Cardinal George Pell, emeritus Archbishop of Sydney and now resident in Rome, is Australia’s most senior prelate. Known for his orthodoxy and direct speaking, Pell has become the center of an increasingly strident media storm in Australia, related to the child sexual abuse crisis. Australian police now hint that they have enough evidence to charge Pell with acts of sexual abuse—yet they have failed to do so.
I have been watching George Pell for years. This makes me sound abnormal, but let me explain: As an Australian Catholic who grew up in the terrible years of the 1970s and 1980s, utterly confused by liturgical and doctrinal chaos, I found Pell something of a north star and navigation point. A big man, carved out of the same granite as my father’s family, Pell was a constant reassuring presence in the background of my religious life. I have met him in person a number of times, and seen him in situations where he did not know that he was being observed closely by a small woman behind a pillar.
Australia suffered from the same ecclesiastical malaise as the rest of the West, and thousands of disaffected Catholics despaired of anything ever changing. Then in the mid-1990s, something did: George Pell was named Archbishop of Melbourne. I was in Melbourne when the news became public, and the rejoicing, underpinned by sheer disbelief in our good fortune, was ecstatic. All of us felt that at last, the tide had turned.
Admittedly, Pell did not go quite as far in Melbourne as many of his supporters hoped—the local seminary was not immediately burnt to the ground, for example—but all of us appreciated the great good he brought to the role. In the 1990s and 2000s, Pell became the Australian media’s go-to Christian spokesman on practically everything. He was not much of a performer, but he was and is highly intelligent, and he spoke the truth in and out of season. These two qualities made him stand out from what were, for the most part, a decidedly ordinary crop of bishops. He was patient, firm, consistent, and utterly unafraid of media opprobrium.
Pell was also the first Australian bishop to be seen to do anything creditable about the sexual abuse crisis that was beginning to brew. Most people look at Pell from outside the Church and see a man who did not do enough to stop the rot. But those of us who see Pell from the inside remember that he moved faster and did more than anyone else to set up processes to be implemented in the case of abuse accusations. Pell's sexual abuse investigation process, known as the Melbourne Response, was introduced in late 1996 to his archdiocese. At the same time, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was developing its own process, known as Towards Healing, which followed the introduction of the Melbourne Response and was influenced by it. Towards Healing, however flawed it may be, remains the standard protocol for Australian dioceses. When Pell himself was accused of sexual abuse, he immediately followed his own process: He stood aside as archbishop until the investigation was completed, and he was cleared.
But then the zeitgeist changed. It may have been due to Pell’s move to become archbishop of Sydney, followed by journalist Tess Livingstone’s effusive biography, and then his elevation as cardinal. It may have been the new evidence about the terrible extent of sexual abuse and corruption in the Church in Australia, unpacked by a government inquiry. More recently, it may be the current pope’s apparent dislike of Pell, and Pell’s robust defense of marriage and the family at the second session of the recent Synod—during which his microphone was turned off, but Pell continued to speak, rallying marginalized bishops to his side.
Whatever the reason, Pell increasingly became a target for the Australian media. He had made errors of judgement that came back to haunt him, such as publicly accompanying serial offender Fr Gerard Ridsdale to court. Pell has never been a man of smooth words, and some victims have felt he spoke to them unjustly and roughly, and did not listen, and did not believe them. Pell has attempted to make up for this, with some success; his recent meeting with victims in Rome reduced him to tears.
As I say, I have been watching George Pell for years. He has both delighted and exasperated me, in print, on television, and in person. But at no point has he struck me as a man with something to hide. George Pell is probably the least secretive man in the Australian Catholic hierarchy. What you see is what you get—I have seen him be abrupt, tender, unkind, generous, loving, impatient, argumentative, devout, gentle, and angry. In more recent years I have seen him moving slowly because of arthritic pain, and looking breathless and worn. I have seen all these sides of George Pell, and they simply mean that he is a flawed human being like the rest of us.
I don’t believe he is guilty of sexual offenses, but my opinion on this doesn’t matter. What I do observe is the way in which his name has become an insult to be spat out by mainstream media commentators, and the way in which he is now depicted as a sort of giant evil balloon of conservative morality and hypocrisy. These reactions are vastly out of proportion to what George Pell has publicly said and done in his lifetime. They are also mostly made by people who would have difficulty in picking George Pell out of a group photograph.
This leads me to believe that George Pell is more important than any of us realize. He is important because he is currently cast in the role of the suffering servant—he is being attacked and is not defending himself, which takes heroic courage. Those who know how to play the game are never treated in this way. Pell has some critical present or future role in the Church. The sheer maelstrom of hate which is raging around him is all too primeval, and all too familiar.
In a world where too many bishops have failed us in ways too terrible to mention, George Pell has yet to do so. He is far from perfect, but he is a good man and an honest one. He does not deserve anyone’s hatred; he does deserve our prayers.
Philippa Martyr is an Australian historian, writer, and commentator.
Editor’s note (6/7/17): The account of Pell's role in the development of Towards Healing has been emended for accuracy.