Cardinal George Pell
8 June 1941 to 10 January 2023 

Twitter has been running hot with hatred after the death of Australia’s Cardinal George Pell in Rome following minor surgery. If you can tell the quality of a man by the venom of his enemies, George Pell was indeed a mighty figure.

He spent 405 days in jail for sexual abuse which he did not commit. He was exonerated by the High Court of Australia in a unanimous decision. And still the twitterati would not believe in his innocence.

“Cardinal Pell died an innocent man,” Chris Merritt, The Australian’s Legal Affairs Contributor, said. “This might come as a terrible shock to those who were gripped by the frenzy – particularly in Victoria – that effectively amounted to a lynch mob before his trial and unsuccessful appeal in the Victorian Court of Appeal.

“The fact that an old, sick man spent a long time in prison and was eventually shown by the highest court in the land to be innocent, it ranks up there with Lindy Chamberlain, as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice we’ve ever seen in this country.”

What will history say about George Pell?

Tony Abbott, a former Australian Prime Minister got it right: “In his own way, by dealing so equably with a monstrous allegation, he strikes me as a saint for our times. Like everyone who knew him I feel a deep sense of loss but am confident that his reputation will grow and grow and that he will become an inspiration for the ages.”

The Cardinal modelled the courage which is going to be necessary in a woke society for anyone who takes Christian morality and convictions seriously.

A hero for the 21st Century

When George Pell was a young priest, the Catholic Church in Australia commanded respect.

In the forecourt of St Patrick’s Cathedral is an imposing three-meter high bronze statue of Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne for 46 years, unruffled despite a stiff breeze blowing his cassock. He died in 1963 at the age of 99, an austere, outspoken, pious, orthodox, politically-engaged leader of his flock.

It was Pell who commissioned the statue, not long after he had been installed as Mannix’s successor. As a young man Pell saw the aged archbishop, who had steered his archdiocese through two world wars and the Communist threat, “as one of my heroes”.

In some ways the two men were strikingly similar.

But even more striking was the contrast. Mannix died surrounded by some of the country’s leading political figures; he was praised by Prime Minister Robert Menzies (a Mason) and by Éamon de Valera, the President of Ireland. Cardinal Pell will not be farewelled in a haze of bland platitudes. As he said in his homily at the state funeral of B.A. Santamaria, a singularly important figure in Australia and Australian Catholicism: “We are told that the sure mark of the false prophet is that all people speak well of him. In death, as in life, Bob Santamaria has triumphantly escaped such a fate”.  

Tough and blunt

The first explanation of Pell’s difficulties was his personality. Though personally kind, witty and charming, as an administrator he could be gruff. In his youth he signed a contract with Richmond Football Club to play Australian Rules football, a quintessentially Melbourne sport which requires stature, stamina, and toughness. He chose God over football, but the priesthood did not soften him.

One anecdote will suffice. Only a few months after being named Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he announced that he was going to reform the diocesan seminary, Corpus Christi, to make its formation more pious, more regulated and more faithful to traditional Catholic teaching. The indignant staff resigned en masse. Instead of buckling, Pell called their bluff. He pocketed their resignations and proceeded with his reforms. Here was no “cold mean creature with placarded smile” or “a canonist, / Well practiced in dissembling double thought / in double speech,” in the words of James McAuley, an Australian poet.

Pell’s brusque manner was a handicap under the harsh spotlight of the media. When he gave evidence to the Royal Commission on sexual abuse, he was asked if the crimes of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale were common knowledge. The Cardinal replied: “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”. This off-the-cuff remark was to be remembered as cruel clerical indifference. Pell went on to say: “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated.” But the damage had been done.

This was a handicap in dealing with victims of sexual abuse and their families and at his trial. As a columnist for The Australian, Angela Shanahan, noted: “In this age of public shaming, of bathos and histrionic displays of ‘empathy’, the cardinal just didn’t seem to have enough ‘empathy’. He was too rational, too focused on the practical. He didn’t conform to the emotional script. He just didn’t have emotional ‘credibility’ — a credibility, however, that one accuser did seem to elicit.”

Loyalty

And then there was Pell’s unshrinking orthodoxy and loyalty to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He was a Catholic priest and later a bishop in a culture which was drifting, day by day, further and further from its Christian foundations.

In modern Australia, he was a defiant Athanasius contra mundum on contraception, divorce, homosexuality, women priests, married priests, condoms, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage and other controverted issues.

In 1998 he visited Rome with other Australian bishops. The “papal hit squad”, as newspapers called the Vatican officials, rebuked the delegation about a number of points, including widespread use of “general confession”. It was left to Pell to defend the statement of conclusions back home.

When asked on the ABC’s Four Corners program, “What is the biggest threat, in your opinion, to the Catholic Church today?”, he responded bluntly, “Oh, that we’ll just merge into the background. We’re a minority church, fewer than 30 percent of the people, and we’ll just take on the colours of our society, and that we’ll become the bland leading the bland”.

In particular, he voiced strong views on the role of conscience. Pell was not an original thinker, but he had a clear head, a broad knowledge of modern intellectual history and a knack for cutting the Gordian knot. He zeroed in on the contemporary habit of equating freedom with the multiplication of choices. Instead, he argued, we need to stand against “the many crude versions of subjectivism and relativism sweeping our society.”

And then he threw a grenade which epitomizes his challenge to critics inside and outside the Church: “One practical conclusion from this is that Catholics should stop talking about the primacy of conscience. This has never been a Catholic doctrine.”

Words like these were a red rag to a bull. Louise Milligan, a onetime Catholic by her own admission, and the author of the most damning of a clutch of damning books about Pell, found his views on conscience patronizing, arrogant and intolerant. “See what he’s doing there?” she wrote. “He’s saying it’s your problem if you don’t like what the Church says. It’s not ours. We represent inviolable truth. You just haven’t found it yet.”  

Homosexuality

One issue which painted a large target on his back was his staunch support of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In the eyes of many, including some of his flock, this made him a bigot.

The most memorable instance of this occurred on Pentecost Day 1998. About 70 members of the Rainbow Sash movement attended Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral when Pell was the principal celebrant. He refused to give them Holy Communion because their sashes indicated that they rejected Church teachings. For Pell, this was not ostracism of a marginalised group within the Church but a “teachable moment”. “This incident allows me to explain the centrality of the Catholic teaching on marriage and family,” he said in a statement. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve and important consequences follow from this”.

Offensive? Polarising? Pell felt that he was giving a Catholic perspective on important cultural developments. “Christ was crucified for his opinions,” he said. “It’s not as though he was a disciple of Dale Carnegie and set out to massage the population into coming along with him.”

Spiritual depth

Pell’s time in prison showed his mettle. He used his time to write a three-volume journal of his spiritual reflections. They reveal a man with a deep Christian faith and a genuine piety. He had suffered a colossal injustice but he never gave in to bitterness and spite.

As he told EWTN in an interview after his release from jail, “Ultimately there’s one judgement that’s supremely important and that’s before the good God when you die. Now if I had thought that death was the end of everything, that the ultimately important thing was my earthly reputation, well obviously my approach would have been different.”

Now that he has gone to God, his supporters can say that the moving example of his charity, forbearance, and humility are his triumphant revenge upon his mean-spirited detractors.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.