Divisive Cardinal Pell faces his day in court over abuse charges

Irish Times

Pádraig Collins in Sydney

For years, Cardinal George Pell was dogged by questions of what he knew about the child sexual abuse that happened under his watch in his home state of Victoria. Only his alleged victims knew that he might one day be charged with sexual assault offences himself – allegations Pell denies.

Born to a father, also called George, of English Anglican heritage, and a mother, Margaret (nee Burke), of devout Irish Catholic descent, Pell was always marked for success. Academically bright (he has a PhD from Oxford) and athletically gifted (he is 6’4” and to this day looks more like the retired Australian rules footballer he could have been than what you might expect a 76-year-old cardinal to look like), he was drawn inexorably to the church.

A portrait of the Cork-born Melbourne archbishop Daniel Mannix hung in the family home in Ballarat when Pell was growing up. Mannix was by far Australia’s most famous Catholic of his time (he died in 1963), and Pell is by any measure the most well known now.

From his refusal to give communion to gay people (in May 2002 he told the congregation at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow from this”), to his climate change scepticism (in July 2015 he publicly criticised Pope Francis’s decision to speak out on environmental matters: “The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters,” he said), Pell has always been contentious.

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