Blunt, tough George Pell is the victim of a show trial

By Peter Craven
March 08, 2016

Cardinal George Pell leaves the Quirinale hotel after meeting victims of sex abuse.
Photo by Riccardo De Luca

[with video]

Last week we saw Cardinal George Pell cross-examined for  about 20 hours at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse,  with the 74-year-old prelate speaking via video link from Rome. Afterwards there was a meeting with victims who were pleased to hear he would try to set up a centre for survivors of abuse.

In an hour-long interview on Sky with Andrew Bolt, Pell said he wasn't so stiff on the inside and, at one point, he appeared to weep. Yet none of this cut the mustard: from much of the response to Pell's testimony, both during and after it, you would imagine he is personally responsible for the sins of the Church.

Why? Because we were witnessing a show trial. A week before the hearing began, the Herald Sun published a leak from Victoria Police that investigations were under way into possible crimes of the cardinal. No new lines of inquiry were offered, no reliable source was indicated and the one specific matter referred to allegations which had been laid to rest in 2002 when they were examined by Justice Southwell.

Still, the day after Pell made his notorious slip about not being "interested" in the sexual abuse, the front page of the Herald Sun said "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Stop No Evil".

It's nonsense. When Pell initiated the Melbourne Response in 1996 he went further than any bishop had gone to fixing the problem. Yet a lot of people want to blame him  for the horrors that were perpetrated for no better reason than they see his formidable, take-no-prisoners manner as the embodiment of the attitude of an arrogant and heartless church.

So, when he says that as a young priest in Ballarat he heard of a brother not only using excessive discipline but behaving dodgily with boys and he spoke with the chaplain who said the Christian Brothers were attending to the problem, this is met with derision.

When he says that Sir Frank Little, then Archbishop of Melbourne, and the Catholic Education Office left him in the dark about accusations against clergy he is told by the head of the Royal Commission and the Assisting Counsel that this is "implausible".

A lot of people seem to want Pell to bear personal responsibility for the sins of the Church, sins against the innocent which have ruined lives, for no better reason than that they don't like him.

It's ironic but it's precisely because Pell was a tough customer that he was liable to be left in the dark. As he indicated to Bolt (never mind that you hate Bolt too), a lot of people in the Church couldn't stand him, both before and after his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne.

I can remember the disdain of the liberal-minded Jesuits. Pell was theologically conservative and tough-minded in his expression of it. He refused communion to rainbow-sashed gay activists. He took legal action to stop an artwork from being exhibited. There was a whistle of awe when he walked into a press conference and said, "I'm here to object to 'Piss Christ'."

He was the opposite of a conciliatory, namby-pamby ecclesiastic. He was a muscular, confrontational sort of Christian. He came close to playing top-level Australian Rules Football as a ruckman for Richmond and it amused friends and foes alike that an old injury made it next to impossible for this man of God to kneel.

And, yes, he was politically conservative – close to Tony Abbott, a climate change sceptic and an admirer of B.A. Santamaria. He did not get on with the mild-mannered Frank Little and he said in the Royal Commission of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns of Ballarat, "his repeated refusal to act is, I think, extraordinary." Of Little he spoke of an "extraordinary world, a world of crimes and cover-ups and people [who] did not want the status quo to be disturbed." 

Should we be surprised that these "merciful" bishops might have wanted to keep Big George, the bull in the china shop, out of the picture? And yet how much the dogs of outrage want to bay at the man who took steps to stop the abuse six years before the events in Boston highlighted in the film Spotlight.

How everyone cried in execration when he stumbled last week and said of Gerald Ridsdale's abuse of children, "It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me." Even though it was obvious he meant he didn't want to mull over the grisly details. We wanted to rage at Pell  because we thought he was the kind of unfeeling prince of the Church who let hearts break and kids be ruined.

It's unfair because in his blunt, tough way he did more to stop it than anyone, even if the Melbourne Response was radically imperfect. Just at the moment he's in charge of cleaning up the skulduggery in the Vatican that drove Pope Benedict to abdicate. It is not a job for the faint-hearted but no one has ever accused Pell of being that.

Although he shrugged off the suggestion, there was a witch-hunt against him. There was a show trial. Yes, it's insignificant compared   with the sufferings of innocent children but it doesn't represent this nation at its best.

There are reasons why Pell has made a greater impression on this country than any churchman since Daniel Mannix and one of them is that he did his best, his imperfect best, to clear up the sexual abuse.

Let's have some justice, but also some mercy, for Pell. Let's draw the line at being unchristian to the muscular Christian.


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