In Australia, with the recent failed appeal of Cardinal Pell, the problem of child sex abuse in institutions has again been thrust into the media spotlight. Surprisingly, many continue to stand by Pell. Several prominent figures including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard publicly supported Pell. In addition, even after the failed appeal, many members of the Catholic Church have continued to argue for Pell’s innocence and the Catholic Church has refused to remove a plaque of Cardinal Pell from St Mary’s Church in Sydney despite protests. This begs the question of how can Pell’s supporters persist in believing in his innocence despite his conviction and failed appeal?
My research into institutional responses to child sexual abuse may provide some insight into the question of why some continue to support Pell. We are all members of various groups and some of these groups are more important to us than others. Our group memberships can influence and bias how we respond to allegations of wrongdoing against other members of our groups. In the instance of Cardinal Pell who is one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church, membership in the Catholic Church may influence people’s judgements of the allegations against him and even his conviction.
A theory called the “black sheep effect” suggests that when a person engages in wrongdoing, they will be judged most harshly by members of their own group in order to reject them and their behaviour and protect the reputation of the group. However, this effect is typically found in cases where the guilt is certain. In the case of Cardinal Pell, with some of the evidence withheld from the public, and as Pell maintains his innocence, the guilt cannot truly be considered certain. My research suggests that when there is any uncertainty in the guilt of the alleged offender, we are likely to see the opposite of the “the black sheep effect”. Specifically, Catholics are more likely to be protective of the accused and sceptical of the accuser. This is in line with efforts of the Catholic league to invalidate the allegations against Pell by maligning the character of the accusers.
According to my research findings, the desire to protect Pell and the scepticism of his accusers would be particularly strong amongst those who identify strongly as Catholic, regardless of the quality of the evidence available. As a public figure, and staunch Catholic Tony Abbott may be particularly motivated to maintain Pell’s innocence and disbelieve allegations of child sex abuse as accepting Pell’s guilt would reflect negatively on himself and his religion. Similarly, although John Howard is not a Catholic, he is a Christian and has been personally acquainted with Cardinal Pell for several decades.
Whilst it is likely that many supporters of Pell are unwilling to consider the possibility of his guilt due to subconscious biases motivating their judgements, it is also important to note that when speaking to leaders of the Catholic church, Justice Peter McClellan (head of Australia’s royal commission into child sex abuse) found that some argued that child sex abuse was a moral failure rather than a criminal act. Consequently, accepted allegations were often met with an inadequate response and the offender remained in the ministry.
Recommendations for the future
Given what we now know about child sex abuse in institutions, it’s clear that there has been a systematic failure for decades. My research suggests that allegations would be best dealt with by those not invested in the group of the accused. This is backed up by the recommendations of the royal commission; that those intending to enter the ministry should be subject to external psychological testing and should be removed from the ministry permanently if an allegation of sexual abuse is substantiated. Essentially, organisations should not be solely responsible for policing themselves.
If you have experienced abuse within the Church or elsewhere, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or one of the other help services recommended by the Royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
- By Kiara Minto
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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