Learning to look

This is an opinion piece about a fiction book and an archbishop. It doesn’t pretend knowledge of facts, any more than the average Joe has.

Trailer from The Salamander movie.

I have just finished rereading a book from our groaning bookshelves. (We have thousands of books, many are not even unpacked from our last move.) I’ve had it for decades, I did buy several books second hand by this popular author, back in the day. None of them were newly written at the time, but I knew an impressive young relative of his, through the Catholic Church. I was even younger, and we had fun together. I do not know if he knew the works of his relative intimately, I do remember him saying that the latter was a famous novelist.

Due to the absence of Google in the 1980s, I asked my conservative Catholic parents. They said the author was an ex-Christian Brother seminarian and controversial. Fast forward. Last year the Christian Brothers , despite all the good they did in the world, have been in the media for alleged crimes against children.

What is is like to be a Catholic these days? Like riding an earthquake. Confusing. Confronting. Disorientating. Yesterday, the national radio, ABC, seemed to spend all the time when I was at home, discussing the release of the guilty verdict of Cardinal Pell,

Picture of Pell

Creative Commons, Wikipedia, taken by Kerry Myers.

the most senior Catholic cleric in Australia, and one of the most senior in the Vatican, judged a pedophile in court. He is appealing the verdict, for several reasons, including some evidence that the defence was not allowed to admit. Sound recordings from outside the courtroom after the case revealed a survivor advocate calling out “Go to Hell, Pell.”

Two St Patrick’s choir boys in the 1990s apparently slipped away from their group, on one occasion according to ABC, and went into a priest’s sacristy at the rear of the Melbourne Cathedral.

This video says that St Patrick’s choir boys could get a scholarship at the prestigious St Kevin’s private school. Google says the video was made in 2004, 8 years after the alleged sexual abuse at the Cathedral:

St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne, exterior rear view. The sacristy is probably the small semi obscured offshoot at the left, as the ones on the right are semicircular chapels.

Creative Commons Wikipedia. Photo by Donaldytong.

“If God be God and man a creature made in image of the divine intelligence, his noblest function is the search for truth.”

“The fact is that the learning process goes on, and so long as the voices are not stilled and the singers go on singing some of it gets through.”

The above are two quotes by author Morris West AO.*

The priest’s sacristy is a semi-public place, especially after Mass, when priests, acolytes, altar servers etc would be in there disrobing. (I was in the priest’s sacristy of my Church last Saturday, helping to arrange church flowers.) Seems a strange place and time for pedophile activity to occur, as they are notoriously secretive. The risk of discovery would appear to be too high, surely? The choir boys were supposedly not allowed in there. They proceeded to slug down the altar wine. Since then, as an adult, one died of a heroin overdose. The other came forward to police years later alleging that the then Archbishop Pell found them after mass in the sacristy that day and sexually molested them. He insists on keeping his identity secret.

Do I like Cardinal Pell? Not much. I think he confuses his role as priest with lawyer, protecting the economic interests of the Church, which gives him a sad lack of visible empathy. In Sydney, his spending up big on wood carvings for the Cathedral there, in the face of shocking homelessness in the parklands behind, was tone deaf. Was it the pendulum swinging back to conservatism after the liberal sixties and seventies? Yes, and he appeared when priests were becoming an endangered species.

So, not liking him much, you’d think I’d readily accept he’s a pedophile. Instead of that I’m coolly appraising this case and wish we the public had more details. One thing that worries me about historical sex abuse cases of all kinds, is the lack of physical evidence. On the face of it, from what the public know, this appears to be a case of one man’s word against another, and yet, he was convicted. Were there witnesses? The defence said not.

The first jury was “hung” that is split down the middle, (I’d love to know why), so a retrial was called. The second jury decided guilt. I want to believe the surviving victim, to be compassionate. I guess something did happen that day. Young boys drunk on altar wine may have had alcohol impaired memories. Perhaps they were abused. Perhaps it was sexual abuse. Perhaps it was physical abuse because they drank the altar wine. Perhaps it was verbal abuse. Pell is certainly no shrinking violet.

I remember that Archbishop Pell was a very unpopular senior cleric in Melbourne in those days, coming in after a term under a liberal predecessor. (One that we now know also allegedly covered up pedophilia and moved perpetrators around.) At least Pell did institute a much criticised “adversarial” victim compensation scheme, the first.

Archbishop Pell was a physically commanding figure, intelligent, imperious, outspoken, highly conservative, often in the news. He brought back classical iconography and bejewelled garb, due to his love of historical art. We even got to hear about him in Sydney, where I was living. (Later he lived there.) I bought a biography of him.

He immediately butted heads publically in Melbourne, with the gay lobby, who were publically trying to get gays accepted in the nucleus of the Mass in the Catholic Church – the eating of the Communion wafer. They would line up wearing rainbow sashes and he would refuse them, according to the rules of the Church. (Previously gays received Holy Communion if they did not go public.) Those of you that have read my piece last year about child sexual abuse, will remember a reference about hidden homosexuality amongst some priests, especially in some seminaries. I wonder how much the gay underground knew about that. Certainly other priests had heard the rumours. No, I am not confusing homosexuality with pedophilia.

Well, during the writing of that piece, I decided I would accept jury verdicts and decisions of appeals, and those were the cases I would write about. So I put off writing about Pell until we had a verdict.

If somehow an innocent cleric or child worker slipped through the courts and was unfairly jailed, there is nothing I can do, but God might eventually take them to Heaven. At least now, since the Royal Commission, hopefully all pedophilia cases will go to court, where reputations might be lost, but justice can be done and daylight will shine. (Well it would, if we did not have such a heavy blanket of court suppression on journalists in my state.)

Do I believe many of the cases are guilty? Definitely, and they should be punished. Do I believe some are innocent accused? Well, I remember a male schoolteacher friend once told me that accusations of child abuse came with the job, if you were male. Yes, also because compensation payments are involved. Money that will help genuine victims get the therapy they need, is also a drawcard to fraudsters. I know this because of a past family matter. A person received government benefits by lying, which made me somewhat of a cynic in these matters.

Do I think churches should be sold to pay out compensation? No. Current congregations should not be punished for crimes they didn’t do. Perpetrators should go to jail. Governments should pay for ongoing therapy for all victims of child abuse, whether it happened in an institution or not. Why? From a financial perspective alone, prevention of symptoms is cheaper than cure. Child sexual abuse has lifelong physical and mental effects.

With the scandals coming out, since the early nineties, I, who was sheltered from sex matters by my parents growing up, am in a state of numbness with each new revelation. I note that all other religious institutions have been outed for hypocrisy and sin also.

It angers, however, that the media seem intent on putting more opprobrium on the Catholic Church than the others. Yes, it has alot to answer for, that is definite. Is it insulting to Christianity that they put up an image of a crucifix nearly every time they report on an arrest or conviction? Yes. I really wish they would stop that. Jesus was not a pedophile. He said the kingdom of Heaven belonged to children. He did not rape them, and neither did my priests , nuns and school teachers molest me growing up, not the nuns that came on holiday with us, not the nun that was my ballet teacher for six or seven years, nor the one that taught me music theory and musicianship in a little room alone, (unlike my male secular piano teacher that once conducted a class standing next to me while I was sitting at the piano, wearing Speedos swimsuit and nothing else). The priest (later a Bishop) that often stayed overnight with us didn’t touch we kids, neither did all the ones that came to dinner, and the ones that visited in my room when I was sick or in car accidents. I checked all their names in the lists of accused and couldn’t find them.

Neither did the vast majority of clergy and teachers in the church behave creepily. Pedophiles are a minority abberation of nature, they are to be found scattered everywhere in society, where they can get access to children, but calling for closing down of whole chunks of society is overkill, and dangerously destabilising. Should those churches be brought under secular law to protect both children and workers? Definitely. Should churches that engage in politics, do no charitable work, and harbour pedophiles lose their tax exemptions? On a localised case by case basis, yes.

I believe the swing to the right in politics in many parts of the world is coming not just from the politicians and their mates that want wealth and power, but is aided by the little folk, who feel that their religion is under attack. Is there any justification for this? Well yes, in many parts of the world, if you don’t renounce the Christian religion you can be unemployable, social outcasts, lose your property, imprisoned, mutilated or put to death. In many countries Catholicism is tolerated at best, for example China, that seeks to control every religion. Then there are Western countries where Christianity is roundly criticised, but it is considered hate speech to disagree with Islam. Little people mutter against that, at parties, or in internet chat rooms. Pulpits may be used. Sometimes they march. Sometimes they engage in violence. And sometimes, they elect in a Trump.

The Democrat and far left supporters in USA consider Trump to be a potential dictator. His desire for a mighty military parade like North Korea’s is trotted forth. They see him diluting the “checks and balances” provided in their system. He is not alone, however. Many right wing, and far right wing rulers around the world have been voted in in recent years, often fuelled partially by conservative Christians who feel the Earth slipping away from their feet. They know Heaven is there to greet them in the end, but they want safety before that, too.

Book jacket:

Safety. That brings me back to the book. It is by Morris West, called The Salamander, written in 1973. It was released in multiple languages and a movie was made of it. Unlike some of his other best sellers, it doesn’t deal with the Catholic Church, though those books of his are worth reading. It deals with an attempted right wing coup. Back in 1973 they had dossiers on people they wanted to get out of the way. They had paper, and fax machines , police and public telephones. Today they have so, so much more, and that includes constant information gathering on all of us. But tactics have remained the same. Both extreme right and left use them. Fear. Offer of security. Loss of privacy. Repression by law. Nowhere to run.

The book is good. Before you vote again, read it.

Book page:

Photograph of a page from The Salamander by MorrisWest, 1973.

I wonder why Morris West left the Christian Brothers Seminary. Perhaps he saw things he didn’t like. Maybe he did not want celibacy for the rest of his life. A pity some others didn’t walk away from seminaries too, before those Reverends rose to be revered by scores of people undeservedly.

West was annoyed with the church for some time after his divorce, and attempt to get an annulment, but his family said he continued to attend Mass.

At the start of the book:

Photograph of a page from The Salamander by Morris West 1973.

“If we could learn to look …we’d see the horror”- Bertolt Brecht.

We’ve seen the horror now but we must be careful not to jump out of the frying pan , into the fire, then back into a bigger frying pan. The salamander, a survivor, is a rare, mythical creature like the phoenix, they are not real and most of us could just be burned.

  • AO denotes Order of Australia medal.


  1. How incredibly sad. I know a man who was schooled at a seminary in England. I might add he admitted in his autobiography to having had no calling whatsoever; he pretended to, in order to get away from an abusive mother. The experience was clearly mixed; he enjoyed the intellectual challenges and the ritual, I think. The cold-shower lifestyle and sometimes absurd discipline, not much. But what really appalled him and still enrages him many decades later was finding out that several of his fellow very young seminarians had been sexually abused by the priests that were supposed to school them in religion and nurture their souls. And it’s not just a matter of homosexuality or even of paedophilia. As we are now finding out, nuns have been, or are being abused in the same way. But it would be very, very wrong to reject the church as a whole because of this. Unfortunately, not only in the Roman Catholic but also in other churches, there are circumstances conducive to this kind of evil — the often unquestioned authority of the priest or minister, the occasions for privacy such as in counselling, and in the case of Roman Catholicism, rules of celibacy. It is, after all, a very good thing that so much is now being uncovered. It should, it must, lead to greater vigilance. What is really disturbing is how long it has taken.

    I do hope that Cardinel Pell has not been the victim of injustice. That would make a bad situation worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cath, you have done a lot of work on this piece. It seems that this has hit almost all churches. There is a case that I am somewhat knowledgeable about that has been heart wrenching to me. At best, we can never know what is in a man’s heart and we can be so fooled by them. God will right every wrong, of this I know. We are human and can never meet out justice. It is a sad day in which we live!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam, I just listened to the news on the first day, the second day I was too busy writing offline in my notebook, to listen to radio or go online until I had got my thoughts down. In the evening I downloaded the videos and pics, it was then that I found out a furious debate is raging in our country about this verdict, and many agree with me. Many feel that he must be guilty and hope he suffers for it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a journalist who’s waded through hundreds of pages of court documents on this very subject for various assignments, I can feel your pain even though I’m not Catholic. It’s a horrible story in every way.

    But, I like how you ended this post, Cath. God is able — even in a time in which every institution and government seems to be rocking and reeling. We need to look directly to Him. Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pell upcoming appeal updates


    I really feel the divisive nature of this particular case will deliver more Catholic votes to the incumbent conservative government at the Federal elections this year. John Howard and Tony Abbott, both members of that party, who gave support to Pell this week, know which way the wind will be blowing.

    I am afraid this will cost the Left parties many Catholic votes, unless they take a careful approach. Many are not, in online comments, and using this as an excuse to criticise all Catholics.


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