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. I don’t want these acts of evil to blind me to his goodness. 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

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