BE­YOND BE­LIEF

A new book on George Pell is fair-minded yet foren­sic, writes Ger­ard Wind­sor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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