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George Pell and Moral Abandonment

close-up photograph of catholic priests folded hands

Last week the Australian Attorney General released a previously redacted finding of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which handed down its final report to the Australian Parliament in December 2017.

The commission, announced by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012 began public hearings in 2013. It was the largest royal commission in Australia’s history and the most thorough public inquiry into the scandal of child sexual abuse the world has witnessed. It handled over 40,000 phone calls, over 25,000 emails, heard 8,000 stories in private sessions, and made over 2,500 referrals to authorities including police.

Of the institutions examined in which child sexual abuse occurred and was hidden in Australia, the Catholic Church was the worst. Yet the Catholic Church had argued forcefully against a royal commission, as scandals about clergy sex abuse broke open around the world. The commission was finally called following an open letter from a detective chief inspector in New South Wales, Peter Fox:

“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church.”

The impact of this behavior had been devastating. In the state of Victoria, police had already linked over forty suicides to sexual abuse by half a dozen brothers and priests.

Over the course of the commission a pattern emerged of known pedophile priests and brothers being moved from parish to parish, so that not only were they able to evade justice, but also were given many new opportunities to offend. An active cover-up by the Catholic Church was revealed demonstrating that the Church was vastly more concerned with protecting its reputation and its assets than protecting children or responding to victims’ needs.

The redacted section recently released pertain to the commission’s findings on the question of whether the (now) Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, knowingly moved several notorious and prolific pedophile priests from parish to parish in the 1970’s and 80’s when he was a priest, advisor to the  Bishop and responsible for overseeing schools in the Archdiocese of Ballarat in the state of Victoria.

The reason for the original redaction was that Cardinal George Pell was himself under investigation for serious historical sexual assault allegations by a number of complainants. How that played out is a long story, which came to an end on April 7th when the charges against Pell were quashed on appeal by the Australian High Court, following 18 months served in prison for offenses for which a jury found him guilty and the Victorian High Court’s refusal to overturn an appeal.

Now that that has played out, we can find out the royal commission’s findings on Pell. And they are damning. Pell’s history on this issue is common knowledge within Australia; he is well known for denying, downplaying, and obfuscating victims efforts towards redress for a litany of horrific crimes against children. The commission found it implausible, if not impossible, that George Pell did not know about the offending, was deceived about it, and had little interest in it, all of which he told the commission during questioning.

Pell has at no time displayed one iota of humility. Instead he has tried all along to paint himself as the victim, by playing the role of the undeserving scapegoat for a Church under attack—with, it has to be said, a large dose of sanctimony: since his release, Pell has likened his time in prison to the suffering of Christ.

If you don’t believe Pell’s statements to the commission, which most people don’t (apart from a small but vociferous cohort of conservative backers, including a former Prime Minister)—and even, frankly, if you do believe him—the moral failing here is so profound that it is hard to know what moral register to talk about this finding in.

Certainly moving pedophile priests from location to location, enabling offenders to evade justice, and providing new opportunities to offend against hundreds of children is a human rights violation. But to say only this is not to say nearly enough about the particular moral character of the crime. That is, the language of rights is not a moral register capable of plumbing the depths of the moral terribleness of these violations. Imagine someone comforting an abuse victim by saying “I’m so sorry; it’s terrible that your rights have been violated.” Such a response is, in this context, a tone-deaf moral language.

What can it mean to find an ‘appropriate moral register’?

About George Pell some people want to know how this can happen in a Christian institution—particularly there, in the house of a religion in which care for the vulnerable and the moral notion of sin is supposedly so central. Other’s reject the premise of this line of question, pointing to certain hermetic aspects of the institutional Church which may have been contributing factors (in abuse and/or cover-up), to argue that the very point is the need for a secular morality (and law) to which religious ethics is answerable.

These are indeed difficult issues. But to labor the point that the commission’s finding is an egregious moral failure is to say what would go without saying.

And then moral philosophy has to do a further thing beyond trying to decide what is wrong, and why it is wrong; it has to try to comprehend, to grapple with, the depth and character of that wrong. Sometimes that can be done by evoking extra-moral concepts that can function in a moral light or, conversely, can illuminate the moral dimensions of something.

One such concept, used by Iris Murdoch in a kind of extra-moral way, is the concept (not wholly, but partially as a metaphor) of vision. In Murdoch’s philosophy vision is not so much what is seen, but how it is seen. Or, rather, what one sees—how one is able to comport oneself towards others, and be responsive to them “with justice and love.” This is related to her notion of moral attention. Attention is not a matter of what will be illuminated by finding out more accurate information. It involves ‘being present to’ what one sees in a way that implicates oneself in the activity of seeing and thereby implies an activity in oneself—where one is morally ‘at issue’ in the spirit in which one sees others. Attention is therefore a species of responsiveness.

The moral failure of Pell is his incapacity and unwillingness to see—not the abuse, (I believe, with the commission, that he did see that) but the failure to attend to and respond to the children who were, in a very real sense, at his mercy. Pell failed to see and respond to the horrors as horrors, and to see children in the care of the Church as human beings worthy of respect and dignity. (He failed, to put it in explicitly Christian terms, to see them in the light of God.)

In Pell, in others, in the Church, the lack of moral vision led to the neglect of human responsiveness.

I have no new contribution to make to the already vast quantities of ink spilled on why this failure occurred. But the children abandoned to these predators were simply rendered—by Pell and the Church—invisible. That kind of abandonment not only enabled the abuse but compounded its effects. As Jill Stauffer writes: “being abandoned by those who have the power to help produces a loneliness more profound than simple isolation.”

Redress is needed, but what could possibly constitute redress here?  A task of the commission was to “make findings and recommendations to better protect children against sexual abuse and alleviate the impact of abuse on children when it occurs.” The final report of the commission made its recommendations on a firm ‘never again’ policy, formed around putting in place whatever measures were needed to protect children. The primary goal of the recommendations was, and is, to redress systemic failures by making child safety paramount.

Obviously action and practical outcomes are needed urgently, and most-comers agree that changes to the opacity of the Church is needed.

But we won’t really, morally comprehend this failure (Pell’s, the Church’s) without also reflecting on the failure of moral vision, of moral attention—failure to attend and to respond—to the human dignity, or (after Rai Gaita) the individual preciousness of each person.

The Case of Gabriel Fernandez: Social Work and Public Responsibility

View from street of a large concrete building with thousands of windows. The building is the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts building.

Content warning from the editor: This article contains descriptions of child abuse that might be upsetting to readers.

Recently, Netflix released a documentary series called The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which has become one of the most watched series on the platform. The documentary explores the death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was, over the course of a number of months, tortured and beaten to death by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauru Aguirre. Gabriel died in 2013.

Before Gabriel died, there was significant evidence, observed by many people in his life that severe abuse was occurring. Bruises at various stages of the healing process were visible all over his body. Witnesses observed what appeared to be burns from cigarettes being put out all over his shaved head. These burns were also at various stages of the healing process, suggesting that the torture had been taking place over a lengthy amount of time. At one point, Gabriel arrived at school with injuries all over his face. He reported to his teacher that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.

On May 24, 2013, Aguirre called 911. He claimed that Gabriel had fallen while playing with his siblings. It was immediately clear to responding officers that the severity of the young boy’s injuries could not be explained by a simple fall. The medical examiner later confirmed that the death was a homicide—the people who were supposed to care for him had beaten Gabriel to death. They were both arrested and tried for capital murder in the death of the eight-year-old boy. The autopsy revealed that Gabriel’s stomach contained no food. There was evidence of malnutrition, including the presence of kitty litter in his stomach. His sister confirmed that her brother had been forced by Fernandez and Aguirre to consume the filthy contents of the litter box. Prosecutors pursued the death penalty against Aguirre and agreed to a plea deal with Fernandez that resulted in a penalty of life in prison without parole, due to her diminished intellectual capacity.

Gabriel’s death is a great tragedy, but sadly it is not unique in its severity. One thing that makes this particular case unusual is that criminal charges were also pursued against the social workers who did not notice the many troubling warning signs in time to save the young boy’s life. The documentary series explores the multiple levels of culpability involved in the case. How is it that some children who are in clear danger slip through the cracks?

Answering this question is not easy. Arguably, the decision to prosecute social workers for their missteps in the case treats the situation as if it is more black-and-white than it actually is. Based on the documentary’s reporting, it seems clear that Gabriel’s extended family was aware from the time of his birth that living with his birth mother would not be a safe environment for Gabriel. For the first three years after the child was born, his great-uncle and his partner raised him. He was removed from that environment for reasons that included both homophobia and a desire on the part of Pearl Fernandez to increase the amount of money that she was receiving from welfare. Because they observed the abuse occurring, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that the family had a moral obligation to protect the child against abuse.

The sheriff’s office was also aware of the possibility of violence inside of Gabriel’s home. They conducted an investigation that ultimately led nowhere, but they did not inform the prosecutor in the case that an investigation had ever occurred. Despite the fact that their actions in this case might also be viewed as criminally negligent, charges were not filed against any members of the sheriff’s department.

One way of interpreting the question of how children slip through the cracks is a retributive approach. This approach is motivated by feelings of anger and outrage and it seeks someone to blame. This certainly seemed to be the response of the local community. The social workers filled that role for those that wanted vengeance. But it may be the case that we can only start to get closer to answers (and, ideally, solutions) when we loosen our grasp on retributivism and instead try to get a firmer hold on the root social causes of these kinds of problems.

Understanding these issues will crucially involve understanding dynamics of both money and power. Various members of the prosecutor’s office may have much to gain from appearing tough on social workers in a case such as this. The same can be said for the judges and politicians that publicly supported this move. The social workers, by contrast, have very little power in these circumstances—they are underpaid and overworked. The median salary for a social worker in the United States is $46, 270. According to Greg Merritt, a former DCFS Supervisor and one of the defendants in this case, the social workers that he was overseeing were dealing with an average of 30 cases at a time, and that number often got as high as 38. This means that, as a supervisor, Merritt was responsible for overseeing as many as 280 cases. The stressful nature of the job combined with the comparably low pay creates a high burnout rate for social workers. Nevertheless, many of the social workers that choose to stay do so because they genuinely care about improving the lives of the struggling members of their communities. Given the pressures that these workers face, it is reasonable to assume that they will sometimes make mistakes.

At its heart, this is a case about social values. If we are going to be so critical of our social workers that we open up the possibility of criminal action when things go wrong, we should take steps that are consistent with putting that kind of value on the work that social workers do. First and foremost, the funding for social programs should increase. If we want to maintain very high expectations for our social workers, we should employ more of them at higher salaries. If communities want to direct their rage at social workers when things go wrong, they should make sure that their initial expectations of those employees are reasonable.

We also need to make sure that we aren’t tying the hands of social workers by failing, as voters, to pay attention. In recent years, for-profit organizations have entered into contracts with governments to assist in providing social services. LA County in particular entered into an arrangement with Maximus, a for-profit organization, that at the end of the day is motivated by profits rather than by the well-being of citizens. These motivations result in cost cutting measures such as denying overtime. Clearly, overtime in many of these cases is not just useful, but crucial. We should be thinking, as communities, about whether these are the kinds of services that should ever be privatized and therefore controlled by free market systems.

We should also understand that these kinds of cases always involve competing, important values. All things being equal, we care about both privacy and parental rights. This can make going into a home and conducting a thorough inquiry while treating the parties involved with the appropriate amount of respect and human dignity challenging. Complicating matters further, the parties involved are often deceitful. Some reports of child abuse are unwarranted, and social workers are neither mind readers nor fortunetellers.

It is also important to recognize that taking a child away from his or her family is extremely traumatic for everyone involved. Social workers tend to pursue this possibility as a last resort. Workers need to also be aware, on a meta-level, of the possibility of bias in their decision-making, as a disproportionate number of children of color are removed from their homes by social services.

All of these considerations need to be balanced against concerns for the well-being of the child. Needless to say, this makes the jobs of social workers very difficult, especially when they are dealing with heavy caseloads.

Finally, there are questions about how technology might potentially help to adjudicate these kinds of cases. Software that employs algorithms to identify predictive risk factors may remove some of the burden of tea leaf reading from the shoulders of social workers. These programs would flag certain cases as deserving of increased attention, preventing the likelihood of outcomes like Gabriel’s. These algorithms are not, of course, immune from their own cluster of moral issues. The data used to construct them comes from social services that tend to focus on poor communities. The models that they create might have problematic racial implications. They might also create blinders to the recognition of problems that aren’t flagged by the algorithm.

Child abuse and neglect are byproducts of society at its worst. These events can motivate us to point fingers and to demand payback. It is important to remember however, that there really is no such thing as payback. Nothing that we can do as a community will bring kids like Gabriel back to life. It is more productive to understand that the perfect storms that lead to tragedies like this are caused by problems that are systemic. They require a renewed commitment to our values, which will also require rethinking systems of power and money.

(In the Fernandez case, on January 8th 2020, a California Court of Appeals threw out the case against the social workers.)

High School Essay Contest Winners 2016

The Prindle Institute is excited to announce the winners of the second annual High School Ethics Essay Contest! Over 200 high school students responded to the prompt “Does the United States have a moral responsibility to intervene in countries where human rights violations are occurring?” The five winners received a cash prize of $300. Excerpts from the five winning essays are featured below.


Emily Crafton, Greenfield-Central High School- Humanitarian Intervention

“Not only is it a moral choice, but as Jennifer Welsh, from the R2P program explains, intervention can also promote resilience. Intervening in other countries strengthens those countries politically, ultimately preventing future atrocities. While it may seem unjust to interfere with the sovereignty of other countries, the definition of sovereignty is evolving.” Click here to read more of this essay. 


Lourdes Latasa, Carondelet High SchoolThe United States’ Responsibility to Protect

“There is never an end to the controversy over whether the United States has a moral responsibility to intervene in countries where human rights violations occur. Sovereignty and human rights are crucial ideas that contradict one another in terms of whether the United States has the responsibility to use humanitarian intervention. Sovereignty in a state allows the state to be independent and to handle its affairs. It does not allow other countries to interfere in the state’s affairs.” Click here to read more of this essay.


Alec Sandberg, West Bloomfield High SchoolA Move Toward Intervention

“Having world peace would be ideal. However, the United States understands that this state is unrealistic unless something is done to help curb human rights violations. To promote its political agenda and social views throughout the world, the United States needs to unify countries that are willing to cooperate with each other. Countries that do not agree with the United States on how citizens should be treated would have a difficult time maintaining any type of relationship with the United States.” Click here to read more of this essay.


Regan Vander Tuin, Catholic Central High SchoolA Moral Dilemma: Armed Intervention

“Those who oppose intervention fear that it may lead to greater harm, but when specific guidelines are enforced to prevent under- or over-use of intervention, humanitarian aid is beneficial. The United States should ultimately intervene when citizens of other countries are unable to protect themselves.” Click here to read more of this essay. 


Karmyn Von Ehr, Catholic Central High SchoolA Collective Responsibility

“The United States is currently a large global power that assumes a large portion of the responsibility to protect. Although many would argue that the United States should have the moral responsibility to intervene in situations of human rights violations, the United States government does not currently act upon or maintain a moral responsibility. In ways that the government does not have a moral responsibility, the citizens do. There are numerous organizations and orders that can freely act based on moral responsibility, whereas the government has restrictions.” Click here to read more of this essay.