Pell washes away work of good Catholics
THEY have been among our most poorly paid social workers, teachers and psychologists, sitting at the bedside of the dying, comforting the grief stricken, instructing the young, providing companionship to the old and counselling the depressed.
In an age that places a high premium on social justice, the Catholic priest has always been a frontline warrior. A commitment to helping the oppressed and marginalised, often expressed by airing compassionate views on social media, is given far more practical expression by Australian priests every day.
Priests spend thousands of hours each year helping the homeless, comforting the elderly, and simply assisting those once described as being "poor in spirit''. And they do it with no expectation of great monetary reward, nor with an eye to improving their status.
Yet today, as the third-most senior Catholic prelate on earth, George Pell, faces years in a jail cell as a convicted pederast, all that good work stretching unbroken across centuries has been swept away - gone with the wind of the sex abuse scandal.
From the Franciscan orders through the Jesuits to the work of Father James Dixon, the Irishman who was permitted to say a few Catholic masses in Sydney in 1803 until the English slapped another ban on Catholicism, the hard and often courageous work of the humble priest is now so deeply stained by criminal acts that people have spat upon them in the street.
Australia still owes them a debt, especially that huge migratory herd that came out from Ireland in the post-war years to minister to the growing Catholic population as immigrants streamed in from Italy, Malta and Eastern Europe.
Many ageing Catholic Australians remember a kindly Irish priest from their childhood - an often homesick but relentlessly cheerful soul who lived out a solitary life in a modestly furnished presbertary in some small, dusty regional town and was loved by all, across religious denominations.
These people served food to the homeless at the local St Vincent de Paul shelter, hustled the Christian Brothers school to enrol a child from a poor family at reduced fees, presided over the funeral then went home with the grieving family, offering comfort and solace long into the night.
They are the ones who have sat by the bed of the dying, often for hours a day, alternating between laughing reminisces of a life well lived and delivering the ancient rites of the Anointing of the Sick, which still comfort many Catholics facing their last days.
In Queensland Father Ted Friar and Father Dan Moore, both now deceased, were just two Irish priests whose lives went largely unheralded but whose personalities still echo across central and northern Queensland.
Their wit and warmth, their easy going empathy with ordinary working people and their sheer generosity of spirit enhanced thousands of lives.
Hetty Johnston, AM, founder of child advocacy group Bravehearts, was one public commentator who was at pains this week to stress that her quotes on the Pell conviction (which she welcomed as a triumph of the justice system) should never be construed as an attack on ordinary Catholics, or honourable priests.
If anyone has a right to bitterness about the crime of paedophilia, it's Johnston who has never wavered in her commitment to helping victims, even at what must be enormous personal cost as she deals, day to day, with the fallout from such a hideous world.
"It really worries me, and I am not a Catholic but I do have Catholic friends, that people see things like this (Pell's conviction) as something the Church stands for. Yet the Church does so much good in this world,'' she says.
But Johnston also insists that this "good'' can only continue if the Church confronts the enormous evil that has been unearthed within, and looks it squarely in the eye.
These crimes have caused untold misery to victims and their families, but it's the attempted cover ups that have caused the deep structural damage to the ancient institution.
If the Church is to honour those thousands of good priests who served it well, total transparency and accountability are its only options in the years ahead.
"The Church has to learn that it must throw its doors wide open, and let the light in,'' Johnston says.
Michael Madigan is a Courier-Mail journalist.