriated in the November report of the Victorian inquiry into clergy sexual abuse, which said church leaders trivialised child abuse as a short-term embarrassment that did not require self examination.
The church is having to admit the protocols are seriously flawed. Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge conceded to the royal commission earlier this month that they were marked by ''spectacular bungling'' and ''drastic failure'', with bishops caught ''like rabbits in a headlight''.
Even if we accept that Pell's motives were entirely benign - though they seem to have been highly mixed, with the top priority to protect the institution - his name is indelibly associated with with a system he set up and grimly defended to the end.
Nor is it merely the abuse issue. The constrained orthodoxy and generally defensive posture of the past 20 years - retreating behind the battlements and complaining about secularism - is no longer appropriate. Francis, as I wrote earlier, has changed everything while changing nothing - the core Catholic doctrines are untouched, but hope has bloomed again.
Again, let's turn to Francis: '' I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.'' He is attuned to the words of Christ who ''did not come to be served but to serve'', and is trying to restore that first principle.
The church in Australia needs a seismic shift to move past the sex abuse crisis, and that is simply not possible while the last-generation leaders remain in charge. But the pair's resignation as archbishops would provide it, a step backwards for them that would propel the wider church forward.
Hart, who has preferred a modest public presence, might feel aggrieved at being included in the call to step down, but he is seen as joined at the hip to Pell, two close friends who entered seminary on the same day.
Pell still has influence in Rome. Resigning his see might even increase it. Both know one of the biggest problems in the Catholic Church in Australia is the lack of parish priests. Why not return to pastoral ministry? In any case, when it comes to their archdioceses, as Oliver Cromwell told the beguilingly named Rump Parliament, ''in the name of God, go!''