The Royal Commission into child sex abuse hasn’t even begun but it is already obvious how much the political and social landscape has shifted, and how exposed some institutions may be as a result.
This week’s appearance at the Victorian child sex abuse inquiry by Catholic Cardinal George Pell was especially revealing.
Gone was the bluster and confidence of the past, and in its place was a subdued church leader who appeared uncharacteristically uncertain.
True, his critics wasted no time writing off his apologies and contrition as “a cynical exercise in damage control”, but that overlooks the extraordinary reality that the church has, at last, been put on the spot by a more powerful secular authority and forced to face some hard facts.
Cardinal Pell admitted, for example, that his church had covered up cases of abuse.
He even admitted that the church’s insistence that its priests be nominally celibate might have been a factor in the proven high incidence of abuse among the ranks of its clergy.
Fear of scandal, the cardinal said, was what motivated the cover-ups – not a desire to minimise the financial cost of the many claims against it by victims of abuse.
With the Royal Commission still to come, Cardinal Pell’s insistence that there was no “culture of abuse” in the church, and that church leaders didn’t realise the scale of the problem, will be robustly tested against evidence from scores of victims and their advocates.
So too will the contention that responsibility for any “dereliction” that occurred rests with a handful of deceased church leaders.
When Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell’s comments at a press conference he called in response were widely seen as an effort to ensure the focus of the probe didn’t fall too narrowly on his church.
No doubt the commission’s attention will be spread across a number of organisations, but the cardinal’s demeanour at the Victorian inquiry suggests the inescapable reality has begun to hit home for the Catholic hierarchy.
There will be no more cover-ups.