In the case of The Crown ver­sus Ge­orge Pell of Rome, this powerful man can­not choose his role


IF Car­di­nal Ge­orge Pell once got to pick his fights — from the scan­dal of abor­tion to the sins of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity — he has since learned to open new bat­tle­fronts in re­sponse to hos­til­i­ties aimed at him. Pell may be an Ox­ford scholar, but he is also a stu­dent of Sun Tzu.

His re­sponse when the Her­ald Sun first re­vealed the de­tails of a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion in early 2016 was a tone of out­raged de­nial of “base­less” al­le­ga­tions.

Yet Pell’s of­fice went fur­ther — Pell de­manded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the leak of the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Pell adopted a sim­i­lar ap­proach when a book was re­leased last month.

Pell’s of­fice re­sponded in the long es­tab­lished tone — im­pe­ri­ous, out­raged and un­am­bigu­ous.

“Each and ev­ery al­le­ga­tion of abuse and cover-up against him is false,” it said. “The book is an ex­er­cise in char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion.” Pell would launch defama­tion ac­tion.

First, he would await “the out­come of due process”.

Yes­ter­day — af­ter a pro­tracted game of back and forth be­tween po­lice and the Of­fice of Public Pros­e­cu­tions — the po­lice laid crim­i­nal charges. Due process is now about to be­gin in Mel­bourne Mag­is­trates’ Court.

It’s an­other in­vol­un­tary leap for a powerful fig­ure whose clamp on his public agenda first loos­ened in 2002.

At the time, when al­le­ga­tions of abuse against him were aired — and sub­se­quently dis­missed by a re­tired Supreme Court judge in a church-con­sti­tuted in­quiry — Pell spoke of be­ing “ex­on­er­ated”.

Pell has since ap­peared at a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry, and re­peat­edly at a royal com­mis­sion, be­fore an au­di­ence of abuse sur­vivors who re­flex­ively hiss, howl and heckle.

He has al­ways fronted these fo­rums as a church leader.

The ques­tions and crit­i­cisms per­tained to his re­sponses to sex­ual abuse.

Yes­ter­day’s de­vel­op­ments are un­charted ter­ri­tory, as the car­di­nal now faces a crim­i­nal court, not a church in­quiry.

The al­le­ga­tions de­mand public scru­tiny of Pell’s own his­tory.

The Vat­i­can’s Pre­fect of the Sec­re­tar­iat for the Econ­omy, and a Com­pan­ion of the Or­der of Aus­tralia, will be obliged to leave these and his other ti­tles along­side the metal de­tec­tors at the door of the Wil­liam St com­plex.

Here, he will be Ge­orge Pell, 76, of Rome, ver­sus the Crown.

Armed with one of the best QCs in the coun­try, he will en­gage in the big­gest fight of his pro­fes­sional and pri­vate life.

In the 1990s, Pell — then arch­bishop of Mel­bourne — instituted his Mel­bourne Re­sponse, a capped com­pen­sa­tion scheme for church abuse vic­tims.

In 2002, Pell com­manded the blind sup­port of public fig­ures from then prime min­is­ter John Howard down. They did not need to test the ev­i­dence when a middle-aged man floated long-ago al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual of­fend­ing.

Back then, Pell felt free to cat­a­logue so­ci­ety’s sins, from same-sex unions to con­tra­cep­tion, un­teth­ered from the pae­dophilia rot within his church.

At the time, he said that abor­tion was a “worse moral scan­dal than priests sexually abus­ing young peo­ple”.

At­ti­tudes have changed — Pell him­self has ad­mit­ted as much.

Yes­ter­day, public lead­ers mum­bled pro­nounce­ments about pre­sump­tions of in­no­cence and the course of jus­tice. They played safe — Pell, af­ter all, is the big­gest Catholic fig­ure in Aus­tralian life since Mel­bourne arch­bishop Daniel Man­nix, whose statue stands out­side St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral.

Pell has been a moral tal­is­man for con­ser­va­tive lead­ers and an em­blem for a be­sieged church — as such, he has dou­bled as a bulls­eye.

He was long de­tested by el­e­ments within the church, in­clud­ing his pre­de­ces­sor as Mel­bourne arch­bishop, Frank Lit­tle, in death la­belled (by Pell, among oth­ers) as a pro­tec­tor of pae­dophile priests.

Pell’s ca­reer, at home at least, has been rocked by al­le­ga­tions of sys­temic church cover-ups.

His foun­da­tion story speaks of a pub up­bring­ing and foot­balling prow­ess, and a cheery way with kids.

From Bal­larat, this point of fact un­picks any easy telling of Pell’s life. Bal­larat was the

cesspit of priestly pae­dophilia. Pell lived for a time with Ger­ald Rids­dale, the for­mer priest who ex­ploited his trusted po­si­tion to be­come one of the most shame­less abusers of chil­dren in mod­ern his­tory.

Pell has al­ways main­tained that he did not know. What he did or did not know, and what he ought to have done, are the kind of provoca­tive ques­tions that of­fer Lindy Cham­ber­lain­like bar­be­cue ap­peal.

Un­der ques­tion­ing, he has blamed er­rant in­di­vid­u­als, such as Lit­tle and Bal­larat bishop Ron­ald Mulkearns, for the per­pet­u­a­tion of pae­dophile scan­dals. Bad peo­ple, it was, not bad sys­tems.

Pell him­self was guilty of noth­ing, he seemed to say, ex­cept hope­less in­cu­rios­ity born of vault­ing am­bi­tion.

Un­til yes­ter­day, Pell was os­ten­si­bly an observer and fa­cil­i­ta­tor in the process of knowl­edge and re­form.

He framed his role as pro­tec­tor and saviour.

“Car­di­nal Pell has al­ways helped vic­tims, lis­tened to them and con­sid­ered him­self their ally,” his of­fice said early last year. Pell had “led from the front to put an end to cover-ups, to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple and to try and bring jus­tice to vic­tims”.

Sur­vivors of sex abuse have nom­i­nated Pell as an ob­sta­cle to progress. They have queried his pri­or­i­ties.

In the court of public opin­ion, Chrissie Foster and her late hus­band An­thony, whose daugh­ters were abused by the same priest, skew­ered him with their quiet dig­nity.

Other vic­tims, es­pe­cially from Bal­larat, in­vari­ably pause on hear­ing Pell’s name, be­fore scowl­ing. Per­haps a sin­gle im­age is more damn­ing than any tale — it shows Pell ac­com­pa­ny­ing Rids­dale to court in 1993. Pell later called this de­ci­sion a “mis­take”.

Pell is cler­i­cal of tone. Sur­vivors say he re­duces life­long emo­tional scars to le­gal ab­strac­tions, and oozes lofti­ness when they seek warmth. In Rome, when the royal com­mis­sion roadshow came to him, com­plete with trav­el­ling sur­vivors, a new word was coined — “apel­logy”.

Pell yes­ter­day said that he wanted to “clear his name” as soon as pos­si­ble. Un­til due process is com­pleted, he might fall back on the “Catholic con­vic­tions” he said sus­tained him dur­ing the “dark weeks” of abuse al­le­ga­tions in 2002.

Or seek guid­ance in the for­bid­ding stare of Daniel Man­nix.

CLOCKWISEFROMABOVE Car­di­nal Pell, with Ger­ald Rids­dale (left) in a 2002 tele­vi­sion in­ter­view; with Pope Fran­cis at the Synod Hall in 2015; with Pope John Paul II in Oc­to­ber 2003; and at the open­ing mass for World Youth Day in Syd­ney in 2008.


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