Paddy Agnew: ‘Cardinal sins: sex, scandal and the fall of a church giant’

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Paddy Agnew: ‘Cardinal sins: sex, scandal and the fall of a church giant’

Cardinal George Pell has been brought down by the courts – and his enemies in the Vatican


SARCASM: Marchers in yesterday’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney make their feelings felt about Cardinal Pell. Photo: Getty
SARCASM: Marchers in yesterday’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney make their feelings felt about Cardinal Pell. Photo: Getty

So, who actually contributed most to the dramatic downfall of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian Royal Commission or his enemies in the Holy See Curia?

When the world woke up on Tuesday morning to the news that Cardinal Pell had been found guilty of child sex abuse, there was worldwide consternation and anguish. In a decision that will be appealed, a court in Melbourne convicted Cardinal Pell of abusing two 13-year-old boys whom he had caught swigging sacramental wine in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in late 1996. The court found Cardinal Pell guilty of having forced both boys into acts of oral sex with him.

Many observers felt that the ruling meant that Australian judicial authorities, and by extension the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, had finally got their man.

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FOUND GUILTY: Cardinal George Pell is a convicted child abuserFOUND GUILTY: Cardinal George Pell is a convicted child abuser

FOUND GUILTY: Cardinal George Pell is a convicted child abuser

What secular observers, unfamiliar with the nature of Holy See politics, do not understand is that Cardinal Pell’s enemies in the Vatican Curia had also got their man. The astonishing fall from grace of one of the most powerful cardinals in the Catholic Church was of course the achievement of Australian police and investigators.

However, almost as much, it was the work of conservative forces in the Holy See absolutely determined to block Pell’s attempt to radically and fundamentally overhaul Vatican finances, at the request of Pope Francis himself. In reality, Cardinal Pell’s downfall was brought about by a non-coordinated pincer movement in which two radically different forces – the Australian judiciary and elements of the Vatican Curia – simultaneously targeted their man.

Just look at the George Pell timeline – in late February/early March 2016, the parabola of his glittering clerical career took a sharp, irreversible downward turn when he was summoned to give evidence to the Royal Commission, not in Australia, but here in Rome in a startlingly unprecedented series of televised midnight hearings in a downtown Roman hotel.

Just six weeks later, Pell’s “enemies within” struck a telling blow when they pulled the rug from under his feet by successfully blocking a Vatican audit then being carried out by global firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The point here is that financial reform in the Holy See has always been something of a landmark project in Francis’s drive to reform the Vatican and its curia.

As we all know, to the surprise of many, in 2014 he picked Cardinal Pell to spearhead this task for him. Pell’s reputation as a tough, even ruthless diocesan administrator in his native Australia outweighed the fact that, on many issues such as divorce, homosexuality, Communion for the divorced or contraception, he was not exactly on the same page as Francis. For the purpose of cleaning up the Vatican’s finances, it also helped too that the new “Economy Czar” came not from inside Italy and the Vatican, but rather from outside Italy and from an anglophonic country to boot.

Six weeks after his Royal Commission hearing, Pell’s rivals hit him when he was down. On April 12, 2016 Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu sent a letter to all Vatican entities informing them that the PwC audit had been “suspended immediately”.

This could only have been seen as a vote of no-confidence in Pell. The PwC audit had been largely his brainchild. In December 2015, he had signed a US$3m contract with PwC, reportedly at his own instigation and without having shown the contract to either the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, or to the German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the Vatican’s Council For The Economy.

Whatever the reasons for blocking the audit, the very fact that it had been blocked clearly put a serious halt to Pell’s reforming gallop. His brusque methods had ruffled many Vatican feathers while they may well have alarmed others. The PwC “suspension”, presumably approved by the Pope, appeared to undermine Pell and, as such, it looked like victory for the Vatican old guard.

Approximately one year earlier, Pell’s Curia enemies had already tried to undermine him by masterminding a media campaign which reported that the “Economy Czar”, the man brought in to clean up Vatican finances, had himself spent €501,000 between July 2014 and January 2015 on items that included business class air travel, clothes, office renovations and a €15,000 per month salary for his trusted Australian accountant. Those stories did little apparent harm but they were an indication of the way a certain wind was blowing.

Obviously, though, the Pell downfall began with those dramatic Royal Commission hearings right here on the Pope’s doorstep in February/March 2016. Not everyone in the Holy See was thrilled with the fact that a Royal Commission, whose titular head is known as the Defender of the Faith, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, had arrived in Rome to put a senior Vatican Cardinal on trial. A Protestant moral authority had come to Rome to put manners on the Catholic Church. Martin Luther and Henry VIII must have been laughing heartily in their grave.

Those hearings did not concern the child abuse incidents for which the Cardinal received a guilty verdict this week. Rather, they were focussed on the question of how child sex abuse incidents and different serial sex abusing priests had been handled in two parts of the Australian Church where George Pell served first as a priest and then as Archbishop, namely his home town of Ballarat in Victoria and the archdiocese of Melbourne.

At the end of 16 hours of this “midnight court”, we were left with a huge conundrum. Namely Cardinal Pell’s insistence that, despite the fact that a number of serial child sex abusers had passed through both Ballarat and Melbourne during his time, he had known little or nothing about the ongoing abuse.

At one point, senior council for the Commission, Gail Furness, made it clear that she simply could not believe the Cardinal. That came when he suggested that he had been “kept in the dark” by superiors in both Ballarat and Melbourne, prompting Ms Furness to call that claim “completely implausible”.

The Cardinal’s memory was faulty. Was this just understandable because the events in question had taken place 40 years ago or was it a cover-up? For example, he did not recall the Christian Brother, Ted Dowland, who was eventually jailed for abusing 20 boys at six schools over 14 years. Yet, much of this abuse went on at St Alipius primary school in Ballarat in the 1970s when Pell was serving there.

The children used to refer to Brother Dowland’s chosen ones as his Bum Buddies. Cardinal Pell, however, had only a vague memory of Brother Dowland. He had heard the stories of how Dowland liked to photograph the boys in the showers and how he would take them “skinny dipping” at the end of year, commenting: “This was most unusual but nothing inappropriate ever emerged out of it”. Really? Are we sure?

Likewise, he had failed to notice the danger represented by another Ballarat priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, even though he had lived in the same building as him. In those days, it was known that Ridsdale liked to take boys off for overnight stays but this did not unduly worry Cardinal Pell:

“I felt a basic priestly and human prudence about it but I wasn’t worried. We weren’t alert in those days in anything like the way we are today,” he said.

Gerald Ridsdale became a serial paedophile who was subsequently convicted for the abuse of 65 children. Cardinal Pell, in a move which he subsequently called a “mistake”, accompanied him into court on his first day on trial in 1993. At those Royal Commission hearings in Rome, he explained: “I had some status as an auxiliary bishop and I was asked to appear with the ambition that this would lessen the term of punishment, lessen his time in jail.”

During those Rome hearings, the small number of Australian survivors present gasped in horror when Cardinal Pell called Fr Ridsdale a “sad story” but one “that wasn’t of much interest to me”. Yet, Cardinal Pell was part of the College of Consultors which had moved Ridsdale from parish to parish.

Among the survivors listening to Cardinal Pell’s testimony that night was David Ridsdale, nephew of Father Gerald and himself a victim as a young boy of his sex abusing uncle. After the hearing, he told me how he had tried to report his uncle’s sick behaviour to George Pell, at the time an auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne. David Ridsdale had grown up in Ballarat with Pell, so he thought the Bishop would help out. He claimed, however, that by way of response Bishop Pell said: “How much will it take to shut you up?”

Even though Cardinal Pell subsequently denied that claim, his record as Archbishop in both Melbourne and Sydney was that of a tough administrator who saved the Catholic Church millions by systematically limiting the compensation amounts paid to victims. UK survivor and lobbyist, Peter Saunders, who sat on the Vatican’s Commission For The Protection Of Minors, four years ago highlighted this aspect of Pell’s behaviour, saying: “He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic…”

Speaking to the Sunday Independent last week, Saunders confirmed that those remarks were met with a trademark Pell response – namely, the Cardinal threatened to sue Saunders if he did not withdraw his comments. Saunders withdrew nothing and the matter rested there.

Finally, what do we conclude at the end of the four day Vatican summit grandly titled On The Protection Of Minors In The Church – an event which began with one Cardinal, American McCarrick, defrocked for child sex abuse offences and ended with another, George Pell, found guilty of child sex abuse in an Australian court?

Is Pope Francis guilty of having made poor appointments or is it not true that the Catholic Church’s current crisis runs much deeper than the actions of any one pontiff?

Sunday Independent

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