George Pell, a man always proper and prudent

The Australian

July 29, 2016

Like any red-blooded 25-year-old male on the verge of taking a vow of lifelong celibacy, George Pell regarded that requirement of his chosen career with consternation, which he poured out to his closest friend in Rome in 1966 during an afternoon walk over the bridges that cross the Tiber.

As a student approaching ordination as he was then, and for decades afterwards, the most difficult aspect of mandatory celibacy, a discipline he supports for Catholic priests, was not living without sex but “living without the love and close companionship of a wife and children’’.

That’s what he said during an interview for his biography in 2002. His perspective has not changed.

The many family members, friends, colleagues and staff — and their children — to whom he is unswervingly loyal know the appalling conduct of which he has been accused is not in his nature.

Nor would his conscience allow it. Even in informal situations he is proper and prudent, albeit with a reputation, in his younger days, for tough tackles on the football field and pummelling other seminarians with news­papers on picnics.

How and why these claims have emerged 40 years after the alleged events is a mystery, especially to anyone who remembers the controversies of 2002 — the year, by sheer coincidence, I was writing his biography for Sydney publisher Duffy & Snellgrove.

It was in August 2002 that Pell stood aside as archbishop of Sydney while retired Victorian supreme court judge Alec Southwell inquired into claims that as a young seminarian, he had molested a boy at a holiday camp on Phillip Island in 1961. He was exonerated.

The uproar, with the story on every front page and every news and current affairs program, was intense.

In that glare, others with something to say would surely have come forward, to the police or to one of many character assassins who were circling.

Piecing together his life, it was clear that high spirits, pillow fights on camp and yes, tossing games in the local pool, in full public view, were the young Pell’s style.

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