Monday 19 March 2018

No stranger to child abuse scandals, cardinal now finds himself in firing line

Australian Cardinal George Pell makes a statement at the Holy See press office in the Vatican city yesterday. Photo: Getty
Australian Cardinal George Pell makes a statement at the Holy See press office in the Vatican city yesterday. Photo: Getty

Annette Blackwell

The Pope is likely shaking the dust off a letter of resignation from one of his top men, Australian cardinal George Pell.

The letter has been gathering dust in a Vatican file for just over a year - Pell submitted it, as obliged, when he turned 75 last year.

Francis, if truly committed to reassuring the faithful a reforming Church had zero tolerance for a culture of silence, or worse, a wilful and deliberate cover-up of child sex abuse, would have said a year ago, "Thank you, George", and breathed a sigh of relief.

This is because controversy and George Pell have been inseparable from the time he was a priest in the Australian diocese of Ballarat in the 1970s to his ascension in 2014 as a chief adviser to the Pope and the Holy See's main beancounter.

And much of that controversy has been about the former archbishop's responses to priests who sinned grossly against children and his legalistic solution for dealing with abuse survivors.

The latest scandal, however, relates to neither of these things but to allegations that 40 years ago Pell himself was a sexual predator targeting boys.

Pell has been the subject of innuendo for years, but such is his charisma that defenders and detractors are vehemently polarised on the nature of the man - to some he is a bully; to others a pragmatist who does his best for a Church he passionately defends.

His mother Margaret 'Lil' Burke was a devout Irish Catholic. His dad George was Anglican. Pell was much influenced by his mother who he once described as "a woman of great strength and faith: a faith I suspect that was very Irish, and probably in particular a faith typical of the west of Ireland in its certainties and in its impatience with theological subtleties".

He seems to have inherited the certainty and impatience. While in Australia he was outspoken against homosexuality, dismissed those who took a 'smorgasbord' approach to Catholic doctrine, and saw protecting the Church's assets as his role.

The great conservative now has a court date in Melbourne on July 18 where he faces charges of historical sexual assault. He says he will be there.

The ramifications will reach the top in Rome from where Pell strenuously denied any wrongdoing, hired a leading firm of lawyers and claimed relentless character assassination by a hostile Australian media.

Nothing new there - he is no stranger to courtrooms and invariably takes a bulldog approach to opposition.

His time as a leading prelate in Victoria and New South Wales has been subject to forensic scrutiny by the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Pell has been required to appear several times. There was outrage last year when he said he could not return for another hearing because of illness. If, as alleged by some of his detractors, this was a ploy to avoid further scrutiny, it backfired badly.

The commission went to Rome and the Vatican's treasurer made worldwide news with his extraordinary admission that if there were paedophile priests and brothers operating in the diocese of Ballarat in Victoria, where he was initially based, he never knew.

It did not concern him, he said. He later explained that meant it did not come under his list of duties.

It was interpreted widely to mean he was too busy establishing a foothold for his brilliant career, which would see him elevated to Archbishop of Melbourne, then of Sydney and finally a member of the Curia.

It appeared to this reporter that during the Rome hearing the cardinal showed himself to be a company man through and through.

He has been told of broken lives and a long list of suicides but the only emotion he showed was startled shock when Justice Peter McClellan, the chief commissioner, suggested the Catholic Church should consider a more modern corporate structure with clearly defined levels of accountability.

Pell has spent much time over the years denying he had more sympathy for offending priests that abuse victims. He finds it difficult to escape the resonance of a notorious photograph which keeps surfacing.

A press photo from 2002 shows George Pell walking to court with Gerald Ridsdale - a Ballarat priest who was convicted of 54 child sex offences. He sat with Ridsdale, with whom he once shared a house, and not with the victims.

Ballarat, a gold rush town in Victoria, is a hellmouth when it comes to child abuse - according to a recent report by the Abuse Commission almost one in 10 priests in the Diocese of Ballarat had allegations of child sex abuse levelled at them between 1950 and 2010.

He has since admitted the Ridsdale support was a mistake and often refers to the fact that he set up the first ever official church scheme for abuse survivors.

In 1996, as Archbishop of Melbourne, he established the Melbourne Response for abuse survivors. It was a scheme through which abuse survivors could come to the Church for redress.

He launched his diocesan scheme just before the Church launched its Towards Healing scheme which was a national response to a tsunami of sex abuse allegations that hit the Church.

The Melbourne response has been a huge subject of controversy. Its legalistic nature intimidated survivors, there was little or no pastoral care and Pell capped payouts.

He took this approach with him to Sydney when he became Archbishop there and notoriously challenged in the courts one abuse victim's claim against the Sydney diocese. Pell won.

Protecting Church assets became the mark of Pell's career in Australia.

The Pope has given him permission to go to Melbourne and the Vatican grapevine has it he won't be back.

Irish Independent

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