George Pell puts abuse at arm’s length

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The Australian

24 August 2012

by: jared owens

AUSTRALIA’S most senior Catholic, Sydney Archbishop George Pell, has authorised an extraordinary 4000-word statement publicly distancing himself from responsibility for the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse investigations around the country.

The 15-page document, titled Sexual Abuse: The Response of the Archdiocese of Sydney, also claims the archdiocese does not “cap” its assistance to abuse victims or shield alleged perpetrators and church bodies from civil lawsuits.

Barrister Bryan Keon-Cohen QC last night accused the church statement of employing “very careful language that only tells half the story”.

The statement acknowledges “deep concern” about church sexual abuse, and admits that “officials have sometimes failed to deal appropriately with those who have been abused, and with priests and church workers accused of abuse”.

“We express our remorse for past failures and extend our sincere regret and deep sympathy to (the victims and their families),” the statement read. The statement accepted Cardinal Pell has “final responsibility” for complaints received against priests in Sydney, but said “his authority is limited to the Archdiocese of Sydney”.

“Cardinal Pell is not the head of the church in Australia as is commonly reported in the media and elsewhere.

“There is a division of responsibility in the church somewhat like the separation of powers in a democracy or the division of responsibilities between the states and commonwealth in Australia. Each bishop supervises his own priests and church workers and is responsible for dealing with any allegations of sexual abuse made against them.

“Referring complaints to the bishop who has authority over an accused person is not ‘passing the buck’.”

Dr Keon-Cohen said the “fallacious” argument overlooked the archbishop’s obvious influence as Australia’s only cardinal, and his prestigious place among Australia’s Catholic bishops.

“The church is very clever in dividing the different dioceses around Australia. It means that if a priest has molested a child in diocese A, and only that diocese’s bishop can do something about it, he is able to transfer the priest to diocese B and not tell the bishop there,” he told The Australian.

Dr Keon-Cohen said the NSW Supreme Court in 2006 held the church cannot itself be sued, and litigants who are successful against individual priests are unable to win significant damages, as church assets are “concealed behind a corporate veil of property trusts”.

He said lump-sum payments for abuse victims were capped at $75,000, although other payments, such as public transport fares to meet psychiatry appointments, were not.

“This sort of tricky language has been pioneered by the tobacco companies,” he said.

The church has recently been barraged with abuse and cover-up allegations relating to priests at numerous dioceses.

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