16 January 2014

'The Prince' by David Marr

The summer holidays have given me a chance to catch up on some books I had been meaning to read for a while.

The first of these was The Prince by David Marr. It's too late to respond to Quarterly Essay directly, and none of the sites that pay me to write would regard the following as current. The official responses are worth examining in themselves.

Marr aims to see what can be learned about Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, from his time in his native Victoria and his ascent there from seminary-bound schoolboy through to Archbishop of Melbourne. He seeks to do that through the prism of the Victorian Parliament's inquiry into child abuse and other organisations, specifically where it overlapped with Catholic institutions.

Marr has a vivid eye for the telling detail. It was hard not to weep for those parents who told their son that, if they were ever late in picking him up from their parish school, to wait in the presbytery - the very place where the boy was in most direct danger. His comment that Victoria was one of the most dangerous places to be a Catholic child was chilling: so much for the bogeys of Protestants, Muslims, and the dreaded secularists.

The people who have spent years playing down sexual abuse of children, as though such events are unfortunate but as inextricably part of childhood as grazed knees or name-calling, are the same morally defective people responsible for decisions to take newborn babies from unwed teenage mothers. They are the same people who decided that Aboriginal parents could not raise their own children. They are the people who decided that Pell must rise and others must make way for him. This is a systematic failure of moral leadership.

A central idea of preferring one religious denomination over others is a belief that yours holds knowledge about the human heart and the divine will for it that is lacking in other denominations and faiths. The long-standing and still widely-held idea that sexual abuse is a trifle blown out of proportion by those who have always stood against the Church, or that slut-shaming is the way to treat keening and sore post-natal mothers, reveals such an understanding to be deficient, if not absent, consistently over many years. The Church loses everything if it loses its moral authority, and while Pell might assert it most forcefully it would appear that those who share his assertions are doing the most to let the side down.

Those who feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the ill and frail, and who teach the children - i.e. those who engage in the Church's core stated business - seem to be spend their lives on the fringes of the Church's operations, scrounging for resources and overwhelmed by a growing society with weakening social bonds. Yet, when the Church is under attack for covering up child abuse or other depredations, it is these people who are clutched to the bosom of the Church like so many human shields. We know who the strong people are in that organisation, and it isn't the blowhards like Pell.

Marr paints a picture of Pell as someone who is fundamentally incurious about others and who seemingly neither blossoms under adulation nor buckles under condemnation. The result is a man opaque to those looking for warmth, sympathy or human qualities other than gruffness.

Maybe Marr was out of his Sydney milieu in Melbourne, and yes he was restricted for time and space; but there are four areas where his reporting is unparalleled and I wish he had brought them to this story.

First, Marr is a former lawyer and showed, through his reporting for Fairfax and especially in his biography Barwick, that he has a keen ability to draw the drama out of dry legal proceedings and easy-to-miss lawyerly maneuverings. At key moments in Pell's career, spontaneous bands of highly effective lawyers have sprung to his defence and pulled him out of situations that crush lesser mortals. Marr hints at this, but doesn't really go after key consigliere within the Church who made possible its long and cross-jurisdictionally successful defence of the indefensible. Such a study is key to the book that is yet to be written about Pell and this chapter in the Church's history in this country.

Second, Marr has a keen eye in disputes of this kind for who cops it in the neck, and what resources they have to deflect or deal with the damage wrought upon them. A cursory understanding of Melbourne's suburbs would have shown that the weirdo priests Marr focuses on seemed to have been sent to low-socio-economic areas, like Sunshine and Doveton. Was this a random distribution? Both the Prime Minister and the federal Opposition Leader were once Catholic schoolboys, and it is interesting that neither tell the harrowing tales that befell their co-denominationalists elsewhere. Marr could have looked into this phenomenon to a greater degree than he did to draw the sorts of conclusions he hints at but does not quite put away.

Third, Marr makes much of Pell's political connections, yet the only evidence we see of it is when Premier Jeff Kennett fronts him with an ultimatum. This exception does not prove the rule that Pell is well-connected politically, and nor does it explain why these connections survive such widespread and deep injury to any constituency.

Fourth, you can't insist that sex is central to the story but that Pell seems like a sexless man. The Church has established and express procedures for defrocking priests who engage in conventional, consensual heterosexual relationships. It turns a blind eye to homosexuality and has fudged its response to the sexual abuse of children. This different treatment of sexual behaviour by its clergy is the inverse of its teaching for the rest of us (including those of us who aren't Catholic). The furtive explorations of his own sexuality that Marr described in the High Price of Heaven would be subject to the dichotomy of being both frowned upon and condoned in some way under the dualism that seems to operate within the Church.

The fastest way to diminish the kind of authority Pell and his supporters would seek to project is not by a frontal assault, but to say one thing and do the opposite.

All these are intertwined and few journalists pull them all off consistently well - Marr is one such, and his omissions are telling if understandable.

In the following edition of Quarterly Essay are a number of responses to Marr's essay by prominent Australians, the least of which was by Cardinal Pell himself. A three-sentence dismissal that could have been levelled at any critic, however well-intentioned or carefully considered, Pell's statement was nothing more than an ursine ad hominem swipe. It seemed both typical of the man and his refusal to engage with not only the political and legal, but also the moral questions surrounding child abuse within the various Church bailiwicks under his control. Marr was more than generous in describing Pell's response as "witty".

It was telling, and little considered by Marr or his interlocutors, how committed Pell was to the ascent of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, and how ambivalent he seemed about his erstwhile champion when that papacy ended.

Geraldine Doogue was disappointing in trotting out the canard that it might be desirable, or even possible, to extricate the Catholic Church from Australian public and community life. By describing the Church as a single organisation engaged in a range of good works, she gives it the very corporate existence that the lawyers deny it has when the writs fly in seeking damages. Neither Marr nor Doogue consider this, nor the human-shield element, which is a pity - although Marr quite rightly says that those who do good works should not be regarded as providing cover, or balance, for the evil-doers.

Doogue's reference to Pell as 'closet atheist' (using an anonymous source - so it's not just the press gallery who do that) was interesting. It follows a phenomenon within the Church of England in the UK, where church leaders profess their scepticism about the virgin birth and other tenets of the faith. If so, this arrogant man cannot bear an authority greater than himself, invoking the Church's own patchy history in dealing with governments.

Doogue should have considered how different her own experience of faith might have been had she been accosted by a cleric as a child. All Catholics, all people of faith whose institutions are under examination by the Clelland Royal Commission, cannot fail to do this: there but for the grace of God, etc.

Michael Cooney and Robbie Swan were interesting from the perspective of Pell as a backroom operator, and how such a public man stumbles when the spotlight is upon him. Ironically, Swan's invocation of Chrissie Foster highlighted what should have been the Christian message in this matter: namely that the victim's rights trump all others until the wrongdoers have made restitution in full. Barney Zwartz carries off the neat balancing act of praising Pell for introducing 'The Melbourne Response' and condemning him for not monitoring and updating it as need presented itself over time; he also refutes Swan's biological determinism about sex. Frank Bongiorno described the sophisticated tolerance for matters sexual among Catholic schoolboys that seems mysterious to those with a less nuanced view of Catholic education, and as befits a boy genius who vaulted from Year 5 in 1980 straight to Year 7 in 1981.

Paul Collins articulated the cry of the powerless moderate against the controlling boofhead, and the hope for the Church that lies against Pell's example rather than with it; that in the triumph of the Santamaria style atop the Church (and beyond it, in government) is also its demise, with communism already dispatched and secularism barely dented, or even defined. This is the point Amanda Lohrey makes, that the Dark Ages never go away and that 'secularism' is an essential element for people to operate in the world, and particularly in a multicultural nation.

Rather crankily, Marr rails against restrictions on time and space, he insists on his sexual explanation while accepting that it explains little, but still insists he has delivered a comprehensive judgment. His insistence against some sort of moral balance sheet for the Church is important, like that a generation ago with the rejection of Geoffrey Blainey's Three Cheers/Black Armband ledger for the nation.

Marr didn't quite do justice to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, which was about institutions other than the Catholics. He wasn't fair on the great mass of Catholics doing important work for little or no recognition. He didn't shine the journalistic spotlight on those who facilitate Pell, on those best placed to get him to change his ways. Still, David Marr has produced an important work that links grass-roots failings with the leadership of a large, ancient and complex organisation, and that is no mean feat.


  1. Andrew,

    Thank you for reminding me about my resolve to read Marr's essay (as usual, life intruded).

    I will read it, and comment after having done so (and after this ghastly heatwave has ceased).


  3. Hi Andrew..
    Barney Zwartz's last article in The Age is a must read..he suggested Pell's time to leave is long overdue

    This writer is one of the best religious reporters that can deconstruct religion for the average reader.

    A must read!!

    Enjoying the heat in Melbourne and reading this blog


  4. It is very hard to be a Catholic with leaders like Pell. I am trying, but I have come to the conclusion that it is not my Catholic faith that I need to reject but the Catholic Church. I am dismayed at the lack of outrage from Catholic leaders on Scott Morrison's shenanigans with Asylum Seekers. Where is the thundering condemnation from the pulpit on Sundays?
    The Catholic Church is for me an irrelevance.
    Kevin Bradley

  5. St Pauls Cathedral here in Melbourne has a large banner outside with the sentiments along the lines

    Let them in!

    We're not all heartless money hungry bogans

  6. Hi Andrew...

    Ever considered coming to Melbourne for a speaking engagement this year??

    They don't bite and the food and culture is soooooo much better than Sydney.

    (ducks for cover)