Why did so many people dislike Cardinal George Pell? It is possibly because he had the opportunity to show leadership but chose instead to reflect power and intransigence. He could have shown compassion and been a unifying force. Instead, he will be remembered as a divisive and damaging figure.
At the start of this millennium something happened in the balance between Australia’s two largest cities. In one fateful week the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne headed north to reform sinful Sydney while a senior police officer from New South Wales headed south to tackle the criminals of Victoria. Such crossings are not unusual in literature with both Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses) and David Lodge (Changing Places) using the device, although in Rushdie’s case the characters’ planes collided.
As far as an outsider can tell, the female police commissioner performed well. The Catholic archbishop – a staunch defender of male privilege in the Church – became a controversial figure. I was never an admirer of the man or his ideas.
Cardinal Pell always said that he wanted the truth to be known about allegations of clerical sexual abuse, both against him and against others for whom he had responsibility. He also asserted that when entering a church, there was no need to leave your brain at the door. Unfortunately, it has been my observation that Pell had a very particular understanding of what constitutes ‘truth’.
The first inkling of Pell’s idea of truth and accuracy emerged in his testimony to a Victorian inquiry. There he said that Melbourne’s scheme for compensating victims of sexual abuse was the most generous in the world. Two points were obvious here. First, he assumed that the inquiry would accept his assertion without statistical evidence. Secondly, media reporting his testimony did not find anything there to analyse. They seemed to have a blind spot where he was concerned. Nor should the relative merits of a particular scheme be much comfort to victims in a world where many churches continue to resist their collective responsibilities.
Perhaps Pell was not the sole embodiment of conservatism, but he was a staunch defender of archaic traditions. During his time at the top, the door was firmly shut on the possibility of women’s ordination. Rationally, I could not in all conscience sit in a church with my partner, knowing that she – despite the sophistry about women being equal but different – was not entitled to the same rights as I.
Media also seemed not to notice when Pell assured a court that he simply ‘couldn’t have’ been alone with an altar boy. He said this was not his routine when entering the sacristy. Well, religious belief is inextricably linked to things that could not have happened. The religious – particularly fundamentalists -believe in miracles. For a cardinal to resort to this supposed reasoning from what can and cannot happen seems specious at best.
It is interesting to see the men who have sprung to Pell’s defence. Prominent among them have been a former Liberal premier and former Liberal Prime Minister. Tony Abbott was noted for his honesty about dishonesty. He answered an interview question with an admission that he sometimes told lies. This was no great confession for a politician. He then asserted that anything he wrote was true or any time he spoke from notes. This claim was of course made ad lib and not from notes! The episode made him prone to the ‘liar’s paradox’. How can you tell when I am lying or telling the truth? Certainly not when I say I am.
Other observers might draw attention to the Liberal Party’s ‘woman problem’ and link the attitudes of these senior party figures to conservative Catholic views. I do note that both of these Pell supporters undertake excellent volunteer work in their post-politics lives. It is likely that Pell had some influence on their decisions to give back to the community. Everyone has their good side. Apparently Pell was highly regarded as a forensic accountant. Perhaps goodness is not always immediately evident in those who wield autocratic power and justify their policies in the name of a Christ who died humbly, selflessly and in poverty.