Cardinal George Pell’s sex-assault charges will ripple through the Vatican

The Globe and Mail

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the co-author of Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal.

It couldn’t have happened at a more inauspicious time: on the very day when Pope Francis is celebrating with his most recently “created” cardinals and his newly appointed Metropolitan Archbishops in Rome, news came that his Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged with multiple counts of historical sexual assault by police in the Australian state of Victoria.

Cardinal Pell is a senior-ranking prelate who enjoys the pontiff’s confidence on all matters fiduciary. Francis put him in command of a new dicasterial or governance structure designed to clean house among the various financial bodies operative in the Vatican, including the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the Vatican Bank. Both institutions could be rogue in their accounting and auditing procedures, fiercely autonomous in the exercise of their power and draped in Medici-like opacity.

Cardinal Pell was to bring clarity, accountability and transparency to all the financial transactions conducted within the Vatican, and his progress – impeded in part by recalcitrant groupings of clerics and laity fearful of losing their authority – has been impressive, if laboured.

But the qualities that Pope Francis admired in the outspoken former archbishop of both Melbourne, and latterly Sydney, qualities that included a relentless application of energy and focus to his reforming task, a no-holds-barred approach to opposition to his initiatives and an able intelligence quick to grasp the complexity of things, were in and of themselves incapable of securing Cardinal Pell sanctuary from the controversies that hounded him “Down Under.”

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