Paul Collins. With “leaders” like these … !

For a committed Catholic George Pell’s evidence to the Royal Commission was excruciating to watch. It wasn’t just Pell himself with his turgid, wooden responses and lack of interest in appalling crimes against those whom Jesus called “the little ones.” It was also the kind of church his evidence laid bare where all responsibility was upward and accountability to the most vulnerable was non-existent. Here was a divine right, monarchical structure totally out of place in a modern democracy, an institution where everyone colluded to bestow an undeserved “sacred” status on the ordained.

Early in his evidence Pell was asked about the need for structural reform in the church to make sure that the abuse crisis could never happen again. He replied that the church was endowed with a “divine constitution” in which nothing structural could be changed. The whole problem was “original sin.” “I think the faults,” he said, “overwhelmingly have been personal faults, personal failures [of abuser priests] rather than structures.” In another answer he said: “I don’t think we need to abandon the traditional structures.”

This has always been his line. Theologically he lives in a church where nothing changes. It’s also “a boots and all” kind of Catholicism. “I urge a style which is a mite more confrontational and certainly much less conciliatory toward secular values. The Cross is a sign of contradiction,” he told a seminar at La Trobe University in 1988. His evidence to the Commission shows that he has not changed

Essentially Pell represents the ‘Santamaria interpretation’ of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Long before John Paul II began rolling back the Council reforms (the “reform of the reform” as its now called), Bob Santamaria was articulating a view that Catholicism had gone right off the rails after Vatican II in abandoning the old authoritarian, hierarchical, clerical, traditional model of the church.

Santamaria’s true métier was the absolutist church of the 1940s. He maintained that there was a terrible danger that Catholicism faced extinction. “The great historical crisis through which Christianity is obviously passing is either temporary or terminal.” If progressive Catholics had their way it would certainly be “terminal”. His aim, he said, was to settle “the outer parameters of doctrinal orthodoxy”. But lacking any genuine historical perspective, he set those parameters far too narrowly.

Pell was closely linked to Santamaria. He wrote in his magazine, AD 2000, and was a regular visitor to his (misnamed) Thomas More Centre in North Melbourne. “Cafeteria Catholics”, as we more progressive Catholics were called, were regularly denounced in AD 2000 and by Pell. Santamaria and his followers constantly undermined bishops and church structures (like the Melbourne Catholic Education Office) that did not accord with their narrow views on religious education.

Among the “cafeteria Catholics” were Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Mulkearns of Ballarat. It is true that these men must bear tremendous responsibility for failing to deal with the likes of Searson and Ridsdale. However, Little and Mulkearns were trying to establish a practice of faith that was relevant to the contemporary world in a structure in which all responsibility was upward to the Vatican. At least that is to their credit.

They would have seen Pell as representing the Santamaria/AD 2000 putsch and understandably wouldn’t have trusted him. It had nothing whatsoever to do with them fearing he would “out” them and be proactive in dealing with the abuse problem, as Pell insinuated to the Commission.

In a revealing answer to the Commission Pell spoke of the “sacking” of Little. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Archbishop Little was requested to submit his resignation,” he said innocently. What he didn’t tell the Commission was that the far right had been very active in Rome in the 1990s telling the Vatican that the Australian church was “out of control” with doctrinal and pastoral deviations and that it needed “strong, orthodox leadership”. Pell was the man to offer precisely that.

He was already known in Rome and had positions on two committees including the all-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition). Pell told the Commission it was the papal Nuncio, Franco Brambilla who got rid of Little, but in fact Rome, influenced by Pell’s supporters, was waiting for a chance to scuttle the archbishop. Little was ill in 1996 and they struck. Pell was waiting in the wings.

He was appointed to Melbourne in 1996 and then to Sydney in 2001. His task: clean up the Australian church. The result: a church in which practice rates have catastrophically declined (only about 8% of self-declared Catholics now attend Mass with any regularity), profound disillusionment in the Catholic community, much deepened since Pell’s evidence to the Commission, a faith which is now despised in the wider Australian community because of bishops’ failures to deal with child sexual abuse, an almost complete absence of episcopal leadership, with the man usually called “Australia’s leading Catholic” now widely derided, even hated. It’s going to take generations to rebuild the church’s reputation. Altogether, a complete disaster.

One final comment. Where have the current bishops been during Pell’s evidence? Not one popped his head above the parapet to offer a word of explanation. In many ways this is the greatest crisis Australian Catholicism has faced in its history, but the bishops are nowhere to be seen. Leadership? These guys don’t know what the word means.

Perhaps this is another result of Pell’s “leadership”?

Paul Collins is a Canberra-based historian, author and broadcaster.


Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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9 Responses to Paul Collins. With “leaders” like these … !

  1. Avatar Concealers of sexual abuse must be prosecuted. says:

    It is important to continue to promote public discussion on this issue.
    There are serious systemic structural issues that need to be urgently acted upon in Catholic Education Services and within in the Diocesean structures. In my evidence, based on working in Catholic Education Services in the past few years, placing faith in women to fix the problem is ‘not wise’. I have witnessed senior female, (and male) executives and principals turn a blind eye to sexual abuse and harassment by clergy and others and be later rewarded for their silence. Utilising the ‘blind spot’ and ignoring clergy abuse (of victims over 18) is later rewarded, in a number of ways including elevation to senior positions, increased salary, a car, an overseas trip and so on.

  2. Avatar Board of Governance selected by the Bishop in 2016 says:

    In 2016 in my diocese, the Board of Governance – Education has two lawyers (partners from the law firm the church uses) in senior positions. One is the chair and the other is the State Representative for the Catholic Education Council. There is urgent and serious need for reform.
    It is of great sadness to those who once respected the Catholic Church.
    Apart from the Diocesan P&F Chair position, it seems that persons are selected and removed from these positions at whim by the Bishop.

  3. Avatar Women are not the only answer. says:

    Thank you for making public your statement to the Royal Commission. There are serious systemic structural issues that need to be urgently acted upon. In my evidence based on working in Catholic Education Services in recent years, placing faith in women to ‘change is not a wise move’. I have witnessed senior female (and male) executives and principals turn a blind eye to sexual abuse and harassment by clergy and others. The ‘blind spot’ and ignoring of clergy abuse is often used as a promotional tool in future employent.
    I have witnessed three educated professional women in my diocese. One would loudly come into the office and say ‘What would you like me to hide today?’, the other would state that she was supporting the clergy as she was working for God, while the other strategically and actively (with the silent support of the executives and Bishop) bullied the victims and witnesses out of the education workplace.

  4. Avatar Concerned says:

    To begin change, I would suggest that each individual diocese should be made to be financially transparent by providing evidence to it parishioners of payments and bonuses to its executives and itemised legal fees.

  5. Avatar Dr John CARMODY says:

    Isn’t it the case that, in acting precipitately against the almost-completed plans of his fellow Bishops (about “Towards Healing”), the then Archbishop Pell had been told by Jeff Kennett that if Pall didn’t act, then he (the Premier) would? If this IS true, then how do we understand his apparent seeking of praise, in his Royal commission evidence for setting up the “Melbourne Response”.
    Whether or not the Cardinal was telling the real truth in that evidence (and it is obvious that many simply did not believe him), the essentials of his responses are that: (i) he utterly lacks human warmth and any sense of compassion; (ii) he constantly sought scapegoats and other to blame for his failures of curiosity of recognition of his moral responsibility; and (iii) that throughout his career (and self-evidently, he is a “careerist”, not a man of much “inner life”) he has been appointed to Church positions for which he was manifestly unfitted in that he seems to have no sense that every position (with its inherent power which increases up the hierarchy) also carries responsibilities: yet he either did not understand that fact or for mixed motives never chose to exercise them in the interests of others..

  6. Avatar Edward Fido says:

    Excellent, incisive and on the ball, Paul. The Catholic Church really needs to take this criticism on board. Otherwise they will really be lost in the wilderness for a very, very long time.

  7. One question is. Has his 1950s mindset been altered? Or is it still, as Paul Collins reflects, still in Santamaria world?

  8. Avatar Tony Smith says:

    Thank you for such plain, honest and I think, accurate comment, Paul.

  9. Avatar Graham English says:

    I’m bemused how many people think that because he has a PhD from Oxford that Pell is any kind of intellectual. As Paul says here he lacks any genuine historical perspective. George is an ideologue pure and simple as Santamaria was. They made a desert and they call it peace.

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