“Doubt” and the Catholic Church

Tress and I have been getting DVD’s from the Blackburn “Video EZ” store on Canterbury Road. It’s a quiet store and a touch more pricey than the one on Burwood Highway. It is however, convenient in that it’s on the way of our regular routes now – to/from both Madam Kwong and St Alfred’s.

One of the movies we took last week (which we watched last night) was “Doubt” – a play like offering by a Pulitzer winning piece (someone named Shanley I think). Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman were in it and they carried the dialogues exceptionally well. There was another character – a black boy’s mother – who also shone like a beacon and was mind-bogglingly pivotal in the movie, although she must have appeared for not more than 15-20minutes. The story was about a catholic church and the school which it ran. Streep was the school principal and Hoffman was the Father who was technically Streep’s boss. Streep was the archetypical mother superior type of character. Or maybe unfairly as I recall the mother superior in Sound of Music was very benevolent. Streep was simply the sort who acted on the premise of her personal standards of behaviour and thinks those standards are of the church. Her theology doesn’t seem to have room for the compassion and gentle but firm support that Hoffman’s character was full of. The nuances of homosexuality and paedophilia remained line balled – the viewer was never at any point sledge hammered into making a call. No evidence, traces of suggestions albeit thick, were all there is to it. Hence the title I guess.

I loved the movie – loved the dialogues and the way viewers were invited in to have a look and think for themselves.

Coincidentally I was reading The Sydney Institute’s regular Friday offerings of Media Watchdogs, which has this extract:

These days, book reviewers in Fairfax Media newspapers are effectively syndicated.   Last Saturday, Gerard Windsor’s review of David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell was carried in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times.

The Catholic-born reviewer Gerard Windsor is a critic of the socially conservative Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. So it is not surprising that Windsor is broadly sympathetic to Marr’s depiction of Cardinal George Pell – asking the rhetorical question: “Has a more devastating portrait of a ‘respectable’, living, non-politician, Australian public figure ever been published?”  Good question.  Certainly Pell fares worse in this study than some Australian extant murderers and criminals whose lives have been depicted in biographies.

Although a critic of Pell, Windsor correctly frames Marr as an anti-Catholic sectarian.  Early in the review, Gerard Windsor writes:

There is no doubt that Marr sees Pell as an enemy. His 2000 book, The High Price of Heaven, made clear his antipathy to religion, above all in the form of the Catholic Church. Here Marr’s colours are nailed to the mast even in the miniature on the cover: Pell, prince of the church, enthroned, bathed in Renaissance gold – never a benign look for a prelate.

Windsor also refers to David Marr’s “celebrated caustic wit” directed at Pell and makes the point that “in the Marr telling, Jesus Christ does not make an appearance”. In short, Marr simply cannot understand Pell’s Christian beliefs. Interestingly, Windsor makes no reference to Marr’s deep personal resentment – as depicted in The Prince – of the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality, although he does recognise Marr’s obsession with Pell’s celibacy.

Gerard Windsor, who attended a Jesuit run school (St Ignatius College, Riverview) and who spent time training to be a Jesuit priest, added his own perspective on the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney:

It’s a grim time for Pell. He has his loyal Praetorian guard, but the Royal Commission must haunt his dreams. Now – fearful irony – he’s having to cope with Francis, a pope he certainly didn’t want, a Jesuit, an order he is not partial to, and whose increasingly liberal statements he is furiously having to recast for local consumption, or at least for readers of The Catholic Weekly.

Windsor provides no evidence for his assertion that Pell “certainly didn’t want” Francis to become Pope.  How would he know?  And Windsor neglected to mention that Pope Francis has appointed Pell as one of several cardinals to review the operations of the Vatican.  Nor does Windsor provide any evidence that Pell is “furiously” recasting Pope Francis’ statements for local consumption.  This is mere verballing.

More seriously, Windsor goes along with the hint in The Prince that Cardinal Pell still has something to answer for with respect to the sexual abuse of young boys.  This is what Windsor wrote in his review:

The essay must be something of a dry run for the Royal Commission, and it makes very painful reading. Evil men and their orgies of destruction of young lives occupy much of its space, and it is more a forensic piling-up of evidence than any artistically choreographed revelation. Centrally, it’s an indictment of Pell for blind, evasive, flint-hearted reactions to reports of paedophilia by priests who were his responsibility. For good measure, there is also a ready summary of the case brought against Pell by two former altar boys turned criminals, a case where the outcome was a technical draw.

This latter statement is seriously flawed.  A case was brought against George Pell by one – not two – men. The man also made a claim with respect to another man (who was deceased) about an event alleged to have taken place in 1961 or 1962.  There was no independent evidence to support the man’s claim and the alleged account of the deceased person. Moreover, George Pell was merely identified as “Big George” and there was a genuine query as to the identity of the person involved.

The Catholic Church set up an inquiry by Alec Southwell QC, a non-Catholic former Supreme Court judge. Southwell found that both the man and Pell were truthful witnesses. Nevertheless, his finding was unambiguous in rejecting the allegations against Pell:

In the end, and notwithstanding that impression of the complainant, bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant’s credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not satisfied that the complaint has been established.

Clearly, Alex Southwell found that the man’s complaint had not been established.   In view of the lack of independent evidence, no other finding was plausible.  Yet, David Marr maintains that Southwell QC’s finding was “ambiguous”.  And Gerard Windsor claims that the outcome of the inquiry “was a technical draw”.  Marr, as Windsor concedes, is an anti-Catholic sectarian.  But Windsor himself should know better than to support Marr on this issue.

Gerard Windsor is a fine writer but is somewhat naive about polemical debate. At the commencement of his review in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, he wrote:

George Pell refused to speak with David Marr for this Quarterly Essay. It was not a wise move. If you have any attractive elements in your personality, and many testify that Pell does have them, an intimate conversation with an enemy can only have a softening impact.

How naive can you get?  As MWD predicted (See Issue 196), David Marr’s essay on George Pell was always going to be a hatchet job.  And a hatchet job it is. If the Cardinal had spoken to the author, it would have given legitimacy to Marr – whom, as Windsor concedes, regards Pell as an “enemy”.  No conversation would have changed Marr’s judgement.