The Promoted Pell and the Sacked Morris: Two Catholic Bishops Emerge from the Royal Commission

Last week the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published three reports relating to the Catholic Church.

Understandably the media has focused on the appropriately damning findings made by the Royal Commission against Cardinal George Pell in his ruthless conduct in the Ellis case.

Having found that the Archdiocese of Sydney fundamentally failed John Ellis in its implementation of the Towards Healing process, the Commission found that Cardinal Pell accepted the advice of his lawyers to vigorously defend the claim brought by Mr Ellis, in part in order to dissuade other prospective plaintiffs from litigating claims of child sexual abuse against the Church.

The Commission also made a formal finding that the Archdiocese, the Trustees and the Archbishop "did not act fairly from a Christian point of view in the conduct of the litigation against Mr Ellis."

The Commission found the Sydney Archdiocese failed to conduct the litigation with Mr Ellis in a manner that adequately took account of his pastoral and other needs as a victim of sexual abuse.

As a Catholic, I am heartened to see that the Royal Commission, moving from Sydney to Toowoomba, made no adverse findings against Bishop William Morris. In fact, the Commission was quite complimentary of Morris. The Commission's key finding in relation to Morris was:

"That on being advised of Mr Byrnes's offending and the response of the school and the Toowoomba Catholic Education Office to the September 2007 allegations of child sexual abuse, Bishop Morris responded appropriately by:

commissioning an independent investigation into what occurred and seeking advice and recommendations as to any actions that needed to be taken to better protect children

appointing an independent mediator [retired High Court judge Ian Callinan] to assess and give advice as to reparation to victims and their families

establishing a Child Abuse Response Team to develop and oversee both the pastoral and professional response and to give advice to the Diocese about improvements to child protection.

Bishop Morris "asked Mr Callinan to assist in ensuring that each victim received fair compensation for what had happened to them." Bishop Morris "felt that it was important that the matter be dealt with quickly and fairly so as to avoid any further suffering which might be caused by a lengthy and difficult legal process."

These contrasting findings highlight the tragedy that such a pastoral bishop and decent man as William Morris could be sacked by Pope Benedict XVI for failing in his duties as a bishop. Mind you, I don't think the Royal Commission (being appointed by the State rather than the Church) had any business in finding that Pell "did not act fairly from a Christian point of view." The Commission should stick to its brief. The finding should have been more stark: Cardinal Pell did not act fairly towards Mr Ellis. The Commission should leave assessments from the religious point of view to religious communities. We should maintain our proud separation of Church and State.

To give Cardinal Pell his due, he did in the end apologise to Mr Ellis. Just before leaving the witness box, Pell said:

"As former archbishop and speaking personally, I would want to say to Mr. Ellis that we failed in many ways, some ways inadvertently, in our moral and pastoral responsibilities to him. I want to acknowledge his suffering and the impact of this terrible affair on his life. As the then archbishop, I have to take ultimate responsibility, and this I do. At the end of this grueling appearance for both of us at this Royal Commission, I want publicly to say sorry to him for the hurt caused him by the mistakes made and admitted by me and some of my archdiocesan personnel during the course of the Towards Healing process and litigation."

We now await the response to the Commission's findings from Archbishop Anthony Fisher and the Archdiocese of Sydney.

We've never been given a coherent rationale for Pope Benedict's sacking of Morris. When Morris was sacked, Pell had explained to the Catholic News Agency that "the diocese was divided quite badly and the bishop hasn't demonstrated that he's a team player." The Royal Commission's report on Toowoomba shows just what a team player Morris was.

On the other hand, the Royal Commission's report on Sydney provides evidence of a fairly disorganized team led by His Eminence. The report reveals a considerable disconnect even between Cardinal Pell and his Vicar General/Chancellor, Monsignor Brian Rayner. There was confusion whether Rayner had kept Pell informed of the Archdiocese's formal dealings with Ellis. In his statement, Cardinal Pell had said:

"To the best of my recollection, I was not made aware at the time of any of those figures or offers. I was not consulted, as best I recall, about what financial amount should be considered. Nor was I made aware of the other factors which appear to have been significant in the way the facilitation process developed."

The Commission reports:

"Much of Monsignor Rayner's evidence concerned his usual practice. However, he gave evidence that he did tell the Archbishop the results of the facilitation and the amount put forward by Mr Ellis. We accept that Monsignor Rayner was a truthful witness who did his best to provide an honest account.

"We do not accept the submission put by the Church parties that Monsignor Rayner's evidence 'was substantially a reconstruction and would not be accepted in the absence of any corroboration from another witness or documentary evidence'.

"We find it compelling that, by the time Mr Ellis's solicitors had foreshadowed legal action, the Cardinal knew that amounts of money would have been discussed as part of the facilitation and that no agreement had been reached. As set out above, the Cardinal agreed he had an acute concern that people who had survived abuse by clergy would be justly dealt with. It seems unlikely that, in light of the legal action being foreshadowed, the Cardinal, as responsible for the finances of the Archdiocese and as the Church Authority responsible for ensuring that victims were dealt with justly, would not have sought or been provided with the offers made as part of the facilitation and the outcome."

The Sydney curia was not a smooth running team. While I don't suppose Pope Francis will demote Cardinal Pell, it would be nice to see him reinstate Bishop Morris. The Australian Church needs pastoral, down-to-earth bishops like Morris who have been proved to "get it" when it comes to dealing pastorally and professionally with child sexual abuse.

Father Frank Brennan, S.J., is Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University, and is presently the visiting Gasson Professor at Boston College Law School. You can listen to Noel Debien's recent conversation with Father Brennan on Sunday Nights on ABC Local Radio.