When I briefly reviewed Australian comedian Catherine Deveny’s gig at the Global Atheist Convention, I suggested that her story about confronting Cardinal George Pell at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 was getting a bit old, and that she should ‘let it go’ and look for some new material. It seems she took me at my word! I’ve just heard that one of Dev’s recent tweets has upset George so much he threatened her with a defamation suit – a threat which he has, today, withdrawn.
Nevertheless, there is all too much of this bullying-by-defamation going on and, although the threat has now been withdrawn, Deveny was moved to apologise to Pell (when, in my opinion, no apology was warranted) and no doubt she spent some very anxious hours worrying about her financial future and her chances of battling an organisation as cashed up as the Holy Church of Rome.
So here’s the story. It appears that, having recently made an absolute bumbling fool of himself on national television, George was less than impressed when Dev tweeted a photo which did little else but illustrate a gaffe of his own making.
In case you’ve been living in a cave in Siberia for the last couple of months, let me explain.
George foolishly signed up to a one-on-one debate with Richard Dawkins on ABC’s Q and A. Now, if I had been the media consultant to the Catholic church of Australia when that invite came in, the corridors would still be reverberating with the sound of me screaming “NOOOOOOOO! DON’T DO IT GEORGE!!!!!!”
But, clerical hubris being what it is, George turned up in all his silly regalia and predictably, Dawkins annihilated him. Jetlagged Dawkins, in fact, achieved it effortlessly with one hand effectively tied behind his back. Dawkins soon twigged to the fact that if he just shut up, George would hang himself with his own cincture – which is exactly what happened. You can see the whole thing here:
Or you can just watch here to see the particular section of George’s inarticulate stumbling that tickled Dev’s funnybone:
Recalling a time when he was preparing some young English boys for holy communion, George made an unfortunately long pause after the word ‘boys’. The audience tittered and laughed at the obvious implication and even Dawkins couldn’t hide a broad grin. It was, quite frankly, comedy gold.
It’s not surprising that Deveny seized on it and tweeted a photo of Pell captioned with his hanging half-sentence, “When in England, we were preparing some young English boys”.
Pell alleged that the image and caption was defamatory because it suggests that he is associated with the sexual abuse of young boys.
Well, imagine that! In this day and age, how bizarre that someone might look at the image of a leader of the Catholic church and – with or without a droll caption – reach the conclusion that, in some way, they are associated with the sexual abuse scandals which riddle that vile institution.
And, if this is the case – as it most certainly is – who is at fault for that association? Certainly not Deveny!
If the Catholic church and its leaders were squeaky clean on the issue of sexual abuse of children, there would have been no titters and laughs from the Q and A audience as Pell spoke of his dealings with young English boys – and Deveny would have had nothing to tweet about. The association made by the audience, by Dawkins, by the twitter-sphere and by Deveny is entirely due to the actions of the church itself. It’s no use pinning the blame on the messenger!
As a Cardinal, George Pell accepts the many benefits that flow from being a ‘prince’ of the church. One would think that, celibate or not, he would not be so lacking in testicular fortitude as to go into a major funk when some of the church’s sins came back to bite him on the bum.
Like it or not, George, your church has been and still is riddled with child rapists. You are a leader of that church. Members of your church have covered up multiple instances of child rape and protected the perpetrators rather than the victims. When brought to account, members of your church have lied, dissembled, prevaricated and been generally uncooperative. You are a leader of the church and you must shoulder some responsibility for its sins. It is not only inevitable, but just, that you should be associated with the rapes perpetrated by the clergy within it.
If you only wanted to bask in the glory of being a Cardinal, George, you shouldn’t have taken the job.
This is not to say that George Pell has personally abused children. Not at all. And I don’t believe Deveny’s captioned photo suggests that either.
But, perhaps it should be noted that Pell has been accused of sexually abusing a 12 year old boy at a Catholic youth camp in 1961. Ultimately, no action was taken due to insufficient evidence and the questionable character of his accuser. It does seem feasible, though, that a man who alleges that he was raped as a child by someone he trusted might well, as a result, have turned to a life of crime. Wouldn’t it be ironic, if this were true, if this was exactly what ruined his credibility and may well (if his allegations had any basis in fact) have denied him justice!
Ultimately, the QC who headed the inquiry concluded:
“I accept as correct the submissions of Mr Tovey [for the complainant] that the complainant, when giving evidence of molesting, gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection. However, the respondent, also, gave me the impression that he was speaking the truth. … In the end, and notwithstanding that impression of the complainant, bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant’s credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not ‘satisfied that the complaint has been established …”
But this allegation is not the only direct association between Pell and child rape. In 1993 when Father Gerald Ridsdale was brought before the Melbourne Magistrates Court, charged with 30 incidents of indecent assault, involving nine boys aged between 12 and 16 he was supported by (then) Bishop Pell.
Interesting, isn’t it, that neither Pell, nor any other member of his church, turned up to support the victims of Ridsdale’s assaults – only the perpetrator (who pleaded guilty).
In 2010, Pell again came under scrutiny for his ham-fisted handling of complaints against Father Terence Goodall for ‘sexualising his pastoral relationships’ with a 10 year old altar boy and a religious instruction teacher, Anthony Jones, who had come to him for guidance.
Remarkably, although an independent investigator found both cases established, Pell reversed the investigator’s finding in respect to Jones, rejected his allegations of sexual abuse and implied that the sexualised ‘relationship’ was consensual (despite Goodall having admitted otherwise). Pell later apologised that his letter to Jones was ‘poorly drafted’ – an apology rejected by Jones as ‘not genuine’.
Let’s put aside, for a moment, the worldwide scandal of institutionalised child rape within the Catholic church – of which Cardinal Pell is a leader. Instead, let’s focus only on the small part of the globe with which he is most intimately associated – the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Here are just some of the cases against Catholic priests on Pell’s home turf:
- Michael Charles Glennon: former diocesan priest, sentenced to at least 15 years in jail for sexually abusing four Aboriginal boys between 1984 and 1991.
- Gerry Francis Ridsdale: convicted in 1994, he pled guilty on 46 sexual offenses.
- Wilfred James Baker: sentenced to four years in prison (parole after 2 years) for crimes involving eight boys.
- David Daniel: sentenced to six years jail, with parole after 4.5 years, for molesting four boys, a girl and an adult male.
- Rex Elmer: sentenced in 1998 to five years jail (with parole after 3 years 4 months) for molesting 12 boys at St Vincent’s orphanage in South Melbourne.
- Paul Pavlou: convicted on 29 June 2009 of committing an indecent act with a child under 16 and of being knowingly in possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to an 18 month jail sentence suspended for 24 months and to a two-year community based order. He was registered on the Sex Offenders Register for 15 years. These offences occurred in 2005-2006 while he was the priest at Healesville in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
- John Ayres SDB: The Salesian Order is alleged to have had an Australian victim sign a secrecy agreement and paid him compensation in 2000 in regard to allegations about Ayer’s actions.
- Francis Klep SDB: convicted of indecent assault in 1994, and charged with an additional five counts. He moved to Samoa, but in 2004 the Samoan government made moves to deport him from the country after becoming aware of the previous conviction and charges.
It should surprise no-one then, least of all Pell, that, in the collective imagination of the Australian public, his name is inextricably connected with the issue of child rape. Pell leads a church in which this is an on-going problem, he is the Archbishop of a diocese in which child rape and sexual abuse has been prevalent, he has personally supported a child rapist who plead guilty and was subsequently convicted, he has been criticised for his handling of sex abuse cases within the church and he has, himself, been accused (but not convicted) of sexual abuse in a case in which the accuser’s testimony ‘gave the impression’, at least, that he was speaking honestly.
And now, here is the important point.
I have met Catherine Deveny. I follow her on Facebook and on Twitter. While I can’t claim a personal friendship with Dev, some of her friends are my friends. We frequent the same circles. And yet, until today, I was completely ignorant of her offending tweet about George Pell. Yep, somehow I missed it.
The only reason it came to my attention was because Pell decided to make an issue of it. This afternoon, his threat to sue Deveny for defamation did reach my inbox.
Because, and only because, of this threat did I decide to dig into old George’s past associations with sexual abuse cases. If he hadn’t threatened to sue Deveny, I wouldn’t have bothered and I wouldn’t have known that he was once accused of being a sexual abuser himself.
Futher, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this blog post which brings issues he would probably rather put behind him back into the public spotlight.
You see, George, even threatening defamation sets the Streisand effect into action. Deveny didn’t call you a paedophile and I’m absolutely sure that no-one would have read her tweet that way. What we read in it is that, as a Cardinal, you are the personification of a church which is intimately and scandalously embroiled in the institutional abuse of children in its care over decades (or, more correctly, centuries). You made the gaffe that exposed you to public ridicule. Your church’s failings (and some of your own) have put you into the position where the mention of ‘preparing boys’ inevitably comes with sexual connotations. That is your fault and the fault of your church – it is no fault of Deveny or anyone else.
I am glad that you have decided not to pursue legal action against Catherine Deveny, although I suspect it’s probably because you were told you didn’t have a case, rather than Christian compassion. What I am not glad about is that these kind of bullying tactics function to try to silence bloggers, comedians, writers, even victims who fear that speaking out against the Catholic church may ruin them financially.
I support the right of any person to defend themselves in a genuine case of defamation. But when defamation threats are used to bully and silence, I feel compelled to speak out.
Perhaps next time (and there will be a next time), George, you might just consider taking some personal responsibility for the tarnished reputation of your church, its leadership and its clergy before thuggishly threatening to shoot the messenger.
* It is worth noting that Catherine Deveny was not the originator of the ‘meme’ to which Pell took offence, nor was she the only person to retweet it. In fact, it has just been brought to my attention that there is a record of this meme being retweeted under my name, although I did not initiate any such tweet. Amber Jamieson’s Crikey article “Devamation: George Pell pursues legal action over a Deveny tweet” provides a good account of the whole misguided mess.
For another perspective, see Gregory Storer’s “Free Speech, Catherine Deveny and George Pell” - “I can’t help but draw a comparison between the hatred and bigotry that is thrown out by the church with regards to gay people… Religions such as christianity have perpetrated the myth that if you’re gay you’re a pedophile … Do you have any idea how offensive I find such remarks?” – Gregory Storer.
See also: “Pell vs Morality” by Hilton T – aka The Outspoken Wookie