A WIDE-RANGING interview with the noted human rights lawyer and ‘Living National Treasure’, Father Frank Brennan SJ
As a lawyer, professor and human rights activist, Frank Brennan SJ occupies a unique position in Australian civil and religious society. He is well known throughout the country, both inside and outside the church, for his decades-long work as an advocate in the areas of law, social justice and reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians.
For services to Aboriginals, he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia and the National Trust has classified him as a Living National Treasure. In addition to his work in his native Australia, Father Brennan recently held the Gasson Chair at Boston College's Law School.
On a recent trip to Australia just before Holy Week, I sat down with Father Brennan in Melbourne to discuss the state of the church in Australia in light of the ongoing Royal Commission on child sexual abuse and the unprecedented 20 hours of testimony from Cardinal Pell that was televised nationally.
The following interview is being published in partnership with Eureka Street, an online journal of politics, religion and culture sponsored by the Australian Jesuits.
America: What sense do you have regarding the sex abuse scandal here in Australia and how it compares to the US?
Frank Brennan, SJ: In Australia we are not as litigious as you are in America and damages are usually not as high as they are in the United States. But having said that I have no doubt there will be further developments in the law here in Australia. Particularly in light of much of the evidence that many of the bishops have given that seems to indicate that prior to 1996 it would be very difficult to argue that the best interests of the child was the highest priority. Prior to 1996 there was a great lack of awareness among the senior church leaders and there was a lack of action by senior church leaders.
Now without imputing moral blame necessarily, you simply have to say that the system was broken and if you had a system and it was broken and children were being abused because of that, I think you're talking about legal liability not just moral liability.
America: Despite the fact that you and Cardinal Pell have had your differences over the years, you were pretty public about saying that he deserved due process. What prompted that?
FB: Well, I thought there was a sort of lynch mob mentality developing. A popular singer putting out a song that says he was scum, a coward and a buffoon. Well, it's a free country, singers can say what they like, but to have the song being played routinely on all the mainstream media before he appeared seemed a bit unfair.
But then what was truly objectionable is that the Royal Commission was engaged in two case studies. The first into the archdiocese of Melbourne where Pell had been an auxiliary bishop and then the archbishop. The second was into the diocese of Ballarat where he had been a consultor to the bishop of Ballarat many years before when he was a young priest.
Just before Cardinal Pell was to give evidence there was a leak which must have emanated originally from the Victoria Police Force, suggesting that Pell himself was being investigated for child abuse. Now these are completely unsubstantiated and uninvestigated complaints. To have this complaint emanating originally from the Victorian police force when the Royal Commission on these two case studies was investigating not only the Catholic Church but also the Victoria Police, made it very dubious.
Secondly, Victoria is one of the sponsoring governments of the Royal Commission. To have its own police force in some way involved in a leaking exercise when you have a star witness about to appear, I thought risked muddying the waters significantly. And though Cardinal Pell and I have had our past tensions I was strongly of the view that a witness like that deserved the protections of due process and natural justice.
America: Has anything happened with those allegations?
FB: Well, nothing has happened and Cardinal Pell himself immediately referred the matter to the Victorian government demanding an investigation into the leak. So we'll have to wait and see what happens with that but it’s not made easy when the Victorian police commissioner himself goes on the radio and says he hasn't even read Cardinal Pell’s statement. Well, that tests the credulity of the situation pretty substantially you'd have to say.
Read the remainder of this interview in full here.