Chris Geraghty. Farewell to Pell

It was sad and painful, and no satisfaction, sitting at home in front of a computer, watching a senior prelate stagger around, wounded and bleeding. I sat glued to the screen, mesmerized, fiercely proud of our legal system, and watched a prince of the Church in humble street-clothes being tormented.

George Pell, Cardinal Archbishop, sat there day after day, an image of King Lear, a broken man, weary, slow and incompetent, a man who had spent his life climbing the greasy clerical pole, now at the tail-end of his life, being forced to answer questions and to confront his conscience, summoning hollow logic to assist in his defence, thrashing about blaming others, constructing academic distinctions, trying to exculpate himself and deflect the load which will inevitably be heaped upon him. His private secretary, Dr Casey, Mr John Davoren, the elderly man and ex-priest who used to be in charge of the healing service of the archdiocese, and Monsignor Brian Rayner, his former chancellor – all muddlers, all incompetent and unable to provide an accurate version of events, while he was macro-managing the show with his hands off the wheel. The board of any public company would have long since called for the resignation of its CEO.

His time in Sydney was at an end and the cardinal was heading off to the Vatican to take control of a bank in trouble and of the finances of a giant, international organization. Let’s hope he asks more questions over there than he did at St Mary’s. He was in charge. He was the boss. The orchestra was under his direction.  At the beginning of the hearing, even years before, Pell should had put his hands in the air and confessed. “I made bad choices. Very bad. Me. I received bad advice and accepted it. I allowed wounded people to be tormented. They were my mistakes – and they have had truly awful consequences.”

As the days wore on and the archbishop grew tired, I began to understand a little of how the man’s brain worked. Slowly. Some confusions. Circles and dead-ends. Non sequiturs. Fending off blows, protecting himself. Appeals to trivial logic in the face of catastrophe. I could see how he came to be a man-made climate change denier, why over the years he had not given a lead on the many ethical and moral issues which were confronting our nation, why he had led the English-speaking world back to the old, fossilized and awkward formulae of the Mass, why he had not even mentioned the name of Father Ted Kennedy when he opened the Jesuit school for aborigines in Redfern, why he was unable to comprehend that his placement of Neo-Cats in Redfern had been a mistake and needed to be remedied, why he had not inspired his Sydney brethren to faith and action, why he had failed to engage the general community and had preferred to identify with the conservative, reactionary forces of times now past. He was dull. Colourless. Distant. Pugnacious. Yesterday’s man. Some might even say dumb. Now, for a few days, we were able to look behind the figure on the plinth, observing a king without his finery, seeing the man behind the frills and furbelows.  It was frightening to see how the system worked – and riveting.

Not so long ago, the cardinal had been on television complaining that his Church was being singled out, treated unfairly by the mass media, picked on and persecuted, and stating that in comparison with other institutions,  his organization was not doing so badly in the pedophile stakes. He quoted figures and percentages. Until recently, he just hadn’t got it. Maybe he still hasn’t. But in the witness-box, he was prepared to criticize his blind brothers in the Vatican. They were even slower and duller than their clerical counterparts in Australia. The team in Rome, against all advice, still thought that the pedophile scandal was largely a conspiracy perpetrated by enemies and haters of the Church. In the end, one can only conclude that the guys in Rome must be really dumb if they are thicker than the ones we have been in charge here.

From his evidence, it was clear that Pell was desperate to regulate the outflow from the Church’s financial dam of assets. He wanted to remain in charge of the show. After all, the Roman Catholic Church was different – powerful, independent, international. A history going back centuries. Its own language, structures, legal system, customs and practices. Tax exemptions and immense political influence. She has always been treated as special.

The cardinal thought that the proper tariff for something like the effects of pedophilia was somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 dollars. A hundred thousand was far too much. The $750,000 later being claimed by Ellis in his court case was simply ridiculous. Let’s keep this in perspective, and in our own back-yard. We can contain the damage. One of his major jobs was to conserve the assets of the Church.

But the complaints, the claims and the outrage was always going to break out into the real world. It was naïve and silly to imagine that this scandal, causing profound and lasting damage, was not going to find its way into the public arena. Wait until the secular courts of the real world begin to make just awards in the millions. Whoever advised Pell of the appropriate tariff for these claims was a buff-head.

I was amused to watch the interplay between the secular and the sacred, to see a member of the judiciary and his foot-soldiers enforcing the values of compassion and justice on one of our religious leaders. The archbishop was insisting on the Church’s rights before the law, on proper legal process, on legally acceptable avoidance mechanisms, on forensic niceties, while the secular, judicial arm of government kept taking him back to the message of Jesus and the Temple money-changers. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world…..” A hard lesson to learn at the top-end of one’s life, confronted with a message you had preached for years from the pulpits of two major cities. The institution and the prelate in charge were on the rack, quizzed by the state’s Torquemada as he explored the implications of the message of Jesus and of a life well lived. The red slipper was supposed to be on the other foot.

But what should the archbishop have done? How could he have redeemed himself just days before he was abandoning his flock to take up a cushy appointment in the Holy City?

It would have been difficult and humiliating, especially for a cardinal, but the moment he entered the witness-box and swore the oath to tell the truth, he should have looked the viewers, the commissioner and all Sydney-siders in the eye and told them that he was truly ashamed of what he had done, of the choices he had made, the instructions he had given and leadership he had provided.

“I am truly ashamed. I have proved to be a slow learner, as my brother bishops also have been.  I have neglected my duties, grievously. I turned my back on the needy. To the wounded, I failed to show understanding and compassion. I was deaf to the message of the Gospel that I preach.  The damage had been caused by my Church. It was my responsible to do all I could to support the victims and remedy the scandal. I failed. Even now I am just at the start of a troubling journey. Insight is beginning to dawn. So late. I am beginning to get it, but for me it has been a slow and painful process, and my mistakes have compounded the damage. Before leaving my people to continue my life in Rome, I want to spend the remaining few days exploring the possibility of reconciling with the Fosters and with Mr Ellis who have suffered unspeakable heartache. I am hoping they will show more compassion, more generosity to me than I was prepared to show them. I want to go to them humbly, cast myself on their mercy and seek their forgiveness.”

Maybe he can do it. Sincerely, I hope so, for their sake, and for his. But the signs were not favorable. When he left the box at the end of his evidence on Thursday, the archbishop walked past Ellis without even a friendly glance of recognition.

Pell exposed himself before the commission as the prize muddler par excellence. A tragic figure. I positioned myself at the back row of  les arenes,  and watched the commissioner and his cool, analytical counsel-assisting teasing the witness, delivering wounding blows at will, drawing blood, playing with their prey, delaying to the end  their final thrust into the very heart of an old bull already mortally wounded, standing beaten and defense-less in the centre of the ring.

Farewell George Pell. We wish you well in Rome, in the twilight of your career. I am sure that Sydney was not exactly what you had expected, and that there is still more to come before you’re finished.

Chris Geraghty is a retired NSW District Court Judge and formerly a Catholic priest. 

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21 Responses to Chris Geraghty. Farewell to Pell

  1. Father John George says:

    There is something pathetic about Woodstock fogies settling old scores against hierarchy,The former clearly still licking now geriatric wounds of yore-and something despicable in laying the boot into the vulnerable with impunity since it is the flavour of the month. Grow up guys!

  2. Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, Chris, for a valuable analysis. My only reservation is that you might have more explicitly dealt with the immorality and criminality of bishops protecting paedophile priests; failing to report these alleged criminals to the Police and, worse, transferring them to new parishes where they could again groom and abuse young children. This was not apparently at issue in the Ellis/Duggan case and Cardinal Pell was fortunate that it was not raised. The Royal Commission will no doubt invite +Pell back in another context to explain how Christ’s church could take such decisions and why the Church has not attempted to ask itself this question. The answer is clearly the inability of the Church to face up to the massive changes required in structure, culture and personnel, requiring particularly the full inclusion of women, in order to get back to its mission of modelling the teachings of Christ.

  3. Peter Anson says:

    There is ” something despicable in laying the boot into the vulnerable with impunity”. Something that has escaped George Pell completely.
    I don’t wish him well in Rome or anywhere.

  4. Michael Willis says:

    That is ironic. I thought it was George Pell who has been shown up this week as “laying the boot into the vulnerable with impunity”… Not Mr Geraghty!
    Where in the hierarchy is the sympathy for Mr Ellis, the apology and compassion for victims?

  5. Mark Porter says:

    so after what Richard Ackland (SMH) appropriately called Pell’s ‘slitherings’ what is there left to believe in?

  6. Thanks Chris for the analysis and the wit. Enjoyable reading and some balance to the official Canonical tripe issued since Pell was moved to infest Sydney. It is still a mystery to me as to why Catholics generally took any notice of his reign.

  7. Graham English says:

    Thanks from me too Chris. I’ve been away and took a few days to see this piece. I fear Sydney will take a long time to get over the failed Pell experiment and fear too that the new man, if chosen with the same criteria as Pell was, could just make things worse.

  8. Doc says:

    Much of what is said here & in the comments is just abuse. As for the legal system, we need a national approach to this problem. A ‘Tribunal’ in the Federal Court based on restorative justice principles where ‘compensation’ is holistic.
    & I’m not sure Fr Kennedy wld like to see the Jesuits in Redfern!
    & pls have a look what Joseph Camobell has to say about the post vatican 2 Mass.

  9. Graham English says:

    Joseph Campbell said some thoughtful things but he was not a practising Catholic. He didn’t go to Mass and it was not part of his spiritual being. Anthropologists and others have useful observations to make but when it comes to things like the Mass I’d rather listen to those that go than those who merely observe.

  10. Graham English says:

    PS Ted Kennedy was educated by the Jesuits and I remember him having various Jesuits saying Mass at Redfern. And they were both welcomed by him and very good at what they were doing. One lived at Redfern for a while in the 1970s. I clearly remember one of them stepping between two men fighting and for days after wearing a bandage around the knife wound in his arm.

  11. Good work, Chris. As I said to Keiran, and as you imply, I thought it was Pell at his worst – admitting all sorts of stuff – changing nothing – before he hopped in the plane for Rome leaving the whole mess of pain, which he exacerbated, behind him in the colonies.

  12. Doc says:

    Campbell never ‘stopped’ being a Catholic. It permeated all of his work. His work is substantial. But he did say the Church made it too hard to find what is there to be found. In his last months he re-discovered the Church through a small wood figurine on the wall of his hospital of Christ reaching out. ‘That’s it, that’s it’. He started taking communion again.
    Fr Kennedy would happily work with a Jesuit but not the Order as such.

  13. Tom Doyle says:

    This is totally on target. Pell’s behavior, finally revealed, and his bizarre attitude that prompted the behavior, present a grotesque and revolting picture of a man who has taken the office given him into the depths of degradation. He is a disgrace as a priest, bishop and person.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Just a passing remark by you Chris re the Neo-Cats in Redfern. However, I can’t let it pass without mentioning the name Fr. Peter Carroll msc. “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” or, in this case REDFERN PARISH,. Thank God that is what Fr. Peter Carroll msc was able to do. Redfern Parish had a great man sent to them and they were unable to comprehend that fact.

  15. Wayne McMillan says:

    As usual Chris has some interesting comments to make about Pell. Can I say that George Pell has been very lucky, unlike many of the victims of clerical abuse. However I continue to pray for him and the hierarchy of the Australian Catholic Church that they will heed Bishop Robinson’s warnings for the future and listen to someone who is more interested in the future of the Catholic Church, than keeping up the appearance of being Christian.

  16. MedusaKnows says:

    “something despicable in laying the boot into the vulnerable with impunity” ~ Fr John George

    Yes, just ask John Ellis and thousands of other clergy abuse victims of the church’s ‘mercy’.

  17. Hanora Brennan says:

    I’m so glad the Fosters are finally getting their long overdue credit for their courage and determination in making the RCC accountable for their grievous crimes against their family and humanity.

  18. Pat Garnet says:

    The only future I comprehend for the catholic church is extinction. Why on earth would society need to be reminded of these heretics? Where in all of this mess have Jesus words “whatsoever you do unto others you also do unto me” been performed? I admire a man whose hands appear to at some time in his life, done some hard days work. The mentality of many in earlier comments have spent far too long trying to justify a group of people who have no qualms about using people as fodder for their objective which is power and money, and left victims of sexual abuse to suffer. The arrogance as shown by Pell and his conspirators is borne out in the community now shunning them because we no longer TRUST them. Surely it’s a joke that these people believe in God and hereafter. No intelligent person can accept that if you tell one of these rogues you have indulged in criminal behaviour you will go to heaven when you die. Stay focused on the issue which is the catholic church protected paedophiles and covered-up this crime and they have finally been caught out. Again I ask ‘why would you in your wildest dreams resurrect this organisations which has now been exposed as EVIL?

  19. Barney Zwartz says:

    I too am grateful for this piece. It is easy to condemn Pell, and I have certainly criticised his actions and attitudes. Like many, I longed for him to face forensic examination. But when it came, there was also something awful and sad and grotesque and disturbing, as Chris says. Such was the cocoon in which “His Eminence” wrapped himself that I wonder whether he still sees, or accepts, quite how low he has fallen. I strongly doubt it, even though he was prepared to tear the cocoon to shreds to protect his self-image.

  20. Lynne Newington says:

    Picking up on Wayne McMillan’s reference to Geoffery Robinson in particular, I have wondered if he has been, or likely to come before the Royal Commission considering his role for nearly a decade in Australasia’s Encompass Program, where clergy who had admitted to abuse and paedophilia were never reported to police, mandatory in NSW.
    Gordon Moyes, whose facility was used by the Catholic BIshops Conference when approached stated that confidentialities were secondary to the safety of children.

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