Responding to the death of George Pell – a staunch conservative found guilty and then acquitted of child sexual abuse – is inevitably a political minefield. But Daniel Andrews and the Victorian government chose to go where others didn’t.
Mere minutes after the Vatican confirmed the cardinal’s death at the age of 81, the government minister Steve Dimopoulos acknowledged the news could be triggering for survivors of child sexual abuse.
“Today would be a very difficult day for the cardinal’s family and loved ones, but also a very difficult [day] for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and their families and my thoughts are with them,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
It was a stark contrast to subsequent statements by the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, who offered condolences to those mourning but did not pay tribute to the cardinal nor reference the overturned conviction that saw him spend 404 days in prison.
Guardian Australia understands Dimopoulos’s comments were approved by the premier, Daniel Andrews, who expanded on the sentiment the following day.
“For victim-survivors, [I want] to send the clearest possible message: We see you, we believe you, we support you and you’re at the centre of not only our thoughts, not only our words, but our actions,” Andrews said on Thursday.
He said it should never be forgotten that “predator brothers and priests” were systematically moved “from one working-class parish to the next” by the Catholic church, with thousands of victims and their families left to “carry the burden”.
“[There are] some who aren’t here any more because of that burden. The way they were treated, the way they were abused and the way that was covered up … it was just a completely inadequate response.”
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Andrews said he had not received a request for a state funeral for Pell and rejected the prospect of hosting one out of respect for victims.
It was unlikely such an event would have even occurred in Melbourne, given Pell will be buried in the crypt at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, where he was more recently archbishop.
But the intervention is another example of Andrews’ willingness to go head-to-head with the Catholic church – a once unthinkable proposition for a politician looking to win elections.
The seal of confession
His stance is partly out of necessity, given Victoria – and particularly the Catholic archdiocese of Ballarat – was the site of much of the horrors uncovered by the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
A 2015 hearing was told up to 14 priests in Ballarat had sexually abused children, and there had been at least 130 claims and substantiated complaints since 1980. Survivor groups estimate more than 50 suicides in the town are linked to historic sexual abuse by priests.
An earlier state inquiry also investigated the issue in 2012, after it was revealed the Catholic church in Victoria had been implicated in a reported 40 suicides among about 620 sexual abuse victims.
The Victorian government accepted the recommendations of both inquiries, including the introduction of laws that made it mandatory for priests and church workers to report child abuse – even if it compelled them to break the seal of confession.
The laws – announced ahead of the 2018 election – pitted the government against the church, with the Melbourne archbishop, Peter Comensoli, stating he was prepared to go to jail rather than break the confessional seal.
“I’ve made it very clear that the law of our state is written by the parliament of Victoria,” Andrews said at the time. “It’s not made in Rome.”
With some exceptions, including from conservative commentators and Christian lobby groups, the laws were broadly supported.
Other social reforms that sparked outrage from the church – and defiance by the premier – include the introduction of the nation’s first voluntary assisted dying laws, safe access zones for abortion clinics, protections for LGBTQ+ teachers at religious schools and the criminalisation of gay conversion practices.
In each tussle, Andrews appears to have been the victor, establishing himself as the nation’s most progressive leader and drawing support from particularly younger Victorians, who are less religious than their elders.
According to the latest census, almost half (48%) of people aged 25-34 years reported to have no religion, with the overall proportion of people with no religion rising to 39% (from 30%).
Catholicism, meanwhile, decreased to 20% of the population (from 23% in 2016), while the proportion of people affiliated with Christianity also dropped from 52% in 2016 to 44% in 2021. It was 60% in 2011.
Andrews manages to wedge his opposition, who in defending the church, threaten to alienate their cohort of small-l liberal voters who are generally socially progressive.
Labor MPs, however, insist it is not political for the premier.
“He genuinely believes in the separation of church and state and in the principles of fairness and equality,” one MP told Guardian Australia, asking not to be named so they could speak freely.
Another says Andrews’ views are “mainstream”.
“I think it’s safe to say most Australians – even those who are religious – don’t like extremes,” they say.
Andrews reflected on this when he argued that it was his own Catholic faith that guided his condemnation of sermons by the City on a Hill church, which led to the resignation of Andrew Thorburn as the chief executive of the Essendon AFL club.
“I am a Catholic. I send my kids to Catholic schools. My faith is important to me. It guides me every day,” he said at the time.
“It also guides me in my sense of what is right and what is wrong, and if I can just say with utmost respect, calling out homophobia is not the problem. Homophobia is the problem.”
Most Victorians – who sit firmly in the mainstream – wouldn’t argue with that.