Friday, 23 June 2017

CARDINAL: The Rise and Fall of George Pell LOUISE MILLIGAN

CARDINAL: The Rise and Fall of George Pell


Melbourne University Press, 2017, 384 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


The Vatican Treasurer, George Pell, could well turn out to be the Lance Armstrong of the Australian Catholic Church.  Like the world’s former top cyclist, who furiously denied being a drug cheat until he was eventually rumbled by dogged investigative journalists, Pell, Australia’s top Catholic, has maintained his complete innocence in the face of credible and mounting allegations that he not only covered up an epidemic of clerical sexual abuse of children by Australian Catholic priests but was himself a paedophile abuser.  The ABC’s Louise Milligan has been on Pell’s case for a while now and Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell zeroes in on the fire causing all the smoke which surrounds Pell.


Pell, born in Ballarat in 1941, rose through Catholic seminaries and presbyteries which were hotspots for turning out paedophile priests.  He became Archbishop of Melbourne and then, in 2014, the Vatican’s No. 2 in Rome but Pell left a ruinous path of personal destruction (depression, substance abuse, suicide) in his holy wake.  If only, whilst at priest school, Pell had taken up the contract offered by Richmond Football Club to play as a ruckman for the Tigers, then a lot of people might have been spared a lot of grief (other than opposition footy players who would have discovered just how bruising the intimidating Catholic conservative hard-liner could be).


Whilst insisting he never had any idea what was going on under his leadership, Pell had stopped priests from speaking out about their peer’s sexual crimes and he was actively involved in moving offenders on to new parishes to re-offend all over again.


As public allegations of clerical abuse continued to grow, however, the Church turned to Pell, highly regarded by church leaders as an able administrator, to save the Church in Victoria from reputational and financial damage.  Pell instituted an in-house scheme which, in return for the victims’ legally-enforceable silence, paid them a paltry average of $32,000 in compensation as hush money.  This saved the Church not only too great an outlay on Pell’s $20,000-a-day defence silks, but many hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from civil suits in civilian courts.


Despite Pell’s labours, however, the scale of the abuse eventually came to light through a Royal Commission which had been prompted by police whistleblowers.  The Commission’s statistics were shocking - between 1950 and 2010, there were 4,444 incidents of child sexual abuse made against 1,880 priests (7% of Australian Catholic priests).  Pell’s diocese of Melbourne topped the national body count.


Subsequent to these revelations, Pell himself came under suspicion of being an abuser.  Milligan was central to documenting some of the alleged cases concerning Pell from his time as trainee priest to becoming Archbishop.  These included the genital groping of an altar boy at a Church camp on Phillip Island; the groping of Catholic primary school boys in Ballarat’s Eureka Pool and full-frontal exposure in the showers afterwards; indecent exposure to young surf lifesavers in the change rooms at Torquay surf club; and oral sex with choirboys in St. Patrick’s Church.


Pell, tipped off about a police investigation into these allegations, decided that the Vatican, which has no extradition agreement with Australia, was a safer place to be.  Further preventing Pell from flying back to Australia is a sudden-onset heart condition - medically certified by the Vatican house physician whose bag of scientific tricks includes the authentication of miracles by aspirant saints.


Pell is now 76 – “how long before he reaches ‘I don’t recall’ territory”, says an unimpressed Milligan.  In February 2017, a Greens motion calling on Pell to voluntarily return and assist the police investigation was passed by the federal Senate.  Pell scorned it as a ‘political stunt’.


The post-Pell Catholic hierarchy in Australia is now saying all the right things and displaying all the right emotions on the Church’s child abuse but, unless there is a full accounting of its past, all the way up to the former Archbishop himself, including bringing him back from his Vatican bolt-hole, then it could all just be an image management exercise.  To the victims, the refurbished rhetoric may be “as hollow as all the holy lectures they received as children, all the while that they were being raped in presbyteries, touched up in confessionals” - or flashed at, groped by and giving fellatio to Pell.


This hypocrisy is of a piece with what the Catholic Church (and other institutional religions) share with their capitalist (and other class society) hosts - immense power, vast wealth and a boundless waste dump stuffed full with the human wreckage inflicted by an unaccountable elite.

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