The cardinal rose above the accusations levelled against him
Less than two weeks after the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, another prominent senior Catholic has died: Cardinal George Pell, who was 81, died yesterday in Rome following complications from surgery.
Pell’s reputation was that of an enthusiastic pugilist, an old-fashioned plain-speaking Australian who defended the Catholic Church with a verve and wit that is not always in evidence among archbishops. In his youth he played Aussie rules football, an aggressive and fast-paced sport requiring considerable physical presence and courage. During his time as the Archbishop of Sydney (the senior bishop Down Under) he earned many enemies with his confident advocacy for Catholic teaching; the comedian Tim Minchin — a man who combines slavish adherence to every contemporary orthodoxy with a supposed love of freethinking — was a particularly strong critic.
But there was another side to him. As with Joseph Ratzinger, the public image of an intolerant enforcer was entirely false. Years ago I heard him speak in London, at a special Mass to mark the completion of renovation works at St Patrick’s Soho Square. He gave the impression of being a thoughtful, devout and big-hearted man, with a good line in self-deprecating humour.
Then, of course, there was the remarkable grace and serenity with which he endured his prosecution and imprisonment on false charges of child abuse. The almost inexplicable conviction, bizarrely upheld by the Australian Court of Appeal, was finally overturned by the High Court in 2020, after Pell had already spent more than a year in jail. Nevertheless, the three volumes of prison diaries that he published after his release are free from rancour, self-pity and blame. They show deep spiritual wisdom. This despite many years of what could plausibly be regarded as police harassment; one journalist described the years of investigation that preceded his charges and trial as a “fishing expedition”.
In Catholic circles it was widely speculated that there was a connection between Pell’s prosecution and his previous role in Rome, in charge of sorting out the Vatican’s labyrinthine and often chaotic finances. Allegedly he was beginning to uncover serious corruption and graft, and so his legal troubles were engineered as a way of removing him from the picture. Pell himself never repeated these charges. All the same, he did undoubtedly make significant progress in cleaning up Vatican finances, and that must be considered part of his legacy.
By all accounts, Pell was not the sort of man who would wish for unrealistic and sycophantic tributes. He did have his faults. His interjections into the climate change debate were perhaps unwise, allowing him to be painted as a Right-wing pundit — which he was not. More seriously, while he was certainly not personally guilty of child abuse, like many senior clerics of his generation he had questions to answer about the institutional responses to child sex abuse during his tenure.
And yet, for all that, he was a good man, one who took a firm grip on the Church in Australia and helped it to face up to the challenges of the modern world.