For The Cardinal-Prefect, "My Day in Court"
For all the spectacles the Vatican tends to witness, this one was simply surreal.
At the same dais where the Pope’s major documents are unveiled and the global press briefed on Catholicism’s showcase events – on what’s usually one of the most joyous feasts of the year – today the Curia’s third-ranking cardinal addressed his new fate as the church’s most senior figure by far to face criminal charges of sexual abuse:
To understand the full import of Cardinal George Pell’s return to Australia to appear in court and “clear my name,” there’s more to it than his current profile as the founding Secretary for the Economy, initially entrusted by Pope Francis with sweeping powers over finances and personnel across the Holy See’s sprawling apparatus.
Indeed, what makes the 76 year-old prelate’s quick move to go home for an 18 July initial hearing so significant is that Pell has not returned to his homeland since departing in early 2014 to take up his Vatican post – neither for the late 2014 installation of his hand-picked successor in Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, nor for what became a four day summons to testify before the national inquiry on religious institutions’ handling of child abuse, obtained by video link from Rome.
With the scenario of a first-ever court process against a cardinal on sex crimes alleged by “multiple claimants” – the precise nature of which have not been clarified by law enforcement in his native state of Victoria – the Italian media’s traditional summer “soap opera” involving the church is now set, albeit some 4,000 miles afield.
Still, despite the inevitable circus that will surround the scrutiny on one of the top rank’s most enduring figures – a presence on the global scene over some two decades – for the apex of the Catholic world, it just doesn’t get more serious than this.
For starters, even as Pell announced his own “leave” from his Vatican duties – and the Holy See’s lead spokesman, Greg Burke, indicated that the cardinal would not “participate in public liturgies” for the duration of the judicial process – the moves amount to a de facto suspension from ministry.
Regardless of whose volition spurred the act, a recusal of the kind is without precedent for a top Curial official. What’s more, however, while two decades of revelations of abuse and cover-up have been treated as a political football among the church’s ideological camps, Pell is one of the few major prelates whose trajectory and alliances cut across partisan lines.
Long a favorite of the Catholic right for his unapologetic approach to moral teachings, the Oxford-trained onetime fullback – who’s long relished his reputation for being a “bull in a china shop” – was initially tapped by then-Pope Benedict XVI to take the helm of the Congregation for Bishops in 2009, a move which would’ve made the Aussie the first prelate from the English-speaking world to oversee the all-powerful body that recommends candidates for appointments to the pontiff.
In response, what was widely perceived in Rome as a “smear campaign” went into overdrive, raising the specter of a 2002 allegation of abuse against the cardinal which dated to the 1960s. Though Pell had been cleared years earlier by an internal probe chartered by the archdiocese of Sydney, conducted by a retired judge – during which he stood aside as archbishop for several months – the ferocity of opposition to Benedict’s plan led the now-retired Pope to scuttle the move before it was formally made. (Along the way, however, Pell’s hard-charging style saw him successfully tackle another high-wire Vatican mission: as chair of the Vox Clara committee of senior prelates tasked with managing English liturgical translations, he led the push that brought the group’s major project – the long-stymied overhaul of the Roman Missal – to completion and a historic implementation across the Anglophone world in 2011.)
Of course, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Perceived by many as angling for a Roman office from his days as an auxiliary in Melbourne – when, as one Curialist recalled, Pell “was always showing up” at the Vatican – the 2012 outbreak of the Vatileaks fiasco provided the cardinal with an opportunity for payback, and Benedict took him up on it, bringing Pell into an ad hoc group of cardinal-advisers Papa Ratzinger had convened on tackling the crisis.
Months later, the election of Pope Francis would surprisingly bring the Australian’s rebound to its zenith – with his profile as a blunt, sharp-elbowed manager (and one seen as wronged by the Vatican’s old guard), Pell’s temporal acumen landed him a seat on the new pontiff’s “Gang of 8” for the reform of the Curia (below), arguably the most surprising choice for the group given his conservative leanings.
Less than a year afterward, Francis would deliver the ultimate call – with the new Pope and his “crown council” determined to clean up the famously murky orbit of the Holy See’s finances, Pell was unveiled as the choice to consolidate all control of budgets and investments under one umbrella, a first-ever CFO to replace the small village of separate entities which oversaw various pieces of the books, with varying degrees of success.
To say that the Aussie was ready would be an understatement – Pell’s full-time arrival in Rome came shortly after the opening of the Domus Australia, a onetime convent converted into a hostel and event center for pilgrims from Down Under, with an ample living space already created for himself.
To be sure, though, if there was one area that the natives guarded more jealously than appointments, it was the money – and Francis’ putting Pell in charge of it was greeted as something of an apocalyptic event. Unlike Benedict, however, Papa Bergoglio’s Italian stubbornness wouldn’t be as easily conquered.
At least, that’s how it seemed at the start. While Francis has stood by his man – re-confirming the cardinal’s position after he reached the retirement age of 75 last year – the Curia’s penchant for bureaucratic turf-war has challenged Pell’s mandate at practically every turn and made significant inroads against the new bureau’s initial remit, most prominently in last year’s move to suspend a first-ever external audit of all Vatican entities, which had been ordered by the Secretariat.
At the same time, the financial reform hit another major speed-bump last week as Libero Milone – the freshly empowered auditor-general hired by Pell’s team – suddenly resigned from the post as reports on the move spoke of an unspecified “ugly situation” that could “get worse.”
Amid the fallout from Milone’s surprise departure, the Council for the Economy – the mixed group of 15 top prelates and lay experts to which Pell’s Secretariat reports – had already summoned its members to an extraordinary meeting set for early July in Rome to discuss the way forward. With the new development of the charges against the cardinal-prefect – and no clarity yet on the leadership of the Economy office in the wake of Pell’s leave for the court case – any long-term resolutions just became considerably more difficult.
Back in Australia, meanwhile, the indictment has come as a fresh firestorm for a church already struggling under a cloud of abuse developments. With the cardinal’s polarizing shadow ever looming large despite years of absence from the scene, the nation’s hierarchy has spent 2017 bracing for what’s widely expected to be a damning report from the national inquiry on sex-abuse in religious institutions, which is due by the end of its mandate in mid-December.
Beyond the wide attention – and equal heaping of scorn – that Pell’s 2016 testimony to the Royal Commission drew, the Australian archbishops were likewise deposed at length by the panel last February. And in another moment of major impact, a rising star of the Aussie bench – Vietnamese-born Franciscan Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta – revealed to the probe that he had been a victim of abuse by a cleric.
All the while, another major shoe from Rome is likely soon to drop: the Pope’s appointment of the next archbishop of Melbourne – already a critical move given the city’s place as the continent’s largest local church, yet now even more of a “hot seat” as the venue for Pell’s state trial on the charges.
In a letter released after the charges were filed, Sydney’s Fisher – himself a civil lawyer – warned his clergy and people that his predecessor’s return to face justice “will be unsettling for many of us.”
While defending Pell as “a man of integrity in his dealings with others… a thoroughly decent man,” the archbishop emphasized that “we must now allow the impartial pursuit of justice,” adding that the church “is not responsible” for the cardinal’s legal costs and won’t be footing them.
Keeping with Australian conventions for the accused, a recent biography which levied a new allegation of abuse by Pell has been pulled from sale in Victoria pending the trial. On another context note, the southern coastal state does not allow cameras in its courts, so the impending hearings will not be filmed nor televised.