It was the sentencing of Cardinal George Pell by Judge Peter Kidd that gave me some reassurance about goodness in the world this week. Not the length of the sentence or even that justice has been done, and I’m certainly not cawing about what might happen to Cardinal Pell in prison. It’s the way Judge Kidd carried out his daunting task. He laid claim to something we have long relied on churches to provide, justice tempered with mercy. It brought immense relief to me in what has been a long dark night since news of Pell’s conviction was announced.
The way sexual abuse has rocked the Catholic faith and our society to its foundations mirrors the way it has rocked my own life. I have a story—one in five women and one in ten men do—and like many of us betrayed by adults who were supposed to provide care in the Catholic church, it took me many years to tell my story. While we are focused on institutions right now, we well know that the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs in families. I doubt there is ever anything vanilla about it.
Many people have weighed in to say that when it came to Cardinal Pell, the sentence was too lenient, or not lenient enough. I overheard a cafe conversation between two women in which one was saying how he will get his just desserts in prison. The key witness in the trial, who as a boy was sexually assaulted by Cardinal Pell, made no comment about the length of the sentence other than to say his own life was not the life it would have been. I know what he means.
One of the most difficult issues for me, and it’s been a lifelong one pretty well, has been trusting adults in power. The betrayal in sexual abuse seems to get into our trust DNA and modify it and we spend a lot of time trying to fix it. I may be alone in this, but I need to believe there are good people and there is goodness in the world. It’s a fundamental pillar of my life that has had a good old shake at times.
In his sentencing, Judge Kidd brought a deep understanding of both the lifelong harm of sexual abuse—redefining power and its abuse in terms of any adult, any child, as it should be—but also the reality of the convicted perpetrator before him who is a human being. He cannot sentence him for crimes of his church but only for the crimes he has been found guilty of. He must take account of his age, failing health and the long and vilifying process he has faced. Judge Kidd will be reasonable, reasoned. He will take the task before him on his shoulders. It will not sit lightly.
Here then is the goodness I haven’t found in the media, which has screamed either cardinal sin or wrong verdict, the latter showing a total disregard for our judicial system and implying or stating frankly that a witness and victim of sexual assault was mistaken or lying. Judge Kidd swept all this human weakness aside to deal with the matter in front of him, these two boys, this archbishop.
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia, in one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches, calls for mercy from Shylock, who has a right to take a pound of flesh. Mercy blesses both the person who gives it and the person who takes it, she tells him. It is mightiest in the mightiest, she says. ‘Earthly power becomes like God’s when mercy seasons justice.’
Peter Kidd brought the authority of a secular world and that quality of mercy to his remarks this week. He reclaimed from the febrile media (his phrase) responsibility for telling the story of the trial and jury decision. He painted the picture we had not yet seen, those two boys, caught by the archbishop doing something they are afraid they will be in trouble for, afraid of this big powerful man, this representation of a god on earth, who with callous disregard across minutes and minutes sentences them to lifelong pain. We can see them crying, see them pleading with him to let them go. He tells them to stop crying as he continues to satisfy his odd hunger. We know he did this. A jury found he did. But we show mercy. Judge Kidd shows us how.
It is true that we witnessed a shift in the tectonic plates of our moral world this week. When he left the court, Cardinal George Pell bowed his head to Chief Judge Peter Kidd. In that final bow, the moral authority of the Catholic church left the world, like Sauron’s empire crumbling when the ring that ruled them all was cast into the Crack of Doom, a once great empire rotted from within. It may take time before it falls, and yet it has already fallen.
Later in the same week, school students showed the world they will take their stewardship of the planet more seriously than we their parents did, and on the same day a human decided to kill as many humans as he could while they were at prayer. I don’t know what comes next but for the moment I’ve decided to keep feeling reassured by the simple fact there is goodness in the world and we can be merciful if only we wish to.