The Pope and Pell: 'One of the most fascinating relationships in Rome'

By Andrew West
October 24, 2020

Pope Francis speaks with Cardinal George Pell in Vatican City on 12 October.

The Pope is understood to have believed in Cardinal George Pell’s innocence of child sexual abuse charges. But their different visions of the Catholic church puts a limit of their alliance

Suddenly, it seems, George Pell is everywhere. Freed from a Melbourne jail in April after the high court unanimously quashed his conviction for child sexual abuse, the cardinal joined the rest of the country in house-bound isolation as the first wave of Covid-19 hit.

But by July the man who was once No 3 in the Vatican hierarchy was dining with the former prime minister Tony Abbott in a Sydney club. And in late September, he returned to Rome, three years after taking leave from his job as the head of Vatican finances to answer the charges in Melbourne.

On 12 October, Pell had a reportedly friendly, half-hour meeting with Pope Francis, and last weekend he celebrated mass on the 10th anniversary of the canonisation of Australia’s first saint, Mary McKillop. Abbott was in the front pew.

Close by was a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, whose wife is ambassador to the Holy See. The presence of the Gingrich couple is significant because they represent Catholics in the US who have long considered Pell a champion of their orthodox style and theology.

Do not be surprised at more photographs from Rome of Pell presiding at mass, perhaps meeting old Vatican colleagues – basically doing what one might expect of a cardinal in semi-retirement.

But Pell has returned to a Rome gripped by an extraordinary conspiracy theory. A former Vatican official and Pell adversary, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, allegedly funnelled money – a reported $1.1m – to sources in Australia in an attempt to secure Pell’s conviction.

Becciu denies the allegation but Australian federal police are reviewing the information and have referred some matters to Victoria’s anti-corruption body. Victoria police said on Friday that without any evidence of “suspicious activity” it will not investigate further. Italian police have already arrested an associate of Becciu in connection with other unrelated money transfers.

The Pope sacked Becciu from his job running the department that makes saints, accusing him of “misappropriation” when he was previously a top official in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

It was in that job where Becciu first clashed with Pell, who was tasked with the widespread reform of the Holy See’s notoriously lax finances. He was reportedly about to audit the Secretariat of State when the abuse charges were laid.

So has Pell returned to Rome to finish the job and vanquish the man who allegedly conspired to have him falsely convicted?

Soon after his release Pell said he would return to Rome. He has a flat to pack up. Neither he nor his Vatican colleagues expected a three-year absence.

But a lot of threads are being drawn together, even if they may not fit naturally. Pell returns, Becciu is sacked, and Becciu’s long-time associate from the Vatican foreign service, Adolfo Tito Yllana, is called back to Rome from his post as papal envoy in Australia.

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that in their meeting, Pope Francis might have asked Pell if there was anything more he could tell him about Becciu’s time and spending at the Secretariat of State.

Pell’s job running the finance department was filled formally last year and a Spanish Jesuit, Juan Antonio Guerrero, now sits in his old office. But several of Pell’s old staff remain in place.

It is possible, say church sources, that Francis might appoint Pell to a short-term “benefice”, a job – perhaps as cardinal-priest at one of the churches directly under the control of the pope, who is also bishop of Rome – from where he might suggest certain lines of enquiry to Guerrero.

The relationship between the Pope and the cardinal is one of the most fascinating, perhaps paradoxical in Rome.

Francis’s decision to meet Pell and to release the photographs surprised few. The pope is understood to have believed in Pell’s innocence and the Vatican’s official line was that he had a right to exhaust all avenues of appeal in the Australian legal system.

As for the report of the royal commission into institution sexual abuse – which found Pell knew about complaints of sexual abuse by three priests in the 1970s and 1980s and did not act – the Vatican’s position is, to say the least, opaque.

The Vatican welcomed the royal commission recommendations, with reformers believing it helps their cause. But on the specific Pell findings, church sources say the Vatican believes they are part of a “scattergun” approach to Pell, of a piece with an overturned conviction. That is why it appears that the Pope did not hesitate to meet the cardinal.

But it is also worth remembering that Francis and Pell have very different visions of the Catholic church and that puts limits on their alliance. Pell supports the social justice teaching of the church – he was friendly with as many Labor politicians as Liberals – but also believes in the “dialogue with power”. He has a loyal following among American conservatives, through well-read websites such as LifeSite News and the Catholic Register.

Francis believes in “a poor church for the poor” and each of his encyclicals since 2013 have accentuated his concerns about global poverty and climate change.

Pell, as part of the Anglo-Celtic tradition, believes church law is church law, and it is not for the tinkering. In 2016, after four conservative cardinals lodged a so-called “dubia”, demanding Francis clarify what they believed to be his wobbly teaching on divorced people taking communion, Pell – a member of the pope’s cabinet – effectively endorsed his boss’s critics. Their questions, he said, were “significant” and “how can you disagree with a question”?

When Francis appointed Pell as head of finance he is said to have given him what one church source called “deep but specific authority” to use his reputed skills in financial management to clean up alleged corruption in the Vatican. It was a senior and prestigious job but it had nothing to do with doctrine, liturgy, the pastoral mission or the international relations of the worldwide Catholic church.

And it is to that very specific task that Pell might be returning, albeit without the official title or office.

Or the cardinal might simply be taking a sojourn in Rome, possibly until next June when he turns 80. He might just be packing up his extensive library, enjoying the cafes, restaurants, and companionship of friends who never doubted him, in a city where he felt both loved and feared.


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