George Pell flew higher than any Australian priest, but he chose career over the safety of children

The Guardian [London, England]

January 10, 2023

By David Marr

The cardinal was smart and determined. His failure to uncover some of the worst cases of child sexual abuse by priests blights his reputation

He was a company man. He did what he did to preserve the power and the assets of the church. If that meant thrashing victims of abuse through the courts and boxing them into tiny settlements, that was fine by him. Duty done.

That’s what made him the right man to clean up the financial mess of the Vatican. High among the achievements for which he deserves praise at this time was the work he and his accountants did to begin tracking the missing billions in the Holy City. Alas, Pope Francis didn’t have the guts to back him. The courtiers brought him down.

Soon after, he was in Melbourne facing a long purgatory in the criminal courts which ended in a dramatic, unanimous acquittal by the high court. By that time, the so-called swimming pool charges had evaporated despite being aired by victims, once again, in Sarah Ferguson’s fine 2020 ABC television series Revelation.

No Australian priest has ever climbed as high as George Pell. Few figures in the Catholic world have crashed so low. Pell was 56 years a priest; 18 years an archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney; a cardinal for 20 years and a prisoner in Victorian jails for one.

He emerged with some grace. A martyr, his followers say, to the secular powers besieging the church. High on their list of his tormentors are police, prosecutors and the press. Senior priests who had once been wary of him began to speak of Pell with warmth. His acquittal will be celebrated by them all over again in the next few weeks as a victory for the church.

This promising footballer from Ballarat was recruited to his mission in the 1950s by that mighty Catholic warrior Bob Santamaria. Pell had brains. He was probably right when he boasted he was the first Catholic priest since the Reformation to be given a doctorate at Oxford.

His apprentice years were spent back in Ballarat. Child abuse was rife in the diocese. The bishop knew and did nothing. Children told Pell a priest was abusing their classmates. He did not investigate. He sat on a committee that gave the contemptible Gerard Ridsdale a fresh parish. Years later, he claimed not to know – as others did – that Ridsdale was an unrepentant, compulsive abuser.

Pell made an early choice between children and career. That choice faced many ambitious priests at the time. The Rome of John Paul II was not willing to face the shame of child abuse. A lone vigilante protecting kids on the far side of the world might end his days in a seaside parish, but not wearing a cardinal’s hat.

Swimming was his pastime. He loved to romp with kids in the Ballarat pool. Hot afternoons saw him in the shallow end tossing eight-year-olds in the air. One day an official at Torquay who didn’t know who Pell was told him to piss off from the changing rooms and not come back.

A pragmatist who divided the Catholic laity

Pell was in his 40s when he took the training of priests in Melbourne back to the old days. For the first time he was a figure of public controversy, an able defender of his role and remarkably indifferent to derision. As in Ballarat, he continued in Melbourne to show an extraordinary talent for convincing politicians to fund church causes – a crucial element in his rise through the ranks in Australia.Timeline

George Pell timeline

None of this made him popular. Catholics were surprised – some appalled – when he was made auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987. Picking the worst of what Pell did in the years that followed is difficult. Most contend it was his failure, despite having unquestionable evidence of the man’s crimes, to remove Peter Searson from Doveton primary school.

The teachers came to Pell begging him to remove the priest. The parents called for him to be sacked. The headteacher of the school put his job on the line to see the priest gone. The headteacher was removed. They did make Searson hand in his gun.

When Ridsdale was facing abuse charges, Pell escorted the priest to court. A grainy still from Channel Seven footage – showing Ridsdale in a spiv’s suit and dark glasses, and that bulky figure in black beside him – was to become a defining image of Pell’s downfall.

When he became – again, to the surprise of many Catholics – archbishop of Melbourne he instituted what he boasted was the first church scheme in the world to compensate victims. By this time settlements running into the millions were being reached in the US. But the Melbourne Response, as it was called, paid victims about $50,000, made them sign away their rights to sue and, for a time, bound them to silence.

The church spent more money on lawyers than compensating those whose lives had been wrecked by their paedophile employees.

Sorry. Priests aren’t employees. And the church doesn’t own property. These principles Pell reasserted in the courts when he became the cardinal archbishop of Sydney in 2001. Looked at in law, the Catholic church wasn’t responsible for priests’ misbehaviour, nor were the trustees responsible who held its Australian billions.

Those laws have changed now, thanks to the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse which, of course, Pell opposed, but to which he gave evidence. That was a wise decision.

Not giving evidence at his trials was foolish. What would a juror think of this mighty man of the world choosing to stay silent and not defend himself in the face of such charges?


Baroque conspiracy theories are still washing about to explain why Victorian police charged Pell with abusing two boys in a busy room at St Patrick’s Cathedral one morning after Sunday mass. Helping the theories survive is that none of us – apart from lawyers, judges, police, and the office of the director of public prosecutions in Victoria – have seen the evidence of the young man who came forward with the allegations.

We are not able to judge. One jury couldn’t decide. Another convicted. The appeal court of Victoria backed the jury. The high court knocked the conviction for six.

So the bent, bulky figure of George Pell emerged from prison. He published a prison memoir that doesn’t quite reach the heights of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. He was given no work by the church. He died in Rome.

It’s hardly likely, but may he rest in peace.

 In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380