The dividing line between good and evil…A response to the conviction of George Pell

The dividing line between good and evil…A response to the conviction of George Pell

When I heard the news that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of the sexual abuse of children I felt sick in the stomach. I felt disgust at what he had done; sad for the boys he abused; grieved when I learned that one of the boys had taken his life; and fearful at the damage it would do to people’s capacity to hear the gospel.

Like many others, I read the articles suggesting the verdict was questionable. I wanted to believe they were right. I discussed the possibility with Sandy and a couple of friends. I stopped this when I heard survivors of child abuse describing the pain such discussion caused them.

Cardinal Pell no longer has the presumption of innocence. He has been found guilty by a jury of his peers and all our discussion should proceed on the assumption that he is guilty. Attempts to second-guess the verdict or to retry the case is our own imaginations are inappropriate. We have not sat in that court room, we have not heard the evidence presented, but we do have the best system in the history of the world for acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. Twelve jurors had to be convinced that the evidence showed beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of sexual abuse. They had a well qualified judge to ensure both sides made their case in a fair and reasonable way. And the jury found him guilty.

Juries can make mistakes, which is why we have an appeals process. But just as we insist that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so we must insist that a person who has been found guilty is guilty until found innocent.

For many of us this creates a sense of dissonance. John Howard, Tony Abbott and a host of others have testified that Cardinal Pell is a good man. I’ve never met Cardinal Pell, but I have no reason to doubt what two former PMs have found – that Cardinal Pell is a man whose life has been characterised by a deep commitment to his church and the values of grace, compassion, generosity, justice and love. Yet I also have to assume that on at least two occasions in his life Cardinal Pell betrayed those values, took advantage of his position and used his power in a vile and despicable way to sexually abuse two boys. And then there are a host of others who speak of George Pell as aggressive in the exercise of his power, parents of children abused in the Catholic church who describe him as having a “sociopathic lack of empathy“*.

I want to believe that abusers are monsters, human beings devoid of any redeeming virtues. No doubt some are. But most are not. I am forced to the terrifying truth that good people commit evil deeds. Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered this disturbing truth in a Communist concentration camp:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The Gulag Archipelago

We will come to grips with the evil in our midst only when we come to grips with this awful truth. The problem is not “a few bad apples” that we must get rid of. The problem is that every apple has the capacity to rot. This is why each of us must be ever vigilant to the state of our heart and mind, to have people in whom we can confide when darkness starts to grip us. It is why our institutions must have systems that disperse power and wherever inequalities of power remain that we have transparent and open systems of accountability.

A recognition that people who can do good in some relationships and areas of their life but do evil things in others enables us to respond appropriately to their evil**. We must not allow our experience of their goodness to blind us to their evil. Cardinal Pell has been found guilty of a horrendous violation of two human beings, of momentary acts that left two boys with a lifetime of destruction, of the most devastating betrayal of those boys, his church and his God. I weep for those boys and the damage done to them. I am filled with indignation that this was done to them by someone in a position of trust. I hope that the surviving man can find healing, justice, recompense and a better future.

At the same time I grieve for Cardinal Pell.*** A powerful man who dedicated his life to doing what he thought was the good has been brought low, humiliated, shamed and will spend time in the dreary, humiliating and shameful reality of prison and the public exposure of his crime. It is deserved. Such evils as child abuse need to be met with the strongest response, a societal declaration that those who commit such deeds will meet with our disapproval and severe penalties. Yet this is not simply a story of crime and punishment. It is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. The one dimensional caricatures that portray Cardinal Pell as as a ruthless, power-mongering, child-abusing shell of a human being or as nothing but saintly confirm our prejudices and perpetuate the myth that good people only ever do good things. Our human experience is that good and evil lie within all of us. At the same time I decry the evil of which Cardinal Pell has been convicted, I also feel for a man who has given so much to his faith and his church, who has achieved much good and positively impacted many lives but finds that all undone. I will pray for the Cardinal to begin his own journey of healing and renewal.

I am reminded again of the need to guard my own heart. Good people commit acts of evil. For some it is the dark shadow of abuse. For others the shadows threaten to darken other parts of their humanity. But I dare not deny that shadows are found somewhere in all of us and need to be exposed before they lead us down paths that we never imagined we are capable.

How we need to do this for our own sake, but above all for the sake of those we damage if we do not. The years of dis-integration, despair and dependencies visited upon Cardinal Pell’s victims and other survivors of abuse are the disconcordant reminders that human beings are too precious and their hearts too vulnerable for us to pretend that only monsters abuse. Recognising the potential for evil that lies within all of us seems to me the only way to ensure that our presence with others will be life-giving.

*This sentence was added after the article was originally published for the purposes of clarity

** This sentence was edited after original publication for the purposes of clarity

*** sentence removed for the purposes of clarity

This statistic, more than any other, shocked me

This statistic, more than any other, shocked me

“Acts of violence to women aged between 15 and 44 across the globe produce more deaths, disability and mutilation than cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined.”

This  statistic, quoted  in Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity,  shocked me more than any other I have heard as  our community has discussed domestic and family violence over the last few years.

It’s not just globally that this occurs. In Australia, intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and ill-health in women aged 15-44 (White Ribbon Australia).  By now we’ve all heard that more than one woman is killed every week  by an existing or former intimate partner (ANROW).  This is the  horrific and tragic tip of the iceberg. Australian police deal with 657 domestic violence incidents every day of the year (ABC News). That’s  one every two minutes. And remember,  most incidents go unreported.

As I’ve been learning more about this, I’ve discovered that  are dramatic differences between men’s and women’s experiences of violence. About one in two men will be subject to an act of violence at some point during their adult years (ANROW). This is most likely to occur outside the home  and be at the hands of a stranger  – e.g. fight in the pub or  pushing and shoving at a fully match.  It is also likely to occur just once.  One in three women will experience violence during the course of their adult years  and for the majority of them this will occur in the home.  One in six will be subject to physical violence at the hands of an  existing or former intimate partner.  And because it’s violence within a relationship and within the home  it is more likely to  involve repeated acts of violence. (ANROW) It is terribly sobering to realise that the place a woman is least safe in Australia is in her own home.

As this issue has been raised  in my church and my denomination, I have heard  substantial numbers of women  quietly acknowledging violence has been part of their story.   I have met survivors  who may feel brittle but display  incredible depths of strength.  I have been  reminded once more that women’s voices  and interests need to be heard. And I am now perhaps more acutely  aware than ever  that we need to change our images of masculinity.



(f you belong to a church  I am coordinating a campaign to help churches explore domestic violence, equip themselves to respond, and make changes to their culture. Details can be found at Common Grace also has excellent  resources available)

Julia Baird, Complementarian Theology, Domestic Violence & the Church

Julia Baird, Complementarian Theology, Domestic Violence & the Church

Journalist Julia Baird has conducted research on domestic violence in the church that is being released as a series of reports on the ABC. It has already sparked intense discussion and people are getting defensive.

Surely this is a moment for deep introspection, a time for us to talk about the culture of our churches, and not to make this just another stage in the Complementarian v Egalitarian theology debate.

I abhor Complementarian theology (the view that God has assigned leadership in the church and home to men), but if this becomes a debate about Complentarianism it will shift the focus from where it should be : the perpetration of physical, emotional and financial abuse of women by their intimate partners.

What I believe we do need to do is ask questions about the culture of our churches. For example:

  • Are our churches places where the voices and interests of men are favoured over the interests of women? I belong to a denomination that almost 20 years ago made it  possible for women to serve as pastors, yet the last time I went through our list of churches and ministers less than 3% of churches had a woman serving in a lead pastor role. Does this not suggest that whatever our theological positions may be our culture does not value women’s voice and interests in the same way it values men’s?
  • Are our churches places where the institution of marriage is prioritised over the wellbeing of people in marriages? I am shocked to hear of pastors who advise women they should stay within abusive marriages, but even where this is not the advice given, have we deified marriage, given it such importance that people feel trapped within marriages that are abusive? Are we guilty of making partners serve the institution of marriage rather than marriage serving the partners?
  • What part do our theological positions on men, women and marriage play in creating cultures that militate against hearing the voices of abused women ? How do we counter this?

I hope that Julia Baird’s research helps us ask these questions, and more, and take action on them. Yes, the church will cop criticism, some of it fair and some unfair. But surely now is not a time to to get defensive, nor for me to assume smugly that this is a problem for Complementarians but not for me? Surely it is time to come with an open heart and open mind, to stop talking and start listening, and be prepared to repent where it is needed.



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