PWF catch-up: Saints & Sinners: Faith, Abuse & George Pell, with David Marr

Continuing my series of catch-up posts on the recent (and getting not-so-recent) Perth Writers Festival in March, this session was pretty amazing and anyone who’s seen David Marr in full swing will know what I mean. Although I did once meet a man in a second-hand bookshop in Euroa who said he didn’t like Marr. I was standing at the counter holding a copy of Marr’s book on Patrick White. The man is portly and well-dressed, like really well-dressed for a country town. He seems to be someone who’s popped in on the way through from Toorak, Melbourne to Palm Beach, Sydney, and he’s sat down and, well, started running this fusty, musty old shop filled with goodness. I find myself wanting to see if he has a silver-tipped cane somewhere nearby, like with an eagle handle. There is a touch of the Frank Thring about him, in appearance not manner.

He says ‘It’s a good book though I don’t like him much.’
‘Who?’ I said. ‘White or Marr?’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Well, he’s a bit, you know,’ the man waves a hand in the air. ‘A bit, you know, homo-‘
I’ve interrupted. ‘Camp?’ I say? And the way I say it lets him know that I think he’s being homophobic and inappropriate. He expected me to be on his ‘side’ in this. I didn’t even know there were sides, I’m just in a book shop trying to buy a book. ‘Well what does that matter?’ I say. I pay. He is pulling his head back into his shell. ‘It’s all about the writing, isn’t it?’ I leave the shop and go and find my mother, and tell her all about it.
‘Oh I adore David Marr,’ she says. ‘LOVE him.’


I want to preface this by saying that this session took place before it was announced Pell was going to the Vatican to help with the money. I have no idea whether Marr knew anything of what was to be announced but he did make a perceptive comment about Pell’s future, in response to a question from the audience.


Marr opened by saying his subject, the subject he is interested in, is power, and Pell ‘fits.’ He wrote on Howard, then Rudd, then Abbott and then Pell – a figure of power again, ‘but with a difference.’ The difference is that in Australia, ‘nobody has to like Pell.’ He’s not elected, he’s appointed in an almost medieval way, to a position of great power. He has exercised power throughout his career (many don’t, in his position, Marr emphasised.)

As a young priest, Pell was blind to what was going on around him.

I absolutely believe Pell knew nothing [as a young priest]

— David Marr

Marr understands the need for a person who’s committed terrible crimes, for them to have human support. But for a bishop to walk a notorious pedophile priest to court, ‘wasn’t there someone else [to do that?]… it’s most unfortunate.’ (Marr was talking about the court case of Gerald Risdale, and that Pell walked Risdale into court, in a show of support.) The photography of Pell with Risdale, on the Broken Rites website, is an ‘enigmatic’ photo. (Broken Rites, said Marr, is a very very good archival place.)

Curiously, nobody took any notice when [that photo] was taken in 1993. Unremarked.

The police made sure reporters/photographers were there, to try to ‘shake from the tree’ the many other victims they were sure existed  but The Age cropped Pell out.

The Melbourne Response, a ‘completely Church-bound folly’ had no power to investigate, no willingness to pay proper compensation.

Marr noted the change of attitude of the police force in Victoria — in the late 1980s to the 1990s, they ‘started taking abuse of children seriously.’ By 2005-07 ‘somewhere there’ the tradition of ‘collaboration between church and police had ceased.’*

But Marr was clear on one point: Don’t get me wrong, Pell is appalled by the abuse, personally appalled and has apologised.

In the US it’s possible to sue the Church in ways it’s not possible here. Courts demand documents from the Church and then hand them over to journalists [in America]. The Church in the US wanted Rome to deal severely with pedophile priests, Rome said no. In the 1980s, as the scandal was beginning to unravel, Rome put in protections for priests, making it harder to sack priests than ever.

The Church in the US wanted Rome to deal severely with pedophile priests, Rome said no.

— David Marr

Marr went on: What are now characterised as mistakes were actually Church policy. (His emphasis)

In 2001, Pell had a stretch limo to go to the investiture of himself. A group of gay people were protesting. He’d made a statement about how the way to stop suicide of gay men was for them ‘[not to] choose homosexuality.’

Pell is ‘such a Melbourne figure’ and Marr is a Sydney journalist, so he ‘had to learn a lot about Melbourne.

Marr commented that during the enquiry, as Pell was questioned for four hours, he never lost his temper, ‘even though his colour rose all afternoon.’ But two parliamentary staffers did (lose their tempers). Marr said to look up the report, ‘it’s a really, really good report.’ (I’ve just tried to google it, proving a little difficult to find so can’t link here.)

When Pell was younger, he was swept away by a talk given by Bob Santamaria. A couple of decades later, Tony Abbott (at about the same age) was swept away by talk by Santamaria and his people. It was a call to arms, to protect the world against the secular notions of ‘most of the people in this room.’ Pell is a natural leader. ‘Here’s my feeling,’ said Marr. ‘In adolescence, something was not quite right so he went to the Church, which was at its peak, with so many priests in training at Werribee. Pell was plucked from there to Rome, plucked from there to Oxford, and then back to Swan Hill. He was extraordinarily popular.’

Question from MOD: What’s he like as a person?

Marr: It depends who you are.

Marr said Pell declined to be interviewed for his essay (the Quarterly one I’m guessing, of which there is an updated version coming out in a ‘little book.’)

Pell said to Marr: You don’t understand what it’s like to be a believing Christian.

‘He can be a bully. He’s good in argument, said to be a great host. Apparently he’s fascinating when he gets going on the early history (13thC) of the Church. He’s charming. But if you fall out with him, you never get back in. He knows how to use power and can be very very tough. He knows how to get what he wants.

MOD: He’s obviously very intelligent.

DM: No _____. (Interrupts) Intelligence is hard to measure. He’s no fool. He’s bright in many ways but he’s not bright when it comes to the human heart.

(Here Marr told an anecdote about being at one of the Ring Cycle nights, and bumping into Pell during intermission in the foyer. I’m sorry, I can’t remember the details but there was an exchange of glances and maybe a nod of acknowledgement. I might be making that part up.)

Marr said the sermon he preached on the death of his parents was ‘so cold.’ And ‘I don’t think Pell has deep empathy as a person.’

Australia is not Ireland, we don’t need a Royal Commission

— George Pell (as quoted by David Marr)

Pell’s press conferences about the sex abuse of children are ‘generally agreed [to be] disastrous’ including inside the church. He lost his temper, it was ‘completely terrible.’ He’d campaigned against the Royal Commission, and on the Monday when Julia Gillard announced the commission would go ahead, he gave a ‘catastrophic press conference.’

He is the most fascinating mix of lack of self control and self control

— David Marr on George Pell

DM: He’s a ‘bad apple’ man. It’s not the Church, it’s not the institution, is his argument. Just lots of ‘bad apples.’

A celibate Catholic Church produces six times the number of abusers and victims as all the other churches in Australia combined.

‘Celibacy is a fraud’ – in the US, Richard Syme did a study into the sex lives of priests. He is a credible person, according to David Marr. He says priests are having relationships, that truly celibate priests are at no more than 50%

‘Pedophiles shelter behind the Catholic Church,’ Marr said. ‘You get access to children and you have a church hell bent on protecting priests.’

Marr said Pell has said ‘this pope is “not his kind of man.” Pell himself is only 72. (I think this was where someone in the audience asked about Pell’s future. Marr said he’s only young. The implication to me at the time was this is a man who is not winding down, something borne out by his move to Rome.)

There was a good question from the audience about being an accessory after the fact (I have a note here that the man in front of me is so determined to get the microphone to ask a question.) The question is about mandatory reporting hasn’t been around that long, but [legally] accessory after the fact has. The person in the audience can’t understand why no one has been charged with accessory after the fact.

DM: Look up the Bishop of Bruges. He was given a suspended gaol term for refusing to give up a priest and he was given an accolade by a senior cardinal.

If a child is raped on church ground by someone from outside the church, the Church will report it to police. If a priest rapes a child on church ground, they will not report it to the police.

— David Marr

On Tony Abbott: Abbott’s sense if mission that came from Santamaria’s ‘bullshit”, Abbott is an ‘utterly pragmatic politician’ who Marr hasn’t been able to find one instance of in his career, that he hasn’t put values to the rear in the case of a win.

And that’s where my notes end. I have this: “The man in shirt stood to applaud at the end, the man in front of me laughed with his head thrown back at the jokes, SO SWEET.” I felt this man and his wife were damaged in some way, they held hands throughout and she was one of the sad, brave tissue-clutchers. Was it her, or him? Or a child of theirs? Who knew. But they were there, she was sad and he laughed at Marr’s humour. What resilience.


*These two sentences together make my heart break. There were people in the audience who I suspected were there for reasons other than to hear the witty, charming, intelligent David Marr speak. Older couples clutched each others hands, women clutched tissues, backs were rubbed comfortingly. You know how an audience can have a ‘feel’ as if it’s a unit rather than composed of individuals? The feel of this audience was sad but curiously not broken. You could feel the strength and the human decency and support in that room.


UP NEXT: Paper & Glass. Featuring Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project’s Kim Scott, oral storyteller Clarrie Cameron, children’s author Alton Walley, digital collaborators Tyson Mowarin and Stu Campbell, and novelist Alexis Wright.

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