Chris Geraghty. The Pell Factor

Sydney is vacant again, and many of the faithful are breathing a huge sigh of relief, though at the back of our minds lurks a suspicion mixed with fear that we will be saddled, for a long time to come, with a little repellent clone of the great man.

George is off to Rome – where he belongs. It’s a move long overdue. Some years ago, perhaps in anticipation of this journey, he built a home for himself close to the Vatican – a suite of rooms in Casa Australiana just waiting for him to appear with his baggage. Rumors have abounded for some years of his imminent appointment to some job or other over there. Now as head of the Vatican Finance Department, a supranational Hockey Joe, he can do little harm, and maybe he can do some good for humanity, for the Church.

But this is not the change the Vatican needed and the faithful have been crying out for.  This is only a medium force shake up. A mere rumble. The world has been waiting for, the faithful have been praying for the sound of the heavy, tectonic plates grinding and shifting under the chair of Peter. Hopefully there is more, much more, to come.

George is too old, too clerical and the wrong sex. The Pope does not need a Cardinal of advanced years or even an ordained priest to do the work involved. Someone younger, someone more experienced, more worldly, with a proven record of transparency and openness – ideally, a woman from the world of banking and finance – to bring the Vatican financial crisis out of the shadows into the modern world. This is an opportunity missed. Jobs for the boys – for the old boys. More of the same and we had been hoping for a sign to give us hope, to bring a smile to our face and put a spring in our step. A smile – yes – but for a completely different reason.

But it could have been worse. At least George has the necessary personality, if not all the credentials to do the job. He’s proved himself to be reasonably good administrator. Not so good a pastor or a leader of men. Not a man with a natural ability to choose the right man for a job. Sydney and Australia have suffered from his choices to fill episcopal positions. Some of the shoulders he has placed his hand upon have belonged to company men with limited capacities. And the most senior prelate in Australia, together with the team he has captained, has proven himself unable to provide strong moral leadership and guidance to the nation. They have all remained inexplicably mute, and in the face of constant provocation. They have not contributed in any significantly way to a national debate on critical moral issues such as the cruel and inhuman treatment of refugees by both major political parties, the tragedy of the dispossession of Aboriginals, the neglect of the growing psychiatric illness in general and particularly among Australia’s young (a national scandal), the secrecy in government, the bad behaviour of politicians in the Parliament itself, bullying in schools and in the workplace, even among politicians, the drinking and drug culture, a policy of preference for the poor and underprivileged, working poor, the obscene expansion of the rich class land an uneven distribution of wealth, the crass and unprincipled materialism of many government policies, a search for happiness, the inadequacy of our overseas relief  contributions – the list is long.

While in Sydney, the Cardinal was energetic in defending dogmatic utterances of the Church, the authority of Rome and the integrity of a monolithic Church, condemning abortion and homosexuality, but he did not prove to be an effective, attractive religious or moral leader.  Too churchy. Too reactionary. Too authoritarian. An eminent friend of the establishment. Too close to money and to power.

But most people would agree that George can get things done. He’s determined. He’s decisive. No shilly-shallying. Somewhat heavy-handed. And by reputation, he can bully with the best. Maybe he will be able to uncover corruption in the ranks and execute some clerical thugs. I don’t expect, on Rome’s past record, that these men (I presume they are all men, like they are in New South Wales) will be given a fair hearing in open court with their name spread about on the front pages of Osservatore Romano.

Perhaps he could have done much damage in other portfolios – choosing bishops for the world, conducting show-trials of dissident theologians, putting American nuns on the rack – but in this portfolio, so far away from the message and spirit of Jesus, George might shine. Let us hope so.

And now, closer to home – with the See of Sydney vacant. The last time, the position was filled in the dead of night, without consultation. A fait accompli. The faithful of the Sydney archdiocese woke up in the morning and found that God had given them George. They were not happy and some of them have not forgotten. Now that is history and we have to get over it. Nevertheless, Rome did treat us badly, without respect, high-handedly.

Now let the new process begin. We know what Pope Francis is looking for in a bishop – someone close to the people. A pastor who has the whiff of sheep on hardened hands, sheep droppings between his toes, the oily feel of wool embedded in his clothes. Someone who hears the bleating and knows his sheep by name, who will spend the night in the cold mountains in search of the lost one. Happy. Humorous. Intelligent. Outgoing and outspoken. A true believer, deeply spiritual. With an interest in the world, in literature, poetry, drama or music – it doesn’t matter, but someone who is not enclosed in a clerical club, looking for the first place at the tables of the rich. These men are not easy to find. You have to look far and wide. But the people of Sydney can help Pope Francis find the right man. The gene pool is ridiculously limited, to men, to old men, to clerical men. But some have escaped the mould and grown against the grain, into real people who can lead us out of the desert, refresh us, create a world of the Spirit and make us proud again to be recognized as Catholics. I am sure many Catholics, men and women, young and old, stand ready to lend a hand.


Dr Chris Geraghty is a former priest of the archdiocese of Sydney, a retired judge of the District Court of NSW, and the author of a recent publication, Virgins and Jezebels – the Origins of Christian Misogyny.

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9 Responses to Chris Geraghty. The Pell Factor

  1. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    Not a possibilty the next man sharing the spirit of Pope Francis, that only happens when becoming pope where they receive a clean slate and a new name.

  2. Avatar Edward Fido says:

    I would hope the man who succeeds Cardinal Pell in Sydney shares something of the spirit of Pope Francis. That is a big ask. Academic qualifications and administrative abilities are not the same thing. Francis is as conservative as Pell. Of that I have little doubt. It is the way he does things which moves people. He seems to see outside the normal clerical perspective. In this he resembles Jesus. As far as the laity having a say in selecting the new cardinal goes I am not sure whether it will happen this time. The mere involvement of the laity in choosing a bishop – as happens in the Anglican Church here – is no guarantee that the right candidate will be chosen. Other factors need to be involved. I would consider the promptings of the Holy Spirit would be paramount. This cannot be merely assumed. Perhaps, as I believe is supposed to happen in the Orthodox Church, no enthronement of a bishop should take place without the general acclamation of his congregation. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of the Ecumenical Patriarchate detailed one instance in recent times where the congregation shouted “Anaxios” (“Unworthy”). The enthronement went ahead anyway. Metropolitan Kallistos raised, but did not answer, the question whether the bishop could then be considered to have been validly consecrated. It would be nice if the Catholic Church followed this practice of congregational endorsement which I believe to be an ancient and valid one. Obviously non-endorsing a bishop must be for only the most serious issues: not merely personal ones. Pope Francis appears to have opened the Church to real change. How long it will take to filter through to Australia is a moot point. Many Catholics are hoping for change at the deepest level of the Church here. That is an enormous, but not insuperable, task. It is also a spiritual, not an administrative one. Administration should always serve the spiritual purpose of the Church. I think the old adage “Ecclesia semper reformanda”(“The Church is always to be reformed”) is apt here.

  3. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    I’ll be surprised if that little repellant clone isn’t Anthony Fisher. Then it will be the three amigos , Pell, Abbott and himself running church and country.
    In fact I recall Fisher gloating once before when during the Keating years, we had a Catholic Prime Minister, Governor General and High Court Judge all at one time.This time the team is more powerful taking care of all aspects of our lives, Catholic or not.

  4. Avatar vivien says:

    Wonderful analysis, Chris. As a country girl I love the last paragraph. And country people are starved of good and encouraging leadership, from one end of the land to the other – with barely a light in between.

  5. Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

    Chris, Thank you for an frank and fearless appraisal of the current situation in the Archdiocese of Sydney. Lets hope the winds of positive change come to Sydney and soon!

  6. Avatar Denis Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks for the analysis, but I suggest that your use in the opening para of the phrase ‘a little repellent clone of the great man’ offends against charity and good manners. Surely, to move forward, we need dialogue and not abuse?

  7. Avatar Mark Porter says:

    and so say all of us…….by the waters of Babylon our harps are still hanging and waiting.

  8. Avatar Brian Coyne says:

    Brilliant analysis, Chris, but one expects it will all flow over our leaders like water off a duck’s back. You have spurred me to make a suggestion that I was going to make on the Catholica forum yesterday. In fact I went to the trouble of sourcing his credentials and formatting them to place on the forum and then I got cold feet because it is almost too cruel to wish this role on any person, particularly one who is already 73 years of age and more than probably looking forward to “fade away into obscurity” as Emeritus Metropolitan of Western Australia, Barry Hickey, claimed he wanted to do. As you suggest, Chris, the gene pool is not looking flash. I’ve been trying to put some of the genes under a microscope and I think there might be two possibilities in the available pool of talent [ ] without looking to some miracle of someone being elevated from the ranks of ordinary priests. I’ve previously mentioned one and that is Bill Wright who might be “a pastor who has the whiff of sheep on hardened hands, sheep droppings between his toes, the oily feel of wool embedded in his clothes”.

    The other is the only Jesuit in the ranks of the Australian bishops, Greg O’Kelly SJ, the present bishop of Port Pirie. And there is a precedent here: our first cardinal, Norman Gilroy, served out his apprenticeship as a Bishop in Port Pirie. Greg O’Kelly has had administrative experience leading some of the biggest boarding schools in the nation and from his time in Sydney as headmaster of Riverview would be very familiar with the culture in NSW. Here’s his biographical information from the diocesan website and a video to give some idea of what he looks and sounds like. The only reason I hesitated placing this on Catholica yesterday, as I said, is that it’s a job you would hardly wish on your worst enemy, particularly given the low morale the church has been reduced to in recent decades.

    For those interested you’ll find his full biographical information and a video over on the Catholica forum at:

  9. Great article Chris. Excellent work. It is strange that in a Christian organization the job criteria which Pell will fill well are those of, as you point out: tough guy, aged man, Vatican acolyte etc but none of the qualities of the New Testament, like Christlike, humble, poor, meek etc. And filling the vacancy? Most of the people who eagerly accepted the jobs from the Vatican recently are too georgian to be the genuinely right man. There is a scary thought that Francis could chose the bishop from South Australia who used be a Jesuit. Absit.

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