Cardinal: The Rise & Fall of George Pell
Melbourne University Press, 2017
The Vatican Treasurer, George Pell, could turn out to be the Lance Armstrong of the Australian Catholic Church.
Like Armstrong, the world’s former top cyclist who furiously denied being a drug cheat until he was eventually rumbled by dogged investigative journalists. Pell, Australia’s top Catholic, has maintained his innocence in the face of mounting allegations that he covered up an epidemic of sexual abuse of children by Australian Catholic priests.
He has now been charged with such crimes himself.
The ABC’s Louise Milligan has been on Pell’s case for a while now. Her new book, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, zeroes in on the fire causing all the smoke surrounding Pell.
Pell, born in Ballarat in 1941, rose through Catholic seminaries and presbyteries, which were hotspots for turning out paedophile priests. He became Archbishop of Melbourne and then, in 2014, the Vatican’s number 2 in Rome. But Pell left a ruinous path of personal destruction (depression, substance abuse, suicide) in his holy wake.
If only, while at priest school, Pell had taken up the contract offered by Richmond Football Club to play as a ruckman then a lot of people might have been spared a lot of grief — asides from opposition footy players who would have discovered just how bruising the intimidating Catholic conservative hard-liner could be.
Pell has insisted he never had any idea what was going on under his leadership in relation to sexual abuse. Yet he stopped priests from speaking out about their peer’s sexual crimes and he was actively involved in moving offenders on to new parishes, where they often re-offended.
As public allegations of clerical abuse grew, however, the Church turned to Pell, highly regarded as an able administrator, to save the Church in Victoria from reputational and financial damage.
Pell instituted an in-house scheme that, in return for the victims’ legally-enforceable silence, paid out a paltry average of $32,000 in compensation. This “hush money” scheme saved the Church potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from civil suits.
The scale of the abuse eventually came to light through a royal commission which had been prompted by police whistleblowers. The commission’s statistics were shocking: between 1950 and 2010, there were 4444 allegations of incidents of child sexual abuse made against 1880 priests (7% of Australian Catholic priests). Pell’s diocese of Melbourne topped the national body count.
Subsequent to these revelations, Pell himself faced accusations of being an abuser. Milligan was central to documenting some of the alleged cases concerning Pell, from his time as trainee priest to becoming Archbishop.
The post-Pell Catholic hierarchy in Australia is now saying all the right things and displaying all the right emotions on the Church’s child abuse. However, unless there is a full accounting of its past, all the way up to the former Archbishop himself, then it could all just be an image management exercise.
To the victims, the refurbished rhetoric may be “as hollow as all the holy lectures they received as children, all the while that they were being raped in presbyteries, touched up in confessionals”.
This hypocrisy is of a piece with what the Catholic Church (and other institutional religions) share with their capitalist (and other class society) hosts — immense power, vast wealth and a boundless waste dump stuffed full with the human wreckage inflicted by an unaccountable elite.