Tuesday 19 March 2019

Pell's rise to power in Catholic Church raises hard questions for Pope Francis

There is speculation George Pell will win his appeal against his conviction for the sexual abuse of two 13-year-old boys
There is speculation George Pell will win his appeal against his conviction for the sexual abuse of two 13-year-old boys

Annette Blackwell

When Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell was jailed in Australia on Wednesday for sexually molesting two 13-year-old boys in 1996, the shockwaves were felt globally.

Pell, third from the top in Rome, is the most senior Catholic cleric ever to be found guilty of such offences.

All his clerical life he has been a juggernaut for his Church - to some the protector of traditional values, to others the embodiment of the post-Vatican II conservative backlash.

In Australia, his ideology was expressed by loud public disapproval on almost every progressive issue: climate change, same-sex marriage, abortion.

In Rome, even though noises from Pope Francis raise hopes for change, Pell's brand of Catholicism still holds sway.

It certainly got 'Big George' (as he is known to his mates) to the dizzy heights of Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

And why not? The cardinal was a company man who'd protect his beloved institution's reputation and vast financial and property assets at any cost.

Much of the recent controversy surrounding Pell in Australia has been about his inaction over offending priests and his legalistic approach to abuse survivors.

He was a headline witness several times at the Australian Royal Commission inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

In 2016 the commission travelled to Rome to find out what he did and did not know about paedophile priests and brothers, during his time as a priest in the Ballarat region of Victoria and then as an auxiliary bishop.

Pell said no one ever told him what was going on and shocked the world by saying "it wasn't of interest to me".

Stories of broken lives, suicides, anguish at the failure to act on the horrors in that diocese seemed to leave Pell unmoved.

Oddly enough, Ballarat was where Pell was born and raised and where his mother Margaret 'Lil' Burke instilled a faith her son described as "very Irish ... and probably in particular a faith typical of the west of Ireland in its certainties and in its impatience with theological subtleties".

There was nothing subtle about the Melbourne Response - a Church scheme Pell put in place in 1996 to handle child sex abuse complainants. It was legalistic and focused on keeping compensation pay-outs low. People found the process traumatising.

Pell touted his scheme in Rome where he was hailed as the first in the hierarchy to take action amidst the rising tsunami of complaints.

Is it any wonder that although abuse survivors are generally joyous that the single most obstinate institutional force against fairness is now out of the way, they are outraged by the hypocrisy?

The impact on the Australian Catholic Church is not immediately obvious. In Australia this Church never reigned supreme - although Pell, and historically other prominent Irish Catholic hierarchy, worked hard to replicate the influence the institution had in the homeland.

Australia isn't the most Catholic, or even religious, of countries. The tendency there is to low-key your beliefs.

However Pell's unshakeable moral certainty, an Ian Paisley-like charisma and defence of the old ways won him admirers in politics and the media.

To the Australian right, George Pell is a culture warrior and they are now waging a fierce war in his defence.

Right-wing columnists are baying about a miscarriage of justice while Pell's legal team hunker down for an appeal. (There is strong speculation an appeal might succeed - the burden of proof in historical child sex abuse cases is a minefield.)

Former prime minister John Howard has written a pre-sentencing character reference for Pell. This sent social media into overdrive.

One journalist tweeted that Howard's reference was as if he was saying: "Yeah alright George molested kids but what a conversationalist hey. had some bloody chinwags with old George in my day. lights up the room with the f***in' bon mots he does."

That's Australia for you. The global impact of George Pell's fall from such a great height is something else.

The following story is true but you can read it as an allegory for today's Church.

Ted Kennedy was a parish priest providing pastoral care in Redfern when his dying light came up against Pell's rising star.

Redfern, a Sydney inner-city suburb, is home to Aboriginal people from across Australia whose lives are entwined in poverty, prejudice, police harassment and alienation.

Kennedy, another priest with a strong Irish Catholic pedigree, opted for the poor. His small church and his home were refuges for the marginalised and oppressed.

Progressive Catholics from across Australia came to Kennedy's services.

In 2000, his book 'Who is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church' directly challenged Church conservatism epitomised by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell.

The archbishop had refused communion to people wearing the rainbow sash. Church doctrine was not a smorgasbord, said Pell. These people were wrong to think they had a right to homosexual activity.

In his book, Kennedy argued primacy of conscience over established doctrine.

Within a year Pell was to become Archbishop of Sydney - the most powerful seat in Australian Catholicism - and by 2003 he was a cardinal.

When Kennedy became ill and died, Pell systematically wiped out his 30-year ministry in Redfern.

In the small church the Stations of the Cross went back up and pictures of Aborigine elders came down. A soup kitchen closed and people were refused holy communion unless they could prove baptism.

The sermons by the priests Pell installed were about sinfulness and damnation, not about open hearts and compassion.

Pope Francis preaches open hearts and compassion but he appointed Pell to be his bean counter, which opens questions about the Pope's priorities and if he really has the will to do more than talk about the biggest problem his Church faces.

Annette Blackwell, Irish journalist and university lecturer, has written widely on institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia.

Irish Independent

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