Opinion  |  

St Paul on George Pell

Michael Jensen on the interview with an apostle

TIM ELLICOTT: Welcome back. Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the news that the man who was once Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, has been convicted on child-sex charges and now faces up to six years in jail. There’s an appeal in process of course but at the moment the fact is that, not only has the Church been guilty of a massive cover-up of paedophile priests it now turns out that it went right to the top. Their top man is a convicted paedophile. But it’s not just the Catholics. The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse heard appalling stories from around Australia of sex crimes against children being covered up in the churches.

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Much as I don’t understand it. God’s forgiveness extends even to me.

Now, someone who should care about these things is Paul the Apostle. Right now, he’s on his second tour Down Under and ticket sales for his tour have been very strong. I’ve got the man himself on the line from Sydney. Paul, welcome to the show.

PAUL: Thanks for having me, Tim.

TIM ELLICOTT: Terrible news, Paul? What was your first reaction when you heard?

PAUL: It is terrible news, Tim. I’m shocked by the crimes, and grieved, but at one level I’m not surprised.

TIM ELLICOTT: Not surprised?

PAUL: No, not at all. Being a Christian isn’t about being better than everyone else. If I go back to the early days of founding churches, they always had to confront the reality that we are still prone to sin, even though we have God’s forgiveness. That should make Christians less naïve about themselves and about their tendency to give themselves a leave pass.

TIM ELLICOTT: So you expect to find paedophiles in the church?

PAUL: We find paedophiles wherever there are human beings. I don’t think we even realise the extent of it. The abuse of children is not confined to the church – it’s everywhere. But what got the churches into trouble was not so much the presence of paedophiles but that they believed that because the person was a minister or a priest or a leader in the church that they couldn’t be. Here’s the truth we’d better realise: we’ve got people in our communities who would like to sexually abuse children, and will if they are given the chance. Some of these are psychopaths who use the beauty of a local community to gain trust in a calculating way. Some of these are people who are emotionally and spiritually broken people who’ve been abused themselves. But the issue isn’t the presence of people who will do great evil. The issue is not assuming that they will be among us.

TIM ELLICOTT: Can a paedophile be a Christian? Personally, I say the scum are sub-human.

PAUL: The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to say that. To dehumanise the paedophile allows them off the hook, to be honest. Look, I’ve been guilty of the attempt to systematically exterminate Christians. I’ve arranged killings. Much as I don’t understand it, God’s forgiveness extends even to me. It’s possible even for paedophiles.

TIM ELLICOTT: Really? Isn’t this the problem though? You believe in forgiveness, and these guys have said sorry, and done it again and again and again.

PAUL: Yes, and I need to be clear: to be a Christian is not to accept or to continue in sin, in my own life or in the life of the church community. It’s to recognise our weakness and to seek to change. And I always expected my churches to take this very, very seriously. I said this in 1 Corinthians 5. There was a pretty awful case of sexual misconduct and people were scandalised, but also thinking “it’s none of my business.” So this man kept sleeping with his father’s wife, his stepmother. And my response was, “look, you can’t put up with this. You have to discipline them, for the sake of the whole community.” No cover-ups. Tricky though it was, I wanted them to be tough.

TIM ELLICOT: So, kick them out?

PAUL: Yep, don’t even eat with them, until there’s a genuine change. Look, here’s the thing. People think that growth as a Christian means growing in independence from others. Not having your human weaknesses anymore. But the secret to living as a Christian is actually realising where you are weak and getting help. An alcoholic can get sober, but only in getting the deep truth that he can’t do it without admitting that he’s helpless to change. They got that whole thing from me! So Christian churches shouldn’t be about preening ourselves as morally better than everyone else. When I’m a Christian I say to others “I am weak: help me.” And the Christian church is strong and can do remarkable things for God when it is humble like this. Maybe what we are seeing is God’s humbling of the churches so that they can do great things for Jesus Christ in this era.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.

TIM ELLICOTT: Some critics will say the problem has come from power. The churches have been too obsessed with institutional power. Would you agree?

PAUL: Yes, I would. And Jesus actually taught his apostles not to abuse their power and authority. He said “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And I wrote about this in Philippians 2. Christ is the great example.

We can’t do without power and authority. If you are going to insist on a community that is healthy and looks after the weakest and maintains a standard of character, you need to have people in authority. Jesus was no anarchist! I wanted Titus and Timothy to set up leadership structures for their churches. But, and here’s the thing: the kind of leadership that we want to see is from a person who is aware of their own sins. And it’s money and sex that get power-hungry leaders into trouble. I’d add to that drinking and arguing.

TIM ELLICOTT: What about celibacy? People are saying that insisting on celibacy got the Catholic Church into trouble. What do you think?

PAUL: Look, I think celibacy is a good thing! I am single myself. But I’d never insist on it for ministers. It doesn’t make them more or less pure. By insisting on a vow of celibacy, the church has made people liars, because they have clearly had sexual relationships in great numbers. Better for them to marry than burn, as I said in 1 Corinthians 7!

I do think there’s a problem in saying “oh, these guys were supposed to be celibate, they couldn’t control it, so they molested children.” That’s a terrible view of male sexuality. It says that men can’t possibly control themselves, and will abuse children if they don’t have an outlet. We’ve bought a very ancient lie that we will die if we don’t have sex. God has graciously given us marriage as the context for the mutual expression our sexual needs. Not everyone is going to be married all the time. So we need to manage our singleness. That will take honesty about our weaknesses, but also a deep sense of gratitude to God for what we have in Jesus Christ. If people can die for the sake of Christ, then surely we Christians can practise sexual self-control for his sake, too, in and outside marriage?

TIM ELLICOTT: Are you worried that your forgiving attitude to the perpetrators will leave their victims in the cold?

PAUL: It could sound like that, and the cheap forgiveness that the churches have practised over the years has left the victims of abuse feeling doubly abused. Let me be totally clear: churches need to be serious about discipline, for the sake of those who have been abused. They need to communicate to everyone: God hates sexual abuse. And: God loves the victims of abuse. I am tearing my hair out as to why churches haven’t made this clearer.

I am praying that actually this will be a moment that churches realise they can only turn to Jesus.

TIM ELLICOTT: So what do you think churches should say to victims?

PAUL: Well it’s the time not just for words but for actions, isn’t it? But the first thing is to say, in the deepest way possible, we are sorry. Sorry that we did not protect you, and instead protected those who abused you. And then: show that we’ve learnt. Have we changed? Are we doing all we can to protect those in our care? And are we humble now? Have we put aside our pride and stopped pretending we are better than everyone else?

I am praying that actually this will be a moment that churches realise they can only turn to Jesus. He’s all they have. And perhaps by the grace of God this will be a moment for the Spirit of God to be at work as never before.

TIM ELLICOTT: We’ll leave it there, Paul, thanks for joining us.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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