A new book on George Pell is fair-minded yet forensic, writes Gerard Windsor
Two confessions. First, I’m a practising, albeit sinful, Catholic. Second, I’ve crossed swords, in print, with George Pell. So, is the lengthening charge sheet against the cardinal merely a vast smear campaign? In particular, is it one fuelled by a fierce antipathy to religion, to Christianity, and especially to Catholicism?
Certainly there is a stark contemporary context for this public indictment. By virtue of his status as a cardinal, his uncompromising personality and his position in the Vatican, Pell is perceived as the representative Australian Catholic. And that too at a time when the Catholic Church is seen as the major obstacle to a raft of proposed liberal social reforms: euthanasia bills before the NSW and Victorian parliaments, an abortion liberalisation bill in NSW, and the nationwide marriage equality debate.
The logic is obvious: discredit Pell and you discredit Catholic opinion on these issues. It’s a knockout blow.
Certainly we are seeing widespread expressions of the feeling that the Catholic Church has lost any right to be dictating, or even joining a discussion, on moral issues. There are secular zealots barracking shrilly as each new nail is hammered into the Pell coffin. And you know that it’s not simply justice they’re after.
Where then does that leave the motivation and practice of anyone who is involved in putting together that charge sheet?
Louise Milligan’s Cardinal is a very extensive outgrowth of a program that she did for ABC TV’s last year. The book is carefully presented; the reader is immediately nudged towards an impression that Milligan is, let’s say, no David Marr. She’s an insider and can think warmly of Catholics.
So the blurb ends, ‘‘Milligan is Irish-born and was raised a devoted Catholic.’’ More seductive — not least because we come to believe it is so Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell By Louise Milligan MUP, 384pp, $34.99 heartfelt — is the book’s dedication: Dad, a fine man and a believer.’’
So, although we expect a 384-page hatchet job, we wonder if we’re just being lulled by this preliminary softening-up. Or is it all more nuanced than that?
I can only say that Milligan increasingly wins my confidence. For a start, she’s fond of the phrase ‘‘ To be fair to ... ’’, and it’s used to admit that other circumstances need to be taken into account, that she’s willing to allow the defence to make its point.
There’s both a fair-mindedness and a range of empathy, even compassion, on display here. So, for example, when Pell was accused in 2002 of having molested a boy, Phil Scott, in 1961, John Howard and Tony Abbott sprang to Pell’s defence. Milligan comments that they did so before they knew any details of the case.
Then she says, ‘‘It’s a fascinating and pervasive social phenomenon and not one you can re- ‘‘For my