Cardinal George Pell's ascension to the Vatican. By David Marr.

David Marr
Cardinal George Pell named as financial watchdog for Vatican

Cardinal George Pell
Credit: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Rarely has Rome given such pleasure to the faithful as it gave this week in far away Australia. Those who loathe George Pell were elated at the prospect of his departure. Those who admire him basked in the glow of Rome’s approval. Commentators, forgetting in their excitement St Mary MacKillop of the Cross, declared no Australian has ever been promoted as high in the pantheon of their faith as this 72-year-old boy from Ballarat.

Rome isn’t calling him home to be a theologian. He isn’t one. Nor is he being honoured as a bishop of exceptional pastoral abilities. Empathy isn’t his bag. Nor is Rome rewarding him for a lifetime’s efforts as a warrior at the frontiers of sexual morals. The new Pope has signalled he’s not much interested in those bitter, old campaigns. 

George Pell is being made the Vatican’s financial watchdog in recognition of abilities not much noticed in the storms of publicity he generated in Australia. The dull side of Pell was his skill as an administrator, a bishop who knows how to save and spend to extend the reach of his church. The pews are emptying fast across Catholic Australia but Pell leaves his old archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne in splendid financial shape. 

Lawyers will mourn his going. He kept squads of them about him. Sculptors are sad to lose a patron who yearned to fill cathedrals with statues. Journalists are farewelling with purple prose a man who generated easy headlines for decades. And the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a little anxious. 

The cardinal has let it be known “he remains fully committed to co-operating with the royal commission and making himself available as it sees fit”. But the commissioners know it isn’t particularly easy to summon Pell from his Sydney office a few blocks up Elizabeth Street. How much harder will it be when he is on the far side of the world?

They have so much they might talk to him about: the priests who weren’t sacked when he was auxiliary bishop of Melbourne; his breakaway Melbourne Response for handling abuse claims; the secrecy imposed on victims in the early days; the runaway priest he kept on the Melbourne payroll; the deep reluctance of the church to hand priests over to the police; the failure in both Melbourne and Sydney – part of a worldwide failure – to systematically investigate the extent of abuse in the ranks of his church.

They will quiz him about money. By the sort of chance that seems to some proof there’s a God up there, Pell’s one appearance at the royal commission before he departs Sydney will explore what can’t have failed to impress Rome: the legal strategies he pursued to save the church in Australia hundreds of millions of dollars. 

This is not America. There have been no fire sales of church property. No dioceses have been bankrupted. An impeccable source has told The Saturday Paper the abuse scandal has so far cost the church more than
$100 million. That it hasn’t cost many times more is due, in large part, to the case that bears the cardinal’s name: Ellis v Pell. 

Ellis wanted $750,000 for the abuse he suffered as an altar boy in the western suburbs of Sydney. Instead of settling, the church spent $1.5 million on lawyers. It was value for money, for the courts confirmed the Catholic Church in Australia is essentially immune from suit: church assets aren’t available to victims; one archbishop cannot be sued for the failings of his predecessors; and the mighty church, despite its cathedrals and schools and hospitals, has no more existence in law than a swimming squad or bridge circle.

Ellis v Pell offers most victims no choice but to accept what the church offers through the Melbourne Response or the national protocol Towards Healing. “They get 10 cents in the dollar,” says Jason Parkinson of Porters Lawyers who has acted for more than 600 victims of the Catholic Church. A few still sue. “The church makes it as hard as possible,” says Parkinson. “They always raise Ellis v Pell.”

Pell is a bad apples man. He has apologised for many failings by other bishops in other times. He admits the sheltering of criminal priests facilitated their crimes. Abuse appals him. But the scandal has not shaken his faith in Rome. As archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney he has defended the privileges, the teachings and the assets of the church. He won’t budge on celibacy. It’s all about bad apples. 


1 . A Vatican favourite

Rome favoured Pell early. He was John Paul II’s idea of a bishop: orthodox, combative, an operator, unafraid to confront the spirit of the times. He had no need to please his fellow bishops. He had patrons in Rome. He was only 50 when he became the first Australian to be appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Joseph Ratzinger laboured to keep women at bay and vilify homosexuals. 

Pell’s name came up whenever a big Vatican post fell vacant. He was the perpetual contender. In 2010 the cardinal seemed on the verge of being made head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops but at the last minute he lost the job. Two problems were later identified by Rome watchers: a backstairs campaign against his patron the Vatican’s secretary of state and a lingering whiff of scandal. 

Pell had been accused of abusing an altar boy on Phillip Island when he was a young seminarian. A retired judge engaged to sift the evidence was not satisfied the complaint had been established. But years later, there was still a fear in Rome that a civil case might be brought against Pell and embarrass the Vatican. So he was denied a post that would have made him a powerful figure in the church.  

Pope Francis’s appointment of Pell this week as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy is a signal that Rome’s last doubts about his past have been dispelled. More to the point, it will give him unprecedented power to supervise the bizarre financial affairs of the church – including authority over the Vatican Bank – and place him on almost equal footing with the Vatican secretary of state. Pell will report direct to Francis. 

America’s National Catholic Reporter, an insiders’ publication not afraid to take the church to task, welcomed the appointment of this “tough cookie” with high hopes and cautious optimism. “With this new structure,” wrote Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, “Pope Francis has shown that he is willing to go beyond stylistic changes to significant structural change. There are no guarantees, but these changes have potential.” 

2 . An influential player

Australian politics will lose an influential player when Pell packs his pictures and his wardrobe of costumes and departs for Rome. He has been a staunch advocate of the republic and a last-ditch campaigner against pornography, IVF, abortion, divorce, stem cell research, drug law reform and any move to compel the church to employ lesbians and homosexuals even in its hospitals. His opposition to any “secularist” Bill of Rights was implacable. 

“In politics,” observed Michael Cooney, a former adviser to Mark Latham, Kim Beazley and Julia Gillard, “the cardinal acts as a person of influence, not of power. He speaks through intermediaries; he acts on understandings; he asks little of the government of the day. Leave school funding alone, leave Catholic health care alone, leave euthanasia alone … until the end, leave royal commissions alone … this approach is almost the opposite of deal-making. Not so much you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, as don’t scratch my car and I won’t scratch yours. It’s not hard to say yes.” 

None of the men tipped to succeed him – Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Anthony Fisher of Parramatta or Bill Wright of Maitland and Newcastle – have what gave Pell his clout. It was never the notion that he spoke for millions of Catholics, says Cooney. “What gives this archbishop of Sydney his quintessential political influence is that unlike any other Catholic leader – unlike almost any other churchman in Australia – he can genuinely command a national audience.” 

Veterans such as Chrissie Foster of the fight to compel the church to face its abuse of children are not joining the general enthusiasm for Pell’s translation to Rome. They fear for the unfinished business back home. Two of Foster’s daughters were raped by a Melbourne priest in the 1980s. One committed suicide and another is now permanently disabled. 

“Pell has been central to ensuring that the church’s assets have been protected here in Australia by denying justice to victims,” says Foster.  “Now he is being rewarded with a promotion which will ensure he will take his money-saving processes to the world.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Big George goes to Rome".

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David Marr is a reporter, commentator and biographer.