The biases of a Royal Commission

George Weigel

A brief dip into Latin helps us understand how preconceptions can lead to biased judgments that falsify history — as they did when an Australian Royal Commission on sexual abuse recently impugned the integrity of Cardinal George Pell.

The Latin maxim is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – literally, “what is received is received according to the mode [or manner, or condition] of the receiver.” Less literally, the maxim holds that our predispositions – our mental filters – color our perceptions. Put another way, we often perceive things, not as they are but because of what we are.

However abstract it may seem at first blush, the maxim is confirmed by everyday experience. People draw different conclusions about the same facts, the same personalities, and the same situations. More often than not, those differences are explained by different filters at work in our minds.

Which brings us to the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell has been under sustained assault from the Australian media, Australian social and political activists, and ecclesiastical opponents for more than two decades. His defense of classic Catholic doctrine and morality offended some. His politically incorrect views on climate change and the sexual revolution angered others. His relish in debate and his vigor in debating shocked, then outraged Australian cancel-culture bullies, accustomed to their targets caving-in to shaming, denunciations, and threats. What was the matter with this man? Why didn’t he truckle as others — including many Church leaders – had done?

Given their belief in their own infallibility, Pell’s political and ecclesiastical critics could not concede that theymight be wrong. And a highly intelligent man with an Oxford doctorate couldn’t be dismissed as a mere fool. So his critics and enemies seem to have concluded that George Pell must be wicked — and must be lying about his role in Australian Catholicism’s grappling with clerical sexual abuse.

No matter that, on becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell quickly instituted the first diocesan program in Australia to reach out to abuse victims and try to meet their needs — a program designed in cooperation with the police and praised by public authorities. No matter that, in Melbourne and Sydney (after his transfer to that city), Pell dealt severely with clerical abusers and saw to the removal of more than two dozen of them from the clerical state — the Church’s nuclear option for dealing with abusive priests. Those demonstrable facts didn’t count, either to Pell’s critics or, it now seems, to the Royal Commission. Why? Because they didn’t tally with the regnant preconceptions about Pell and the false judgment about his character his critics had made, based on those preconceptions.

Royal Commissions do not operate by the rules of evidence of a criminal court. Their integrity depends not on sound judicial practice, but on the fairmindedness of the Commissioners and their staff. That fairmindedness was not apparent in the way the Royal Commission dealt with Cardinal Pell, in its hearings or in its report.

In the Commission’s hearings, witnesses were allowed to make outrageous charges against the cardinal, suggesting that he had been present when children were molested by priests, that he had tried to bribe a victim to keep quiet about his molestation, and that he had made lewd remarks about sexual abuse. These absurdities were shown to be lies. But why were they permitted to be made, in public, in the first place?

Moreover, the Royal Commission manifestly applied different standards to different witnesses. An abuse victim informed the Commission that he had told a priest, Paul Bongiorno, about being molested by Father Gerald Ridsdale; Bongiorno said he didn’t recall being told of Ridsdale’s assault; the Commission punted, saying that it “could not resolve the differing accounts” of the victim and Bongiorno. Yet the Commission refused to believe Cardinal Pell’s sworn statements (buttressed by the sworn testimony of others) that he knew nothing about Ridsdale’s predations; the Commission, effectively, called Cardinal Pell a liar. Why the difference? Might it be because Bongiorno, having abandoned the priesthood, became a politically correct media personality, whereas Pell was the embodiment of Australian political incorrectness and the premier defender of Catholic orthodoxy in Australia — and therefore must be a bad man who lies?

As Cardinal Pell has said, the Australian Church behaved shamefully for decades in dealing with clerical abusers. Yet Pell, the Australian first bishop to address that scandalous situation forcefully, was scapegoated by the Royal Commission for the gross failures of other bishops. Why?

Ponder that Latin maxim once more.

COMING UP: “The heavens declare the glory of God…”

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In his Life of St. Augustine, the 5th-century bishop Possidius tells us that the greatest of the Latin Doctors of the Church, knowing that his earthly end was near, had four penitential psalms copied and hung on the walls of his room.  “From his sickbed,” Possidius writes, Augustine “could see these sheets of paper…and would read them, crying constantly and deeply.” It was an act of deep piety that we all might ponder ways to emulate.

Were I to do something similar, however, I might add Psalm 42 (“Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God/My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?”) – and a few color prints from Astronomy Picture of the Day, an extraordinary project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, available for free at apod.nasa.gov. NASA has come in for a lot of (justified) criticism in recent years. By contrast, Astronomy Picture of the Day is a service for which I’m delighted to pay federal taxes. Every day, it provides me a preview of what I hope to see post-mortem: the glory of God declared in a display of astronomical wonders that vividly illustrate the extravagance of the divine creativity.

Astronomy Picture of the Day lifts my spirits, which is why I try to accompany morning prayer with a visit to the site. For a brief glimpse of the visual feast that awaits anyone similarly inclined, let me suggest four recent gems, available at the “archive” tab at apod.nasa.gov.

On April 25, APOD and the Hubble Space Telescope offered a brilliantly-hued panorama of the “Cosmic Reef” within the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light years away. On May 15, APOD featured two dancing galaxies 12 million light years away, which, as the brief explanation following the striking image notes, “have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years” – a dance that “in the next few billions years” will lead to a cosmic merger. On June 1, APOD introduced me to the “whirlwind of spectacular star formation” happening within the Lagoon Nebula, captured in resplendent magenta by Hubble at a distance of 5,000 light years.

And then there was the most extraordinary of this lot: Hubble’s dazzling color portrait of the “Porpoise Galaxy,” which APOD posted on May 10. The description of how this fantastic phenomenon came about is worth quoting: “Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy – spinning, creating stars – and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937…and took a dive. Dubbed the porpoise galaxy for its…shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise….while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair…look to some look to some like a penguin protecting an egg.”

Whatever. Porpoise or penguin, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

The marvels archived at APOD suggest more than the possibility of a post-mortem galactic Grand Tour, however. They suggest that the burden of proof ought to be on those who insist that all this grandeur is mere randomness: the accidental by-products of a Big Bang from which what we now know as “the universe” was born. Really? Just an accident, if a happy accident? But while we’re on the subject, how did the Big Bang, so to speak, bang? And if what we know as “the universe” evolved from that primordial eruption, what accounts for the high-density, high-temperature primal material that burst into an expanding universe? To suggest that it, too, was an accident, something that just happened, begs a host of questions: beginning with, how can something come from nothing?

The notion that we live in an accidental universe, one that need not be, has had ugly effects in modern history. It suggests that we’re accidents, too, mere embodied stardust. That dumbed-down notion of the human has underwritten a lot of the awfulness of the last two centuries. Astronomy Picture of the Day hints at a different story: none of this is accidental and thus ultimately meaningless. And that includes you, me, and all those who study the heavens and give us the gift of their work.