‘We won’t shed tears’: Phil went to Rome to confront Pell, with mixed success

    Abuse survivor Phil Nagle had the opportunity to confront the man he held partly responsible for covering up sexual assault in Ballarat during the 1970s. It never satisfied him.

    When he met the late George Pell in March 2016, the cardinal had just given evidence in the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.

    Phil Nagle after the news of George Pell’s death on Wednesday.Credit:Wayne Taylor

    The revered church leader was under pressure to return to Australia to testify. But he remained in Rome due to poor health, prompting a song by progressive musician and comedian Tim Minchin that referred to the cardinal as a “goddamn coward” and “scum”.

    The meeting between Pell and a group of men abused as children, who crowdfunded their trip, ended with Australia’s highest ranking Catholic promising to set up a centre to support victims.

    But Nagle believed the cardinal withheld the full extent of his knowledge about abuse in their discussion.

    “None of us will be shedding any tears,” Nagle said on Tuesday. “Cardinal Pell had every opportunity to tell the truth and tell people what he knew.

    “He wanted to be in denial and defend the brand.”

    Nagle argued Pell must have known more about what went on in churches in the 1970s. These secrets, Nagle feared, would be taken to the grave.

    Victim groups say news of Pell’s death has prompted a flood of emotions from survivors, whose memories of being assaulted had been enlivened. Pell is revered by many Christians and conservatives as a generational leader. But for victims and opponents of the church, he is a totem of the institution’s failings.

    The December 2017 findings of the royal commission stated Pell was “conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy” as early as 1973 and failed to act on complaints about priests. He told the royal commission he was deceived in “a world of crimes and cover-ups” and did not know about the abuse, but the commission found that was implausible.

    Pell accused the commission of making findings “not supported by evidence”. The inquiry also rejected several claims made about Pell, including that he offered a bribe to an abuse survivor to silence them.

    Clare Leaney, chief executive of In Good Faith Foundation which works with survivors of institutional abuse, said the death created a difficult moment for some.

    “For many survivors of clerical abuse, particularly here in Australia, George Pell was a symbol of a system that repeatedly put the interests of the Catholic Church above the interest and safety of individuals,” she said.

    Catholic Cardinal George Pell.Credit:James Alcock

    “While I acknowledge the passing of Cardinal Pell, my thoughts today are with every survivor of abuse from within the Catholic Church and for all those still seeking justice.”

    Leaney anticipated an increase in individuals disclosing their experiences of institutional abuse. “I encourage anyone that is affected by this reporting to seek support available and for them to know that the entire survivor community is here and ready to stand with them,” she said.

    Victorian minister Steve Dimopoulos said: “Today would be a very difficult day for the cardinal’s family and loved ones … But also a very difficult day for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse, and their families, and my thoughts are with them.”

    Loud Fence Inc, a victim survivor group that started an initiative to place coloured ribbons on the fences in front of churches, also released a statement on Wednesday. “Today and the coming days may be difficult for many. Stay safe by reaching out to loved ones, friends and support services,” the group said.

    Maurice Blackburn lawyer John Rule, who has represented people abused by church clergy, said Pell will be remembered for “absolutely failing survivors of abuse and their families”.

    “He was a smart and effective administrator who prioritised the Catholic Church over everything else, including children who’d been raped by priests,” Rule said.

    Michael Magazanik, whose firm RightSide Legal has won record settlements for victims of child sexual abuse, was scathing of church leaders’ veneration of the cleric.

    “The Olympian hypocrisy and double standards of the church hierarchy are on full display: an outpouring of love for a man who at the very least turned a blind eye to massive child abuse, dreamt up a legal scheme which ripped off abuse survivors and personally seemed incapable of empathy with victims,” he said.

    If you or anyone you know needs support, call Lifeline 131 114 or the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732

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