David Marr and The Prince

David Marr, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (Quarterly Essay N° 51)


This is David Marr’s third extended portrait in the Quarterly Essay series. After tackling Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott he’s moved on to Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, with a focus on his response to accusations and proven cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious brothers. Though it’s written with Marr’s characteristic pungency, wit and compassion, it’s not an easy read: so much human suffering, so much denial and disconnection.

The essay tracks Pell’s career – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal – in parallel with the unfolding revelations of abuse and the institutional church’s responses. Its narrative backbone comes from Pell’s four-hour interview in May this year with the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Its heart is a double quest: on the one hand to hold to account the most institutionally powerful Catholic in Australia, and on the other to try to understand what is going on behind his unrevealing public persona (unsurprisingly, given Marr’s previous writing about him, Pell did not agree to be interviewed for the essay). No doubt the first quest, carefully documented and full of chilling detail, will stir defensive controversy: there may well be an equivalent of That Wall Punch, such a useful distraction from the gist of Marr’s essay on Tony Abbott. The second quest, as befits an essay, asks interesting questions and proposes answers that raise even more interesting questions – the final paragraphs, reflecting on the meaning of priestly celibacy, offer an equivalent to Marr’s conclusion in QE 38 that anger is the juice in Kevin Rudd’s machine …

Avoiding spoilers, I note that Marr isn’t a Catholic. Unlike, say, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s lucid writing, which explores problems with papal infallibility and the moral theology of sex as contributing of the problem of abuse, this essay isn’t particularly interested in the deep questions of how the church got into this state, or of what can be done at the level of culture (beyond relinquishing any sense of being above the law of the land, and acting with justice and compassion rather than defensiveness and financial shrewdness): prayer and forgiveness are correctly dismissed as worse than useless strategies for child protection; there’s little tolerance for celibacy or the seal of the confessional, and even ‘smells and bells’ (Marr’s phrase) come in for a bit of mockery.

Marr tells the story of a man who, abused as a nine-year-old altar boy, met with Pell in 1997. As reported in the Age and quoted here, the man asked how Pell could persuade him to return to the Catholic faith, to which Pell replied, ‘Do you say the Hail Mary?’ While Marr leaves that hanging as one of many examples of Pell’s amazing interpersonal incompetence, a Catholic writer might have stayed with the moment, teased it out a bit. Why the Hail Mary? The words of the prayer don’t offer much help:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Is Pell insensitive to other people’s suffering, or is he suggesting that this form of words might revive some deep, healing connection to childhood piety? Does his question expose the poverty of his personal spirituality, or suggest a profoundly simple approach to faith? If in a similar situation a Buddhist or Hindu sage offered the questioner a mantra, would it seem less bizarrely disconnected? I’m genuinely puzzled.

One reassuring aspect of the essay is that George Pell’s rigid, defensive, authority-centred version of Catholicism is not widely shared by other Australian bishops, let alone the clergy or laity in general. And now, even more grounds for hope, the pope himself seems to be from a very different Catholic tradition.
And up the back, as always, there is discussion of the previous Quarterly Essay. Seasoned feminist activists Sara Dowse, Sylvia Lawson and Rachel Nolan add interesting and necessary perspectives to Unfinished Business, Anna Goldsworthy’s essay on sexism in public life.

In a departure from Quarterly Essay‘s usual practice, and fair enough because a right of reply is involved, a member of the Australian‘s commentariat puts in an appearance, about which perhaps the most interesting thing is that the cheapest of her snarky shots (and there are quite a few) is reproduced almost verbatim by a cooler-than-thou self-styled left-wing cultural columnist. Angela Shanahan: ‘On the other hand, Anna Goldsworthy is an excellent pianist.’ Helen Razer: ‘Anna Goldsworthy, by contrast, is a wonderful pianist.’ A kinder editor might have deleted both these sentences, and left both writers with a little more dignity intact.
Addition: Andrew Hamilton, consulting editor of Jesuit publication Eureka Street, reviews David Marr’s essay here.

15 responses to “David Marr and The Prince

  1. More beautifully written commentary, Jonathan. I look forward to reading the MARR essay. I recall PELL’s appearance on an ABC interview – with a noted self-styled atheist. I still remember how way out of depth both men were with each other and their viewer-listeners – as if speaking on entirely different planes – no proper meeting of common-sense – which indeed they were – but worse was that PELL seemed delighted to score debating points – almost à la TA style. A very uncomfortable fit.


  2. Thanks Jim. Yes, that debate-points-scoring appearance is disturbing and puzzling as portrayed by David Marr in the abuse context.


  3. I was at David’s presentation of his essay at Readings last night ..I enjoyed his commentary but I am concerned that there was no real examination of how Catholics allowed themselves to be abused and neglected like this . I am of irish catholic stock and many of my family and family friends have been abused causing untold damage that will cascade down through the generations . I think the real problem is clericalism where people yield there moral autonomy to an elite
    If clericalism is the problem we should be actively looking at areas where clerics have major power over minors to prevent child abuse not merely manage it . A friend of mine who works in a Muslim areas says that it is highly likely abuse is happening in the religious schools there – I agree with Marr when he asks the the state to properly supervise any school that gets government money Catholic Jewish or Muslim.
    As a gay man I continue to feel oppressed by people like Pell. I use my artists skills to examine these issues see my CARDINAL SIN series on eurekamichael.blogspot.com.au


  4. HI Michael. Have you seen Alex Gibney’s documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa? One of the movie’s talking heads is from a European organisation called Anticlericalism (in either French or Italian, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember which), which seems to have been formed to address the child sex abuse issue, and its name suggests it’s based on thinking very like what you lay out here, though as far as I know it doesn’t extend to other religions.


    • Michael O'Hanlon

      Thanks for the tip I will chase it up.
      David Marr went out of his way to represent Pell as fairly as possible, as you would expect,but I feel like our ethnic group needs one of our own to call Pell to account, demand some genuine repentence for sins of ommission and commission and substantial reparation.
      There needs to be a symbolic response also-Pell and Hart in sackcloth and ashes flagellating themselves as they walk barefoot down Swanston street would be a great start!


      • That’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words! I’m moderately hopeful about the rest of the church’s official response to the Royal Commission, though they will probably be to some degree defensive. And Francis may even convene the kind of ecumenical council that Geoffrey Robinson is petitioning for, that is one with a significant lay voice.


  5. I well remember the triumphalism that was part of my Catholic childhood in NZ. But I grew to question it, and finally reject it. Pell’s ten years older than I am, but both the publication of the Dutch Catechism and the 2nd Vatican Council had a formative effect on my moral/religious development; I was in my teens at the time, so he would have been in his twenties, and was ordained when I was 15, so he was perhaps less impressionable than I was.

    I’m assuming that Pell is an intelligent man; I’m left therefore with the impression that he must be emotionally stunted if he hasn’t been able to get past a ‘my church right or wrong’ idea of the world. I find him one of the saddest figures in public life today; he seems to have no idea what it is to suffer as a human being, and no empathy for those who do. I really don’t understand him, and Marr’s essay hasn’t really helped.


    • There is a challenge to your comment – maybe it needs someone from his own tribe to understand him – my father went to the same school- St Pat’s Ballarat -and a family friend was abused in one of the Ballarat parishes he was at-and we had many a dreary Sunday listening to Santamaria’s diatribes against all things Modern – he has inspired a series “Cardinal Sin” that I doing and hope to exhibit that will explore “What is the real source of his power ?”and how do people collude in its manifestation – where for example was the Catholic Education Office when all this was happening in its schools and teachers were complaining ?


  6. We didn’t have Santamaria in NZ of course, but there was certainly lots of anti-modern sermonising. Yes, people collude in his silence, but what is the root of that silence? Why do they ignore Christ’s clear dictum, that “…whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)? Common human decency would cause most people to do something to stop such behaviour, let alone someone who claims to be a moral leader.


    • Michael O'Hanlon

      There are a couple of reasons
      the irish catholics unlike the latin ones hate their bodies and sex so would rather deny any crime of the flesh . If they do acknowledge it the next strategy is to blame the victim surrounding them with shame and secrecy

      A second problem is clericalism – the irish gave power to their priests as a bulwark against english colonists.
      The habit has continued in Australia long after its usefullness has ended.


    • Geoffrey Robinson says that the standard conservative Catholic theology is that sexual ‘sins’ are sins, not against other people but against God, sins of ‘impurity’, and so the effects of child sex abuse on the children was somehow secondary to the offence against God, and the perpetrator’s spiritual recovery was the main game. It’s been a slow and painful awakening that the problem with sexual ‘sins’ is that they do terrible damage to people. I remember we used to be told that sins of stealing couldn’t be forgiven until restitution had been made, but that logic never extended to any other field – and it needs to. This sounds very abstract, but I think it goes some way towards understanding what looks to us like phenomenal moral obtuseness.


  7. I don’t have anything to do with the institutional church these days, though I still identify strongly as culturally Catholic. I believer there’s a strong movement for reform in the church, in the USA and in Australia too. I don’t know if Catholics for Renewal in Melbourne does anything beyond write petitions. We Are Church is an international movement that looks interesting, but doesn’t appear to have an Australian branch: they seem to be tackling exactly the issues that you identify, Michael & Mary-Helen


  8. Thanks Jonathan. That makes sense in a weird sort of way. I guess a sexual sin is a sin against the body, which is a gift of God. And to think I used to be fascinated by Canon Law!
    I also think Michael’s point about clericalism is a good one. I remember that ladies of my mothers’ age (so born around 100 years ago) would stand up when a priest entered a room. And I remember a young priest (in the 1970s) being really embarrassed by this and telling a group I was with to sit down. They obeyed, but they weren’t comfortable. He was not a man, but a kind of emissary from God, and thus above them.


    • Weird is a good word in this context. I think that’s why I find Michael’s image of Pell making a public appearance in sackcloth and ashes so appealing. The images we keep seeing of him in the splendid robes if office, ‘not a man but an emissary of God’, have such power, that only an equally powerful image can counter. I remember how thrilling it was in the 60s when people started talking about the pilgrim church rather than the church militant or triumphant. Sadly the other two have mostly kept control of the visuals


      • I shot some truly wicked images yesterday of a friend from the fetish community parodying a cardinal and his robes – not usually very easy to find a way of exhibiting these!.
        Here is the link to my deviantart folio where I have posted some of the recent images
        I designed and commissioned the stole the cardinal figure is wearing – it is hand made of leather and silk

        and Mary Helen I have models lined up sunday week to simulate Pell and Hart in sackclothe !


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.