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Cardinal George Pell: Moments of true greatness

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Cardinal George Pell is pictured during an interview in Rome on 8 May 2014. Photo: Robert Duncan

I was ready for the death of Pope Benedict XVI, but I wasn’t ready for the sudden death of George Cardinal Pell. To have lost two such giants so quickly is a bit stunning.

I don’t hesitate to call Pell a giant of the modern Church in Australia. He was obviously not in the same league as Benedict XVI, but at home he changed the landscape of the Church.

I don’t hesitate to call Pell a giant of the modern Church in Australia

I think the distinguishing feature of George Pell was his courage. We had so many bishops who were … anxious to please, unable to say no, and held in thrall to their clergy and lay enablers.

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Pell was the complete opposite. He had views, and was not afraid to air them. He believed completely in the teachings of the Church and their pastoral application, and carried this task out to the very best of his abilities.

And his abilities were considerable – Pell was highly educated, erudite, and very shrewd. He was not a glad-hander or necessarily a people person. And yet with those who knew him closely, he was a delight.

I suspect he was a shy man who overcame this through the usual male tactics of loudness and gritted teeth because he knew that God was asking him to be a priest. Priests can be shy, of course – but it’s not really a help in carrying out a very public lifelong ministry.

Pell showed tremendous courage all through his priestly ministry, at a time when the scourge of child sexual abuse and its routine coverup had been normalised by the weak bishops he had to serve under.

As soon as he found out the extent of the problem, he roared into action and produced the Melbourne Response. Like it or hate it – and it was flawed, because it was breaking new ground – it was the first official Church response to this scourge in Australia.

You need to be a historian or to have lived through the dark ages of the Catholic Church to appreciate just how weak many of our bishops were. It’s only against the background of this terrible darkness and complicity that you can see how great a ray of light the Melbourne Response was.

I have no difficulty believing Pell’s detailed testimony to the Royal Commission on the extent of his knowledge and on who was doing the covering up. It’s a shame the Royal Commission didn’t extend him the same courtesy.

But there were other moments of true greatness. It was Pell who, in the face of the kerfuffle about the 1980s film The Last Temptation of Christ, bothered to go and see it before condemning it. His verdict was that it was theologically unsound, but that was about all.

Cardinal Pell, then Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, walks with with Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, at right, and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in the Philippines, as they leave a meeting with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican on 20 February 2014. Photo: CNS

It was also Pell who, years later at the Synod on the Family, spoke loudly and vigorously in favour of the Church’s authentic teachings, even when his microphone was turned off.

His conviction on charges of child sexual abuse in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, was a legal disgrace. He was convicted of a crime that allegedly took place under conditions where Pell would have had to bilocate, and where he had over 20 witnesses placing him elsewhere at the time, on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness.

Justice Weinberg’s minority report at the Court of Appeal made all the difference. He recognised the legal danger of the Pell verdict, which basically overturned the presumption of innocence and ignored all the evidence which supported it.

Pell’s exoneration by a unanimous High Court judgement was the only just outcome. But incredible harm was done to all survivors of clergy sexual abuse by the disgraceful and politically motivated hounding of an innocent man.

How could any survivor’s testimony be taken seriously again, now that this one was shown to be a confabulation? False convictions and jumped-up kangaroo trials may score political points and sell clickbait, but they never serve victims.

Pell’s later years were quieter, but they still didn’t stop him dropping the odd bombshell about Vatican financial corruption. This would not have endeared him to those cardinals who are now on trial, and who deserve the presumption of innocence that Pell was denied.

I wrote to Cardinal Pell twice when he was in prison, and once again when he was released. He wrote back after he was released, and I have his letter – badly typed by the man himself. I’ll treasure it.

May he rest in peace. George Pell, pray for us.



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