There’s no shortage of public opinion on the recent conviction of Cardinal George Pell for historic child sexual abuse. With this deeply divisive announcement, how can we as individuals, foster conversations that move people toward healing and restoration rather than division, cynicism and fear? How do we acknowledge and address the many and varied emotions likely churning in victims of abuse, their families, members of the Roman Catholic Church, those working hard to weed out the institutional abuse of children, and members of the public unsure who to trust? Whilst some celebrate the carriage of justice, others caution a possible miscarriage of justice – a witch-hunt of sorts – risking the further alienation of victims of abuse. So how do we talk about this issue in a way that heals, rather than harms?
Perhaps first, you could simply listen. Keep an open mind and an open heart and really hear people. It’s helpful to note that as each of us seeks to understand the world in which we live, we form mental structures that order our ideas. These mental structures, or frames, help us associate – or group – ideas relating to a particular issue. Frames help us make sense of our complex world and we use them as in our communication to evoke ideas and shape perceptions. In other words, when people frequently hear about issues of institutional child abuse within the church, it is a very natural, understandable, and very human response to consider the two concepts ‘church’ and ‘child abuse’ to be linked. It’s helpful to empathise with this view, to understand and acknowledge it. For others fiercely defensive at the conviction, for whom the word ‘church’ belongs in a frame with concepts such as ‘redemption, ‘truth’ and ‘love’ we should also be willing to empathise, understand and acknowledge that view. Do all you can to understand, identify with and articulate the frames of your colleagues and friends. Ask questions like, “What experience have you had with the Catholic Church/any church?”, “How do you feel about the Cardinal’s conviction?” and “How has the conviction impacted your perceptions of Christianity/Catholicism/the church/institutional child abuse?”
If you uncover defensive or cynical attitudes, after understanding and articulating the viewpoint, you might gently challenge it and help your colleague form a restorative attitude. Theologian Sam Chan suggests deconstructing a person’s cultural storyline to help them understand if it is coherent or dissonant. Applying that method to a viewpoint, you could ask questions like: “Do you think that view holds true across the board?”, “Does it resonate with your experience of all church institutions/ the justice system/ your personal experience with Catholics or other Christians?”, “What impact do you think voicing such a view has on people hurt through this process?” Perhaps you could also point out some of the realities this case highlights with questions like: “Do you agree that Cardinal Pell is entitled to an unbiased appeal process like any citizen? He does maintain his innocence after all” or “Aren’t you grateful for Australia’s judicial system and the Royal Commission into Child Abuse? I am.”
Finally, as you listen to the views of your colleagues and gently challenge those views, you can offer a restorative viewpoint. In this insightful article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Jensen, Rector of St Mark's Anglican Church in Darling Point, offers a restorative viewpoint for the cynical. He says:
“…true Christianity is not its institutions. The true church is not composed of bishops and hierarchies and committees. Jesus Christ did not set up a church in that sense. In fact, Jesus saved his strongest words for those who were obsessed with the trappings of religious power and who exploited the vulnerable in them… the true church is the organic, local community gathered around Jesus and trying to live out of his mercy.”
What does your colleague think of this picture of the ‘true church’? For your Catholic friends and colleagues who are disillusioned or defensive, perhaps you could work together to understand the true character of Jesus? Reading the Bible together can be a powerful way to get to the truths of the Christian faith (we can help with this). We learn from the Bible that Jesus was for the oppressed, he defended victims, he gave children dignity and respect, he healed the sick, challenged religious leaders who failed to care for the needy. He was for the people, for the downtrodden, for the meek. Jesus was a champion for justice, mercy and love.
You can have deeper conversations with your colleagues that shift defensive or cynical attitudes, that move toward healing and restoration of the deep wounds inflicted by this case. The Bible notes: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” (James 1:19). Our increasingly divided society could certainly use some healthy restoration at this difficult time.
 Common Cause Handbook, p36 accessed from http://www.commoncause.org.au
 Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Sam Chan), Page 162
 Only Hope for Institutional Christianity Lies in Truth, Michael Jensen, Sydney Morning Herald, March 5, 2019, accessed at https://www.smh.com.au/national/only-hope-for-institutional-christianity-lies-in-truth-20190304-p511mr.html
By Janelle Muller, Marketing Manager at City Bible Forum