“The Catholic Church in Australia has known few more extraordinary figures than George Pell.
A product and priest of the rural diocese of Ballarat, he rose to be not only Archbishop of Melbourne but, extraordinarily, Archbishop of Sydney as well.
It was unthinkable then that the Archbishop of Melbourne would be moved to Sydney.
As was said at the time, “It was an insult to both”.
It took George Pell to break the mould.
With the move to Sydney he was named Cardinal, which brought with it a further enhancement of his Vatican profile.
This eventually led to his appointment as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy of the Holy See, charged with leading the financial reforms begun by Pope Benedict and pursued by Pope Francis.
Then his legal troubles erupted in Australia in circumstances that remain unclear.
Pell became the victim of an outrageous injustice as he was convicted and jailed for 13 months before a final vindication.
The spiritual poise and strength he showed through all of this was extraordinary. It revealed a depth to George Pell that often went unrecognised.
Through his legal troubles, he was identified wholly with the Catholic Church and vice versa.
Pell was the Church, and the Church was Pell – big, powerful and heartless in the eyes of many. Partly this was because, in his public persona in Australia, Pell had presented himself self-consciously as the voice of the Catholic Church.
Those who didn’t know him thought Pell heartless and humourless, and his media persona could suggest this.
Yet if George Pell had anything, they were a good heart and a sense of humour. It was a pity that more of this didn’t show in his media appearances.
He didn’t claim to be a saint; he knew he was flawed. But he did claim – and rightly – to be a man of faith and a man of the Church. He once told me how struck he was by the words on the Roman tomb of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Vehementer amavit Ecclesiam (Vehemently he loved the Church).
George said however that he’d prefer on his own tomb, Vehementer amavit Dominum et Ecclesiam (Vehemently he loved the Lord and the Church).
There was nothing bland or half-hearted about George Pell: he was strong, even vehement in his faith, his convictions, his likes and dislikes.
He could be a fierce opponent, unafraid to enter the battle.
At times this could make him seem an ideological warrior, which did not serve him well. It certainly wasn’t George Pell at his best.
He was always a polarising figure, stirring strongly contrasting reactions. He had both passionate friends and passionate foes.
In part, this was because his deepest instincts were those of a politician who thrived on opposition and conflict. It was also tied to an apocalyptic view of the world seen as an arena where good and evil, life and death, light and darkness contended.
There wasn’t much middle ground for George Pell, not too many shades of grey.
But that he had unusual gifts of leadership is certain – intelligence, courage, conviction, self-confidence, political nous and tenacity among them.
Though he chose a life in the Church, George Pell would have been a leader in any field he had chosen.
It will take time to assess his legacy in the Church in Australia, which will prove as complex, even as contradictory as the man himself.
For now we give thanks for the gifts George Pell brought to us and the challenges he posed.
And we pray that, beyond all the struggles and sorrows he knew, this extraordinary man of faith and of the Church, our brother George, will come now before the Lord of mercy who will say to him simply (as Julian of Norwich predicts for each of us), “Thanks for all you’ve done”.
Eternal rest give to George, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.
- Mark Coleridge is the Archbishop of Brisbane.
- OPINION BRIAN FRAGA
- The best, most balanced analysis of the case was penned by my colleague Brian Fraga (writing then for Patheos), who considered both what we knew, and what we did not know, about the case. The judicial system in Australia functions so differently from our own that both the easy defenses of Pell and the easy denunciations rang hollow.
- “In the end, I think we can all take solace that the cardinal received the due process that he had a right to in the Australian legal system, and that the alleged victim was heard and had his complaints taken seriously,” Fraga concluded. “I think that’s all we can definitively say. Because when it comes down to it, that’s all we really know.”
Cardinal George Pell’s death isn’t the end or a celebration for child sex abuse survivors. It’s another hard day.
Today, it is like a radio station in my head, and it keeps on flicking over to different stations and some of them are louder than other stations. I wish I could take the batteries out so there was silence.
“I am definitely triggered.”
Catholic child sexual abuse survivor Julie Stewart wrote these words to me on Wednesday morning just after hearing the news about the sudden death of Catholic Cardinal George Pell
The survivors and victims and complainants of child sexual abuse in the Australian Catholic Church will not dance on the Cardinal’s grave.
For them, as Stewart says, the Cardinal’s death is a very triggering thing. A sombre occasion. A day when the vulnerable child inside them is bursting out again. A hard day.
The toll left behind
Despite the intense loyalty that Pell still inspires in some people, former prime ministers included, there are many, many survivors, like Julie, of Catholic paedophile clergy who feel that George Pell and the Church he stood at the apex of made them feel like they didn’t matter at all.
So, for them, not to mention the men who made direct complaints of historical child sex crimes against the Cardinal himself — only to see him ultimately acquitted by the High Court of Australia — the merest whisper of his name has always invoked a shudder.
Julie is a survivor of Peter Searson, a frankly, repugnant paedophile priest at the Melbourne parish of Doveton, and one of several abusive clergy whom the royal commission found Pell ought to have known about.
Now, I know I absolutely do matter and I make myself matter every single day. I always mattered and I mattered back then too,” Julie wrote.
“Today, I carry a photo of that little girl that loved to dance, and I live today for her.
“I feel joy and happiness for her today and every day after that.
“I will take today as a reflection day on what today represents for me,” she wrote about Pell.
“Not about the death of an individual that is making great headlines.
“Today is about the survival outside of all that noise and the celebration of all the little boys and girls that deserved a better outcome.
“You matter, you always did and you always will.
“My name is Julie Stewart.”
George Pell was an uncompromising defended of the wildly corrupt RCC.
For that alone, he was never my cup of tea.
He had an arrogant and bullying personality – which suited his role as an RCC hierarch.
It was his way or the highway.
DID HE SEXUALLY ABUSE
I believe that the charges he was found guilty of were UNSAFE.
That is why the high court overturned his conviction.
The overturn did not declare his INNOCENCE.
It declared his conviction UNSAFE.
As I believe it was unsafe.
The cases of the boys who accused him of abusing them when he was a priest was never resolved.
I watched the long interviews of those boys as grown men.
I believed their story.
At least one of them is dead.
DID PELL COVER UP ABUSE BY PRIESTS?
He is now dealing with the fullness of TRUTH and JUSTICE.