As a Sydney radio host, I’ve known Cardinal George Pell for years — even before he became one of the most senior Catholic officials in the world, selected by Pope Francis to reform the Vatican’s finances.
I never warmed to him. He was always cold and imperious, suspicious of whatever question might be asked. Trivial, I know, but I recall the dandruff on his clerical collar whenever he came into our radio studio. It was as if he didn’t care what people made of him. More importantly: He had this hard-line, unbending, unfeeling attitude to every issue — homosexuality (“a much greater health hazard than smoking”), divorce, abortion, contraception, sex more generally.
That feeling of dislike led me, in a roundabout way, to doubt the rumors that swirled around him. The idea that he was himself a pedophile seemed so unlikely — a plot twist that too easily fitted with public anger toward the Catholic Church and its failure to handle child abuse within its ranks.
Yet finally, this week, it can be printed: A jury in Melbourne determined that Pell had indeed sexually abused two choirboys.
The details were horrific, involving “oral rape” and molestation of the two 13-year-olds. In the language of the court finding, Australia’s most senior Catholic leader — arguably, until recently, the third-most-important Catholic in the world — was guilty of “one charge of the sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child."
His lawyers have launched an appeal. Some of Pell’s supporters maintain that his crimes remain improbable. It is important, also, to say this was a retrial: The first jury was unable to reach a decision.
For all that, the unanimous decision of this second jury has sent shock waves through Australian Catholicism. Pell, after all, was the architect of the “Melbourne Response” — the structure set up to deal with victims of sexual abuse within the church.
Many now say that response, however modified in intervening years, must be swept away. Chrissie Foster, the mother of two girls who were horrifically abused by a priest, recounted this week how she had visited Pell to discuss the family’s devastating experiences in the late 1990s.
Foster remembered Pell being angry when she and her husband first asked for his help; one of her daughters later fatally overdosed on medication She said this week: “Now I look at it and think, my goodness, this is why he was trying to shut us down then.”
The crimes occurred 22 years ago when Pell was archbishop of Melbourne. The location was the cathedral’s sacristy, straight after Sunday Mass, with Pell wearing his archbishop’s robes. Right now he is the most senior Catholic in the world to be convicted of child sex offenses.
Pell’s role as a perpetrator was headline news this week, but his role in handling the crimes of others has long been controversial. He resisted a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse — supporting its establishment only once it had become a fait accompli. His “Melbourne Response” had been widely seen as shutting down victims — paying paltry damages in return for silence.
At one point, back in 1993, he even accompanied the notorious pedophile Gerald Ridsdale into court, provoking an outcry.
The suppression of the jury’s verdict, lifted on Tuesday morning, has brought some criticism of the Australian court system, from both local and international newspapers. I think that’s been unfair. Some said the judge was protecting Pell. More truthfully, he was preventing any impediment to a second jury trial concerning other claims.
Judge Peter Kidd was concerned the jury in the second matter might be influenced by the determination in the first — a concern that disappeared when prosecutors abandoned the second trial.
Pell will be sentenced soon. Later, if the conviction holds, he may well suffer the recent fate of the former American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked for his abuse.
In Australia, creation of the much-resisted Royal Commission into child abuse and our institutions is now seen as a watershed moment in the history of the country.
When Ireland was rocked by similar findings, revealed by its own commission of inquiry, it forever changed the power of the Catholic Church in that country.
It’s hard to believe the same process is not already underway in Australia.
Certainly, the “Melbourne Response” seems unlikely to survive. It’s hard to have faith in a response to pedophiles whose architect is one himself.