Last week’s exoneration of Cardinal George Pell marks the end of a nearly three-year legal process: two trials on child abuse charges (the first resulted in a hung jury), the upholding of the guilty verdict in Victoria’s Court of Appeal, and finally the overturning of that verdict in a 7-0 decision by the High Court. But it is unlikely to dispel the widespread hostility to the cardinal – or, more generally, to the Church in Australia. These legal events have revealed two powerful currents in Australian life – one recent, the other historical – which help to explain the depth of division and ferocity of debate.
The recent factor has been the history of clerical sex abuse in Australia, which as in so many countries, has shattered the Church’s cultural authority and moral credibility.
George Pell began as a priest in the Victorian rural diocese of Ballarat, where some of the worst cases of clerical abuse occurred. Later, as Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and Archbishop of Sydney (2001-2014), prior to his appointment to the Vatican as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (2014-19), he became Australia’s most prominent and outspoken Catholic leader, who never shied away from controversy.