Pell draws world spotlight to Vatican

Pope Francis, right, places ashes on the head of a cardinal as he leads the Ash Wednesday mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on February 10. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis, right, places ashes on the head of a cardinal as he leads the Ash Wednesday mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on February 10. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Annette Beachwell, AAP

There is huge international interest in what Cardinal George Pell has to say about the sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Ballarat region of Victoria when he gives evidence from a conference room at the elegant Hotel Quirinale in Rome.

By virtue of his position – head of the Secretariat of the Economy – Dr Pell is the third most powerful member of the Catholic Church bureaucracy.

This, combined with his request to give evidence by video-link, by itself would have been enough to swing the spotlight towards the Vatican.

However, international media interest has been further boosted by news an Australian crowd funding effort raised the money for abuse survivors to go to Rome to be in the room when the cardinal appears on Monday.

Hope are high the painstaking approach to questioning taken by the child sexual abuse royal commission will get beyond rhetoric and shed light on how the Vatican hierarchy handles abuse by Catholic clergy.

Globally, one of the toughest tasks facing any commission of inquiry into sexual abuse within the church has been dealing with the Vatican.

Transparency is not high on the tiny city state’s agenda.

In Ireland – once a staunchly Catholic country – relations with the Holy See reached a low in 2011 when it was discovered the Vatican had secretly told Irish priests not to report colleagues to police and to handle the matter themselves under canon (church) law.

This was in breach of the Irish church’s own guidelines on the protection of children.

Public outrage lead to calls for the expulsion of the papal nuncio – the Pope’s ambassador to Ireland. By then, Ireland was on its fourth inquiry into the clerical sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses, institutions and orphanages.

Keeping a lid on scandals

Similar stories have emerged across the world.

In the US, Canada, Britain, Spain, Brazil and Argentina church authorities have tried to keep a lid on scandals by moving offenders around, getting them psychiatric help or asking survivors to sign confidentiality agreements if they accept compensation.

Each of these countries has its own heartbreaking version of Ballarat.

It did not help matters when it was revealed in Ireland that labyrinthine Catholic teachings included the doctrine of “mental reservation”, which allowed bishops to be economical with the truth if they considered doing so was for a greater good. This usually meant protecting the church’s reputation.

More recently, the Hollywood movie Spotlight has reminded communities the Vatican provided a haven and a new job for Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, who presided over a massive abuse cover-up.

The critically acclaimed Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigation into child sexual abuse in the archdiocese.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has already experienced how the Vatican drip feeds information to inquiries and persistently resists handing over its full records on complaints about pedophile priests.

Present at the Rome hotel, a 10-minute drive from the Vatican, will be 15 abuse survivors from Ballarat as well as Victorian parents Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose family was devastated by clerical sexual abuse.

Two of the Fosters’ three daughters, Emma and Katie, were just five when a priest began sexually assaulting them in the 1980s.

Katie is severely disabled after she was hit by a car. Emma committed suicide in 2007.

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