By Brigitte O’Brien
“Innocent until proven guilty.”
Berna Byrne, 85, sits on her veranda overlooking Mt Coot-tha, a peaceful scene for a woman lost in thought.
George Pell’s guilty verdict has caused Berna to question the foundations of her faith.
Born into a devout Catholic family, and raising three children in the Catholic faith, she has devoted her life to an institution preaching morality and purity, yet tarnished by scandal, abuse and corruption.
High profile cases and disturbing testimonies given to public inquiries continue to shine light on the dark past of one of the Catholic Church as strings of child paedophilia cases continue to surface.
“Honestly, I cannot stomach the thought of George Pell shaking hands with the Pope in The Vatican if he was a paedophile.” Berna Says.
“I know that paedophilia has existed in the Church, I was tipped off that a Priest I was friendly with had been moved from his Parish in Rockhampton for alleged sexual abuse, but I truly thought it was an isolated case as the time.”
“Looking back now, it’s clear he had overstepped the boundary with some of his behaviour, but at the time, I never thought anything much of it.”
February saw one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers, Cardinal George Pell, guilty of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16 as well as four charges of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16, in December 1996 and early 1997 at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
The Guardian has created a detailed timeline of the rise and fall, of George Pell.
This has caused a generational gap to emerge as the news of Pell’s guilty verdict is being greeted with disbelief by Catholics around the world.
Born and raised in an Irish Catholic family, Patrick O’Donnell, 79, was the youngest of four children.
He served as an alter boy and was educated at Saint Lawrence’s Catholic Boys College.
He has remained a faithful, practicing catholic his whole life, and continues as a volunteer for the Saint Vincent De Paul society, and is a special minister of the church to this day.
Q: How did you feel when the court found George Pell guilty?
A: “The news didn’t come as a total shock to me. We have become accustomed to hearing members of the clergy being accused of such offences, but I will believe what the law says. At this stage, I believe it is an unsafe conviction, on the basis of the evidence given, as well as the absence of witnesses.”
Q: Has the verdict impacted your faith?
A: “No, it hasn’t but I am not ready to discuss the matter any further.”
June O’Donnell, 77, wife of Patrick O’Donnell, was raised in the Church of England, before converting to Catholicism before her marriage at the age of 21.
“In my opinion he’s as guilty as sin.”
Q: Do you agree with the courts guilty verdict?
A: “In my opinion he’s as guilty as sin, maybe not for the abuse of those choirboys, but for the cover up of all the abuse he knew about.”
Q: What makes you uncertain about the abuse of the choirboys?
A: “I’m not certain the evidence pertaining to this case is particularly strong, but in saying that I also don’t believe that boy could make all that up.”
Q: How do you feel toward George Pell?
A: “He has been very dishonest which has been most disappointing, I have not a shred of respect for him. To think he shunned those boys and their families and allowed them to suffer years of turmoil makes me sick.”
Q: Has the verdict impacted your faith?
A: “No, it hasn’t shaken my faith in the church because there are many lay people who do so much good, but Pell stands as an example of what can happen when the wrong people are put in a position of power.”
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: “This abuse has occurred because these priests or brothers, have had vulnerable children at their disposal.”
Q: Where does the Church go from here?
A: “The Catholic Church needs to do more than just issue apologies to these victims, we have to believe those who speak up, and stop sweeping this under the carpet. I truly believe we need a reform, with some big changes like allowing priests to marry and ordaining women.”
Q: Why is your generation struggling to come to terms with the guilty verdict?
A: “We feel betrayed. We’ve put this man on a pedestal, we have acknowledged and admired his incredible faith and work within our Australian Churches and beyond. We’ve looked to him for guidance, for help, for forgiveness for our sins, and to then realise he has committed these unspeakable acts is very hard for a lot of people, because it feels like everything we have been taught about our moral conduct is a lie.”
The case against Pell has polarized many in the Church and created mass hysteria, and the response has led many to question the fairness of his trial, as Berna points out.
Q: Is Pell Guilty?
A: “As far as I‘m concerned, I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence for me to judge whether he is guilty or not.”
Q: Where does the evidence fall short for you?
A: “Well the testimony wasn’t corroborated by another witness so the recall of something so long ago seems sketchy, and it doesn’t add up to me. I will have to wait for the appeal. But I think most people had a preconceived idea of Pell’s guilt due to the amount of media publicity given to the case before his trial.”
Q: Do you think the media could’ve impacted the verdict?
A: “Well it could’ve created a lot of bias in the jury.”
Q: What about Pell’s cover up of the sex abuse in the Church, even if he is innocent, he doesn’t have clean hands.
A: “I don’t know if Pell knew about or covered up paedophilia, but at that time the culture of the Church was to save its reputation at all costs… I’m sure if he has in fact covered up abuse, he thought he was doing the right thing.”
Q: Where does the Catholic Church go from here?
A: “The Church has been badly damaged, there is no denying that. The stream of sex abuse claims has caused a big swing against practicing Catholicism, certainly for the younger generations, but also my own, I am very disenchanted. But in saying that, I think and breathe Catholicism, it’s ingrained in me, and I will stand up for it because it has done a lot of good.”
Tony Byrne, 57, is the son of Berna Byrne and Gabrielle Byrne, 19, is granddaughter of Berna Byrne and Daughter of Tony Byrne.
Pell’s case has created a rift in the Catholic Church, even causing divides within families, as is evident in the Byrne family; one family, three generations, three divided opinions.
Gabrielle says while in her opinion the evidence is overwhelming, it’s unfortunate but inevitable that the older generation struggles with comprehending the verdict.
“I think that in this day and age there is a huge push to demand the truth, and my generation must not be ignorant. Australia’s highest priest in the Catholic Church was accused and convicted of abusing his power to exploit the vulnerable, and if we now deny that, we silence victims and question our judicial system.”
While Tony admits there is a lot of weight in the favour of the plaintiff, he prefers to let his faith rest in the jury system.
“Better to set 100 guilty men free than to incarcerate one innocent man.”
While Catholics are struggling to reconcile their faith with the historical and emerging failures of the Church and its hierarchy, Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher urged Parishioners not to judge too quickly.
“Our readings remind us that things are not always what they seem; that we must look beneath the surface and allow truth and justice to unfold in God’s good time.”
Pell’s appeal has been scheduled for June, 2019.