George Pell: Enigma variations or the real thing?

Jan 29, 2023
Australian Cardinal George Pell poses at his office in the San Giovanni Tower at the Vatican on Oct.16, 2014. Image: Alamy

While opinion leaders, politicians and believers seek to package George Pell in words or in the crypt of St Mary’s Basilica I am interested in some unpacking, using two prys. Two questions.

One, how could an organisation appoint and sustain, in high office, a man whose ministrations seemed so much at variance with the values and the spirit of that organisation and its founder?

Secondly, what kind of persons, what powerful individuals supported and benefited from the rise of George Pell? He could not have done it alone. The two questions are quite connected.

Were there a job description for the office, selection criteria could be something like this.

Position vacant.

Opportunity for an ambitious Australian cleric. Reporting to The Vatican. The candidate for the position will:

Empathise with unfortunate people.

Will serve rather than dominate by amassing power and the possessions of privilege. (In housing travel, associates and diet etc.).

Will do unto others as they would wish to be done by.

Will live by love and compassion.

Will cultivate an active prayer life.

P.S. Experience in managing finance an asset And must be able to obey orders from HQ.

Not an easy gig. Especially in a large human organisation, hierarchical in structure, exclusionist in practice with its own monuments, costumes and rituals. A europocentric organisation composed of almost entirely one gender.

As a young seminarian I was confused by some of the behaviours in my house of study. I consulted a confessor from another house who told me ‘The just man lives by faith’ as an analgesic for the confusion.

I was trying to reconcile what I saw and what the organisation said it stood for.

Considering George Pell the quote can be rigged to state that the unjust man also lives by faith. A faith which works by denying or absolving aberrant behaviour as a way of maintaining a grip on that faith. If you can’t believe your eyes throw over the dissonant facts a quenching fire blanket of faith.

The unjust man lives by the faith of those who need to curate their fragile faith. And the unjust man will know they can rely on the trust of the biassed faithful.

Napoleon, Trump or Morrison could not do it alone. Nor could Pell. So who got him there? Well, for a start there is the mass of believers. There are others who stand to gain from the little mate.

The truism holds, it is ‘those you know rather than what you know’. And the ambitious person cultivates a strategically selected kitchen garden of powerful plants.

There are the investors in an older form of religion. Those who made sacrifices to live their lives by the letter of what the church taught. Then with the Second Vatican Council the rethink changed the rules, customs and policies.

This was too much for many who wanted to hold on to that old time religion. They felt betrayed in that they had lived by the green catechism. The Council turned all that on its head. What they were told were immutable, solid truths now downgraded or dropped.

You can understand their despair at their being reformed by authorities distant from themselves and so they dug in their heels to conserve, rather than serve or change.

Leadership, they say, is finding a procession to get in front of. And a procession of resentment, a sense of having been betrayed is always a safe bet. Just ask Donald Trump or Germany after the Treaty of Versailles.

Then there are the politicians after votes and media figures who wanted sales to carry their stories. If you could look like a friend of or get endorsement from Pell or Bob Santamaria or Don Bradman you could capture minds, hearts and wallets.

Howard knew this. Abbott knew this. Pell also knew this when he organised a Papal Knighthood for Rupert Murdoch. The Murdoch outlets canonised Pell before and after death.

Some would argue that Pope Francis must have trusted Pell when he when he appointed him to clean up the Vatical finances. There is no narrative that he chose Pell for his sanctity. He could have equally appointed Al Capone, Christopher Skase or Allan Bond. The job required toughness, the ability to manage money and power as Pell had demonstrated in the Sydney Archdiocese.

My impression is that Pell marshalled power by engaging with officials in the bureaucracy of the Vatican Curia.

Lastly, there are the clerics for whom Pell secured a purple jersey; his bishops. They needed to be insufficiently assertive to never challenge Pell and malleable enough to doing things his way. They were/are not great theologians or administrators nor good at liturgy. They are irreverently called ‘The Spice Girls’ for their devotion to incense, candles and lace surplices. They will be around for some time to oppose reform in the Catholic Church in Australia. That is unless Catholics take back some of the power given to the hierarchy.

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