As Cardinal Pell prepares for another child sex abuse hearing, his ‘company man’ style has made him enemies within the Vatican. By Mike Seccombe.

The many trials of Cardinal George Pell

Pope Francis signs a cricket bat presented to him by Cardinal George Pell, at the Vatican  last month.
Pope Francis signs a cricket bat presented to him by Cardinal George Pell, at the Vatican last month.
Credit: AP

The coincidence could hardly be more unfortunate, but it could not have been foreseen. Back in March, on the second anniversary of his pontificate, Pope Francis announced a year to be dedicated to the major theme of his papacy, mercy.

The Year of Mercy, he announced, will begin on the day the church calls the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8.

“I am convinced,” Francis said, “that the whole church will find in this jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

Here in Australia, however, the year of mercy will start not with joy but with an inquisition. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will turn its focus back on the Catholic Church, with hearings in Melbourne starting on December 7. For the third time, Cardinal George Pell will be called into the witness box.

Among the many descriptors that have been applied to Cardinal Pell, “merciful” does not feature prominently.

There was nothing merciful about the way the Sydney archdiocese sought to protect the church’s assets from claims by victims. Under Pell, the church’s lawyers were relentless – and successful – in their determination to establish in law a defence that says because the trusts that hold the church’s enormous wealth do not actually employ its priests, they could not be held liable for compensation for the acts of those priests.

Although Pell later expressed in the commission “some concern” about the way some litigation had been handled, he also infamously told it he believed the Catholic Church to be no more legally responsible for priests who abuse children than a trucking company that employs a driver who molests women.

This is the quality of his mercy.

The signal dearth of consolation offered during his leadership of the church to the victims of sexual abuse has now been well explored. But a lack of compassion is no crime.

1 . Days of grilling

In the upcoming hearings Pell is expected to face several days of grilling about more serious allegations going back decades: that he was aware of abuse occurring, actively sought to cover it up and by his actions facilitated its continuation.

Those allegations were detailed in hearings of the commission six months ago.

“I think this is a very, very tight situation for ... Cardinal [Pell],” said Francis Sullivan, CEO of the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, speaking to ABC Radio in June, at the end of two weeks of hearings in Ballarat where the claims were made.

“The last two weeks in Ballarat ... I was there ... left most of us with more questions than answers,” he said.

Those questions go back several decades, to between 1973 and 1983, when Pell was an assistant priest in Ballarat East, and Ballarat was a hotbed of sexual abuse. They are of the “What did he know and when did he know it?” variety. What did he know of the actions of probably Australia’s most infamous paedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, with whom he shared accommodation in the early 1970s and whom he later accompanied to court? What was his involvement in decisions to move Ridsdale and other offenders from parish to parish in response to claims of abuse? What was his involvement in the alleged offering of inducements to victims to remain silent?

We need not go further into the detail here. Most of the claims have been raised before and denied by Pell, as they were again after their most recent airing in Ballarat. And they will be explored in forensic detail by the commission soon enough. Sullivan noted – perhaps hopefully – in his June interview with Fran Kelly that the royal commission had greater investigative powers than any other forum in which the claims have previously been made. But even Pell’s most trenchant critics suspect the outcome will be, as one put it, “He said, she said.”

That does not mean it won’t be damaging. There are many people – here in Australia but also, more importantly, in Rome – ready to seize on any little bit of evidence they can find to undermine Pell. And for a variety of reasons, some more pure than others.

2 . Cleaning up the finances

In February last year, Francis, the pope of mercy, appointed Pell to one of the most powerful positions in Rome – prefect of the secretariat for the economy, essentially the Vatican’s treasurer.

On the face of it, it seems an odd appointment. The two men are so different. Francis the reformer and Pell the traditionalist. Francis the self-effacing and Pell the self-important. Francis, who ministered to the poor and powerless, and Pell, who surrounded himself with the rich and powerful. Francis who called for urgent action on climate change in his encyclical in June and Pell who remains, in the words of Kevin Rudd this week, a “radical climate change sceptic”. Francis the compassionate and Pell the insensitive.

But the Pope knew what he was doing. He wanted to clean up the Vatican’s finances. And whatever may be said about Pell’s pastoral care, even among his harshest critics there is ready acknowledgment he is good with money.

“He’s a company man,” says one of those critics, adding that Pell’s “brutish” style and outsider status made him the perfect choice to take on the many fiefdoms of church finances, the unaccountability and the corruption.

“His style is to take no prisoners and ask no permission. So he will barge in. He always comes up hardy and doesn’t carry damage. He’s robust and durable. We’ve seen that for decades, in his ascendancy in the Australian church and now internationally. Pell is a bit of a hero in Rome.”

But he’s also put a lot of noses out of joint. Quite calculatedly, on the evidence.

Last December, in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Pell wrote an 1800-word piece about his new role, seen as gratuitously offensive to many in the Vatican financial hierarchy. He posed the question that had been put to him by a member of a visiting British parliamentary delegation: “Why did the authorities allow the situation to lurch along, disregarding modern accounting standards, for so many decades?”

His own printed response was less than diplomatic. “In reply, I began by remarking that his question was one of the first that would come to our minds as English-speakers (lumped together by the rest of the world as ‘Anglos’), but one that might be much lower on the list for people in another culture, such as the Italians.

“Those in the Curia were following long-established patterns. Just as kings had allowed their regional rulers, princes or governors an almost free hand, provided they balanced their books, so too did the popes with the curial cardinals (as they still do with diocesan bishops).”

In his article, Pell stressed the finances of the church were actually much healthier than they appeared, because there was so much previously hidden money.

“The Vatican is not broke,” he wrote. “Apart from the pension fund, which needs to be strengthened for the demands on it in 15 or 20 years, the Holy See is paying its way, while possessing substantial assets and investments.

“In fact, we have discovered that the situation is much healthier than it seemed, because some hundreds of millions of euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet.”

3 . Resentment and leaks

As might be expected, the controllers of those sectional accounts were resentful, and they replied in kind, leaking claims of lavish spending within Pell’s own department. Those claims have surfaced in two new books devoted to the dubious finances of the Vatican: Avarice, by Emiliano Fittipaldi, and Merchants in the Temple, by Gianluigi Nuzzi.

Pell’s anonymous critics complain that his department spent some $US540,000 in its first six months on expenses including “tailor-made cloths”.

Pell promptly fired back with this statement: “The recently released books appear to have included false and misleading claims about the management of expenditure by Cardinal Pell and the expenditure incurred by the Secretariat in 2014.” 

Pell’s statement gave a detailed accounting of his department’s spending. The bulk of the expenditure – $317,000 – went on start-up costs for furniture, computers and salaries. Only $4300 went on airfares, “considerably less than many other entities”, and only $2700 was spent on vestments and altar cloths.

An attachment to the statement noted similar false claims had been aired in the media months earlier.

The Catholic media largely saw the spending as fair enough, and the leaks for what they were: an attempt to undermine Pell’s mission and an expression of resentment at his methods.

“Since his appointment as Francis’s top financial reformer, Pell has been a lightning rod inside the Vatican,” wrote John L. Allen jnr, Vatican watcher with Catholic website Crux.

“Admirers say that Pell’s sometimes abrasive style is necessary to cajole a reluctant system to change, while critics argue he sometimes pledges transparency and accountability but operates himself in secret and without consultation.”

The inescapable conclusion is that there are influential forces within the Vatican gunning for Pell for mercenary reasons. But it’s doubtful their leaks will undermine the “convenient marriage”, as one church observer here puts it, between Pell and Pope Francis.

Just last week, the Pope, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper published by and for homeless people, warned the church against hypocrisy on the issue of poverty, saying it was impossible to speak about the poor and the homeless and yet lead the “life of a pharaoh”.

His comments were seen as reference to revelations of those two new books. For now, Pell is a useful means to get at the pharaohs.

“It’s no different from politics anywhere,” says another of Pell’s Australian critics. “The situation with Pell is that he is doing a good job with the finance stuff and the leaks against him are a measure of that.

“At the same time, he is a leader amongst those conservative bishops who are unhappy with this reformist Pope.

“At the moment, having Pell there sorting out the finances is more important than the fact that Pell is pissed off about the general direction of things.”

If Pope Francis ever had any doubt that Pell was a convenient ally, it would have been dispelled by last month’s synod on the family, says the same source.

“Pell and 12 other bishops wrote to the Pope expressing concern at the way it was running, that it seemed to be leaning too far to the left and moving away from dogma on marriage,” he says.

He subscribes to the theory, advanced in an article in the highly regarded US publication, National Catholic Reporter, that part of Francis’s plan in holding the synod was “to flush out the views of the bishops on his reform agenda, to make them show their hand”.

As Pell duly did.

Says another well-placed Australian church source: “This Pope blindsided the conservatives from the start.”

4 . ‘A use-by date stamped on him’

None of the people who chose him was a radical, the source says, and they would not have chosen him had they thought him a radical. The positions that the church has cleaved to, on life below the navel, he backs all that in. 

“But he’s decided to … take the foot off the pedal of sexual morality and accelerate down the road of social justice.

“He’s not touching doctrine, which has wrong-footed the conservatives. He’s changed emphasis and language, disposition, style.”

As for Pell? “There’s a use-by date stamped on him.”

Some influential figures in the church think that date has already passed.

Back in June, coincident with the last round of hearings in Ballarat, one of them gave his harsh assessment in an interview with the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes.

“He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness,” said Peter Saunders. “Almost sociopathic, I would go as far as to say – this lack of care.”

Saunders, himself a victim of priestly sexual abuse in Britain, was chosen last year to join the nine-member Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to advise on the church’s response to past abuse and future policy. It reports directly to the Pope.

Francis Sullivan is more circumspect. Asked by Fran Kelly if he also believed Pell should go, he dodged artfully. 

“Fortunately I don’t have to make that call. Cardinal Pell is a personal appointment of the Pope. And only the Pope can decide when a cardinal’s role is untenable or they’ve done their time.”

Sullivan said he was looking forward to Pell’s evidence in response to the allegations against him.

More important, though, he said, was “that the Catholic Church leadership, both in Australia and elsewhere, needs to send every signal they can that the church’s interests do not come first, that the kneejerk, protective reaction that often is the case with the church is no longer in play.”

It’s not hard to read between Sullivan’s words. It’s pretty clear how he would like to see the year of mercy begin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "The many trials of George Pell".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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