Cardinal Pell Sexual Abuse Verdict: Will Australians Lose Their Faith?

Cardinal Pell Sexual Abuse Verdict: Will Australians Lose Their Faith? September 3, 2019

Some time back, I reported a number of times on the case of Cardinal Pell and his involvement with institutional sexual abuse in the Catholic church in Australia. It as a pretty torrid affair with Pell trying his level best to extricate himself. With the wide-ranging Royal Commission looking into the scandal, the law caught up with him.

The Guardian Australia columnist Brigid Delaney has written an interesting piece looking at the ramifications of such a finding and legal conclusion to Pell’s court case. The question is, what effect does this have on (Australian) believers, and obviously particularly, Catholics?

What do those of us – the unmolested but disgusted, confused or defiant – do with our tattered church?

The last rough years for the church in Australia have forced many of us to consider some questions: what does it do to my faith now I know the institution has been protecting paedophile priests and moving them around to other parishes? What does it mean for me as a Catholic if Australia’s highest-ranking priest is in jail for molesting boys? Should I raise my children in the Catholic faith? And do these things that have degraded the church degrade my faith?…

The public narrative playing out – a sort of culture wars narrative between the left and the right – does these private reckonings no justice. The adjustments and crises of faith that people have experienced following the verdicts are too subtle, personal and diffuse to fit in a left/right binary.

Among the people I know, a review of a relationship with the Catholic church can throw up responses as diverse as rejecting the finding of the jury and appeal judges – and believing there is a papist conspiracy – to abandoning the church altogether and walking away in disgust.

Without exception I’ve found that if your faith had been smouldering in a half life for a while, the Pell verdicts have been the extinguishing force.

As with any such scenario, cognitive dissonance will play a large role. People who have devoted their whole lives to a given institution – all of its rituals, tokens, beliefs and ideas of salvation and eternal life – will really struggle to come to terms with such findings and admit culpability in that institution. Sadly, that’s human nature. Where, as the author points out, people walk away from the faith or church is where cracks of dissatisfaction and seeds of doubt have already been making the foundations unsteady and creeping their way into the recesses of the mind.

For those like me, who were already drifting away from religion, the last years of the church’s trials have turned ambivalence into anger and disgust but also something more complicated.

Leaving your religion can leave you with a void, particularly if you grew up marinating in the church’s beliefs and rituals (stations of the cross and the deprivation of Good Friday, the austerity of Lent and the anticipation of Advent, a novena if someone died, rosary beads as birthday presents, and vials of holy water some local pilgrim brought back to you from Lourdes, picking a confirmation name and a communion dress).

There are things to miss – midnight mass on Christmas Eve, somebody to pray to, the cleansing power of confession, the promise of everlasting life and no one really dying because you’ll see them in heaven (as long as you are good).

But it wasn’t just the saccharine stuff that was important. A Christian calendar learned early can, if taken on its allegorical elements, be a good preparation for life too. In it there is a season of suffering and pain – the Bible is riven with blood and pain and loss. You need to know these things to be unsurprised when the suffering comes along.

People’s relationship with religion differs from person to person. It is why there are as many versions of God as there are believers. As such, people’s reactions to the sordid affair will differ. It will be interesting to see stats over the coming years in terms of Australian religious (Catholic) adherence.


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