George Pell, lauded at his funeral this week, was the subject of 10 abuse claims at the royal commission. By Des Cahill.

Cardinal George Pell’s sendoff

The coffin of Cardinal George Pell outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Thursday.
The coffin of Cardinal George Pell outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Thursday.
Credit: AP Photo / Rick Rycroft

This week, on Thursday, George Pell’s body was placed in a crypt below St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. On the fence outside, ribbons acknowledged the survivors of clergy abuse. Police had already gone to the Supreme Court to intervene in a planned protest. A Catholic prime minister and two Catholic premiers had each rejected appeals for a state funeral.

At the service, former prime minister Tony Abbott described Pell as one of the country’s greatest sons. He said he was a soldier for truth. He said there should be schools and universities named after him. “As I heard the chant ‘George Pell go to hell’,” he said, referring to the protest outside, “I thought ‘Aha!’ at least they now believe in the afterlife. Perhaps this is St George Pell’s first miracle.”

George Pell was two years ahead of me in the Melbourne seminary. For several months he was my prefect. We maintained our friendship through the years, although we knew which areas of the ecclesiastical terrain to avoid.

Pell was born in 1941 in Ballarat, a provincial city built on the 1850s gold rush. In the period following World War II, in its various Catholic schools, boarding schools and orphanages, it became a hotbed for the clerical abuse of young boys by priests and Irish Christian Brothers. This extended across the whole diocese of Ballarat.

It has been suggested in many quarters, from the distorted perspective of our times, that George Pell was arguably Australia’s greatest churchman. The various commentaries have focused particularly on Pell’s intelligence, his “fine mind”. Fellow seminarians know better. He was certainly bright, but he never topped his class at the Melbourne seminary, nor at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.

He was often described as “God’s ruckman” and it was noted that he would have played for Richmond. This isn’t quite true, either. Because of his bulk, he dominated schoolboy football, but this advantage did not last into adulthood. When he played against men in the seminary, he was best described as slow and lumbering. He was not a draft pick.

There is one truth, however, in all the hagiography: he played the game of ecclesiastical politics with a deft hand, not least with his American right-wing Catholic mates, and he was a formidable cultural and religious warrior. His episcopal motto was “Be Not Afraid”. He liked a fight.

Since Pell’s death, the commentary in Sydney has been dominated by the likes of Anthony Fisher, archbishop of Sydney, and Abbott, former seminarian and former prime minister of Australia, who applauded Pell’s life for its achievements and lauded the High Court for “exonerating” Pell and having him released from jail after 404 days. Abbott foolishly described his jailing in terms of a state crucifixion.

Commentators such as Louise Milligan and Lucie Morris-Marr have been more circumspect. Both journalists have published studies based on interviews with victims and their families. They have acknowledged the complaints against Pell himself and the abuse cases that were never tried.

I worked on preparations for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Of the 4444 claimants who alleged sexual abuse by priests and religious brothers, about 10 concerned George Pell. Whether these allegations were credible or not, it is impossible to say. Allegations made to the six commissioners by alleged victims in the so-called “private sessions” were not treated as “evidence” and so were not inquired into. Some would have concerned assaults in swimming pools and other places. The commission would have referred the Pell allegations to the police, along with all the others.

Subsequently, I also became aware of several psychotherapists and counsellors across Melbourne who worked with Pell’s alleged victims over the years. Not the Southwell inquiry in 2002, which examined incidents at a church summer camp in 1961, nor the royal commission, nor the High Court, has ever completely exonerated George Pell, saying only that the available evidence had not surmounted the legal hurdle of reasonable doubt.

Pell dismissed clerical sex abuse as being caused by “personal failures”. If he had seen it in structural terms, it would have implied that mother church was structurally faulty. Yet his “personal failures” explanation is hard to accept when the Australian figures for 1950 to 2010 show that 7.9 per cent of diocesan priests were offenders, as were 5.6 per cent of religious order priests. Similar figures, where available, are seen overseas.

Pell was obsessed with authority and the apostolic tradition. His doctoral thesis at Oxford gives this away. Its title is “The Exercise of Authority in Early Christianity from about 170 to about 270.” It centred much on St Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage. Despite the fact Pell was pursuing his theological studies during the Second Vatican Council, he eventually resisted its new Church vision as the People of God.

Pell also showed an amazing ability not to read the signs of the times. This was particularly seen in his rejection of a priestly role for women, his strident opposition to gay people and same-sex marriage, and, lastly, in his rejection of the need for a revised theology of sex and sexuality. He played a key role in the dismissal of Bill Morris, Bishop of Toowoomba, for his outspoken views on women’s ordination.

His vision of sexuality was phallocentric and reproductive. He saw sexuality as binary, not on a continuum, and had no idea of sexual communion between two partners as a deep, loving, playful and pleasurable encounter, reflecting the playfulness of God. He never understood the shift in Catholic thinking as Catholics in their immediate and extended families have gradually discovered some of their family members are gay. Pell saw it all as destructive deviancy and in his speeches he often made reference to low fertility rates, not least in Italy. He was an assertive climate change denier.

He was dismayed in the 1960s and 1970s when the Catholic priesthood went into revolt and many resigned, most to marry, as I did. The model of the married priest-professional provides the only viable future model for the Catholic priesthood. Seminaries will become relics of a bygone era as the future Third Church – a more democratic, most listening church – emerges.

Pell’s opposition to Pope Francis has become an open secret in the days since his death. His last years in Rome were spent as organiser for the conservative faction in the lead-up to the next papal election. He was dismayed that Francis had been stacking the College of Cardinals with pastoral cardinals from places such as Tonga and Timor-Leste. His fundamental failure was that his views were rooted in Greek, Thomist and Western thinking. In Rome in the 1960s he lived with and studied alongside students from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, although he never thought in terms of a global church, except in an elementary European and Roman-centric way.

The Australian Catholic Church now has the task of constructing a church with totally revamped and contemporary sacramental liturgies, one that incorporates Indigenous and Asian spiritualities. It is a monumental task, beyond the capabilities and imaginations of Big George’s many acolyte archbishops and bishops in charge across the Australian continent.

The victims of clerical sexual abuse and their families will continue to tie their protest ribbons to the gates of St Mary’s. The church will continue to remove them. The hurt will continue, just as the adulation and whitewashing of George Pell’s life will continue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2023 as "Bye George".

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