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Michael Cook: Cardinal Pell and ‘the ultimate test of the fairness of Australia’s courts’

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Cardinal Pell celebrates Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, in this file photo. Photo: CNS

The man ranked third in the Vatican, Australian Cardinal George Pell, has been informed that he will be charged with “historical sexual assault offences”. Since Pell is the Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy – the man in charge of cleaning up the Vatican’s tangled finances – this is international news.

Cardinal Pell strenuously denies the allegations. He will not be sheltering behind his responsibilities in the Vatican and plans to return to Australia to face the music. In a statement he said:

These matters have been under investigation now for nearly two years. There have been leaks to the media, relentless character assassination and, for more than a month, claims that a decision on laying charges is “imminent”. I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.

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Understandably, the news of the charges has shocked people around the world, especially those who were unaware of the investigation by police in the state of Victoria. But Pell’s complaint of “relentless character assassination” is not exaggerated. The national broadcaster, the ABC, and the flagship newspapers of the Fairfax press, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, have highlighted every rumour, no matter how implausible, and never wasted an opportunity to blacken Pell’s name.

One of the first things that Pell did as Archbishop of Melbourne was to set up protocols for dealing with sex abuse. They were the first in the world. How likely is it that he would be an abuser himself? In 2001, Pell was transferred to Sydney as Archbishop. A few months later he was accused of abuse. He stepped down while his own protocols were applied to him. The case was not proven.

Pope Francis describes Pell as an honest and energetic man, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, has insisted strongly that he is “a man of integrity in his dealings with others, a man of faith and high ideals, a thoroughly decent man”.Amongst his supporters there is no shame-faced sotto-voce mumbling that “he might have gone too far and after all these years he had it coming.”

George Pell’s problem is his strength of character. He was born two generations before Mark Zuckerberg, but the motto of Facebook, “move fast and break things”, expresses something of his style. Even physically, at 6-foot-3-inches, he is an imposing figure. He is a blunt speaker, a tough and practical manager, a theological conservative, a supporter of the Pope, and an outspoken critic of contemporary social mores. He was the plumber of the Australian Catholic Church, the man who fearlessly waded into the sewer of its sex abuse scandal and cleared the blocked drains.

So Pell has no shortage of enemies. When Australia had a referendum on changing the head of state from the Queen of England, he was a leading supporter of Australia becoming a Republic. That was divisive. He opposes homosexual activism, which is divisive. He strongly opposes same-sex marriage, which is bitterly divisive.

He supported John Paul II to the hilt and amongst his clergy that was divisive. He set up his own sex-abuse protocol and amongst the Australian bishops that was divisive. He shook up the Melbourne seminary and that was divisive. In his role in the Vatican, he has worked hard to set finances right and root out corruption and that was divisive.

George Pell’s career is a kind of mise en scène for an Agatha Christie novel in which Hercule Poirot finds that the dead man in a pool of blood was living in a hotel and every resident had a motive for murder. Furthermore, the state of Victoria has been a battleground between the Catholic Church and the radical left for many decades. A bit like the Spanish Civil War, which is still being fought in schools and the media, the Victorian Left and the Church have never declared an armistice.

The attacks on Pell ultimately stem from a loathing of the Church and its moral teachings amongst the left-leaning Victorian political establishment. At the moment it is in government, noisily campaigning for euthanasia and transgender rights and quietly gloating over the possibility of destroying Australia’s best-known Catholic.

It has been Pell’s misfortune to be a good man, an effective manager and a loyal priest. In today’s world that is a dangerous combination. Ensuring that he gets a fair trial will be the ultimate test of the fairness of Australia’s courts.

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