Pope Francis' cardinal problem: an exit strategy for George Pell
By Christopher Lamb
Sydney Morning Herald
March 6, 2016
|Even his staunchest defenders now accept that Cardinal George Pell is an embattled figure seemingly under attack from all sides.|
For years he has been one of the big beasts of the Catholic Church.
When in Sydney, Cardinal George Pell would regularly make the gruelling 22-hour flight to Rome so he could keep his Vatican contacts warm and his ear close to the ground.
He impressed popes and fellow cardinals with his forthright, no-nonsense defence of Catholic teaching and, it is understood, would regularly send church leaders press cuttings of articles where he had been criticised in the Australian media for standing up for the faith.
But after four days of forensic cross-examination by the royal commission, where he repeatedly pleaded ignorance about clerical sexual abuse, the cardinal's stock is no longer rising.
Senior figures in the Vatican were closely monitoring the video-link testimony at the Albergo Quirinale and will no doubt have noted the remark by Gail Furness, counsel assisting the commission, that she found Pell's denials "implausible".
Here in Rome the cardinal has a critical role in trying to clean up the Holy See's finances – that in turn has made him enemies in a culture where accountability and transparency are in short supply. Even his staunchest defenders now accept that Pell is an embattled figure seemingly under attack from all sides.
All this presents a problem to Pope Francis who, after being elected on a mandate to put an end to church scandals, appointed the cardinal to run a new secretariat for the economy. Pell still has a job to do but does Francis want someone doing the cleaning up whose own house appears not to have been in order?
A solution to the dilemma may present itself on June 8, the day the cardinal turns 75 and the retirement age for bishops. It is unlikely that Francis will ask Pell to retire straight away but it is an opportunity to work out an exit strategy. An opportunity for him to go may be after the first fully audited accounts of the Holy See are published and which international firm PricewaterhouseCoopers are currently working on.
The cardinal might also be tempted by the prospect of a peaceful retirement and given his unpopularity in Australia he could head for an English parish in Oxford, the place where he studied as a young priest and is known to be fond of.
But hastening Pell's departure may not be the only outcome of the royal commission. By having such a senior church figure cross-examined in Rome, the clerical sex abuse cover up has been placed firmly on the Vatican's doorstep. In the past the commission would have been viewed as an Australian matter taking place at a comfortable distance of 16,000 kilometres away.
The truth is that there are some in Rome whose approach to abuse would not come out well under a cross-examination from Ms Furness. A few weeks before the cardinal took the stand, it emerged that newly ordained bishops had been told at a Vatican training course that they are not obliged to report allegations to statutory authorities. Similarly, in Italy, the hierarchy's own guidelines say they not compelled to report.
Another defensive approach to the matter was taken last week by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, in charge of the Holy See's doctrinal office, who said that the majority of priests had been "bitterly wronged" by generalisations about abuse. Speaking to a German newspaper he went on to say that the phrase "hush up" was being used far too freely in relation to bishops.
Too many senior people in Vatican positions still don't "get it" when it comes to abuse, often seeing the matter through a strict legal prism or believing the crisis has been whipped up by the media. The needs of victims, meanwhile, seem very low on the priority list.
It should be pointed out that not everyone in Rome are dragging their feet. The Pope has set up a commission for the protection of minors and much work has gone on to ensure bishops across the world have guidelines on child safeguarding.
Yet these are small steps in response to what has arguably been the church's greatest crisis since the reformation. Cardinal Pell's appearance before the commission should ratchet up the pressure on the Vatican to do much more.