CW: This article contains details of the sexual assault of young people.
Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church, has died at the age of 81. Pell is reported to have died following complications from a hip operation in Rome.
Pell is infamous for being convicted of child sexual abuse in 2019. He was jailed for his crimes but later had his conviction overturned by the High Court in 2020.
A Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that he also knew of sexual abuse taking place within the clergy but did not do enough to address or report it. In effect, he allegedly covered up the abuse of young children at the hands of those he was supposed to be watching while separately participating in assault himself.
The legacy Pell leaves, as the highest-ranking Catholic in the world to be convicted of such crimes, is one of horror and injustice. Judging by the reaction online, more than a few people are happy to see the back of him while simultaneously expressing sympathy for the victims of Pell’s crimes and all of those who have been affected by sexual abuse. There are, of course, many others talking up his apparent virtues.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, has described Pell as a “very significant and influential Church leader, both in Australia and internationally, deeply committed to Christian discipleship.”
“At this immediate moment, let our prayers go out to the God of Jesus Christ, whom Cardinal Pell wholeheartedly believed in and followed, that he may be welcomed into eternal life,” he has said.
Victorian Minister Steve Dimopoulos has said that his thoughts today are with the victims of child sexual abuse and their families.
“Today would be a very difficult day for the cardinal’s family and loved ones,” Dimopoulos said. “But also a very difficult day for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse, and their families, and my thoughts are with them.”
Who Was George Pell?
Pell rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful Catholics in the world. He was loved and admired by traditional and conservative Catholics and resented by the more progressive factions of the Church. In the broader community, for many, this will not be a sad day.
Pell was an outspoken defender of the Catholic faith in Australian public life through his work as an op-ed commentator for publications like The Sunday Telegraph. In 2010, he argued that Avatar was “old-fashioned pagan propaganda,” something he saw as akin to Devil worship, a force that he feared would overthrow Christian doctrine.
His ultra-orthodox views were expressed in his objection to the ordination of women as priests, his belief that “homosexual activity” was “a much greater health hazard than smoking,” and that condoms were ineffective at preventing HIV transmission. He also believed that reducing climate emissions was equivalent to pagan animal sacrifice.
However, he was also critical of Australia’s “miserable” asylum policy and a strong proponent of interfaith cooperation and harmony with Muslims and Jewish people.
Born in Ballarat, Victoria, in 1941, Pell studied at Corpus Christi College in Werribee before moving to Rome and becoming ordained as a priest in 1966.
He worked as a chaplain at Eton College in the UK and earned a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Oxford before returning to Australia in 1971 where he served in a parish in Ballarat East until 1983. He was made the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, appointed both times by Pope John Paul II.
In 2003, Pell was made a cardinal and served as a close advisor to Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the current Pope, Francis. From 2014 to 2019, he served as Secretariat for the Economy and managed the finances of the Vatican, making him number three in the Catholic hierarchy.
During his life, Pell became a “spiritual mentor” to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who visited him in prison in 2019, as well as former PM John Howard, who wrote a character reference for him during his trial for child sex offences. Abbot has since said that Pell was a “saint for our times.”
Pell died from “heart complications following hip surgery” on January 10, Italian time, 2023. It has been confirmed that he will be buried in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.
Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has said that Pell will not get a state funeral in Victoria out of respect for the victims of abuse.
“I couldn’t think of anything that would be more distressing for victim-survivors than that,” Andrews said.
“And to those brave, brave Victorians – and in doing so, many beyond Victoria, who live every day and carry the burden, and some who aren’t here any more because of that burden – the way they were treated, the way they were abused and the way that was covered up … it was just a completely inadequate response.
“We send our best wishes to them, and we always commit to have them foremost in our thoughts.”
What Did George Pell Do?
The allegations against Pell, and the crimes he has been convicted for, are many and widespread.
In 2002, a Melbourne man by the name of Phil Scott accused Pell of sexually abusing him at a Catholic youth camp in 1961 when he was just 12 years old. The complaint was never brought to trial.
In 2013, Victoria Police launched an operation to investigate alleged sexual assault crimes committed by Pell against “between five and ten boys” during his time as a priest in Ballarat and as Archbishop of Melbourne from 1978 to 2001.
In 2015, a Royal Commission was launched into the response of the Catholic Church to allegations of child sexual abuse in Ballarat.
Tim Minchin Weighs In on George Pell
In a bizarre twist to this case, the comedian Tim Minchin indelibly linked his own name with that of George Pell for a certain demographic in 2016.
During the Commission’s inquiries, Pell’s doctors stated his heart condition prevented him from flying back from Rome to give evidence, prompting Minchin to release his blistering attack on the Cardinal in the form of the song ‘Come Home Cardinal Pell’.
The song was written and recorded in a single day and variously describes the Cardinal as “a coward,” “a pompous buffoon,” and “scum.” Proceeds from the charity single were donated to a Go Fund Me which sent 15 people, mainly survivors of child sexual abuse, to Rome to witness Pell’s testimony which was given voluntarily to Victorian police officers who went to Rome.
Michin described the song and the reaction it provoked as working “unbelievably well.”
“People come up to me in tears in Australia all the time. The damage done [by the Church] was immeasurable,” Michin told RNZ.
However, there was also deep criticism of the intervention by a comedian into very serious legal matters. Aside from the usual arch-conservative defenders, one priest said that turning the trial “into a laughing stock” could risk derailing the proceedings.
Indeed, some still believe that Michin’s song may have resulted in Pell’s trial being unable to be run fairly and, ultimately, allowed him to get off on the balance of doubt.
George Pell’s Conviction
In 2017, formal charges were laid against Pell, who flew home to face trial in July. Before the trial could commence, in 2018, one of Pell’s accusers, Damian Dignan, died following a long illness, and his charges were withdrawn.
During the trial, a suppression order was placed upon the media, banning Australian publications from reporting on it. Those that did eventually paid a collective $1.1 million fine for refusing to obey the order.
The trial was eventually split into two, one pertaining to alleged sexual offences at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1990 and another pertaining to alleged offences at a swimming pool in Ballarat in the 1970s.
The latter trial was later dropped while the former trial resulted in Pell being convicted of the abuse of two Melbourne choirboys, one of whom died of a heroin overdose in 2014 and could not give evidence.
Pell was sentenced to six years in jail in 2019 on five charges of sexual penetration and molestation of children aged 13 which Victorian County Court Judge Peter Kidd described as “brazen and forcible.”
“There is an added layer of degradation and humiliation that each of your victims must have felt in knowing that their abuse had been witnessed by the other,” Kidd said at the time.
Pell denied the charges, as with all other accusations of wrongdoing throughout his life, maintaining that there was a discriminatory campaign attempting to discredit him and his religious views.
He launched an appeal that was denied by the Supreme Court of Victoria. However, in 2020, the High Court of Australia said that there was enough doubt in the case that it was possible “an innocent person has been convicted” and overturned the charges.
After spending 13 months in prison, much of which was in solitary confinement, Pell was released and spent his final years in Rome.
George Pell Released
Outside of his own actions, the Royal Commission found that Pell was aware of children being sexually abused in Ballarat by the paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who he once lived with, and that it was “implausible” he was not informed about him and other abusers.
The Commission heard that he was instrumental in having Ridsdale moved between parishes as abuses came to light. He was eventually convicted of more than 130 offences against children as young as four. Pell, again, denied any knowledge of Ridsdale’s crimes.
What is often pointed to in the defence of Pell is the fact that he initiated the ‘Melbourne Response’ in 1996, a scheme set up to investigate “dozens” of sexual abuse claims when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. However, victims of these sexual assaults have said that the Church’s investigation was lacking in compassion, was not independent, and left them feeling betrayed. Many spoke of being pressured by Church leaders not to speak out about what happened to them and to accept financial compensation instead.
In July last year, the father of one of the choirboys whom Pell was alleged to have assaulted launched a civil suit against the Cardinal. That suit has been confirmed to be continuing by the law firm representing the father “against the church and whatever estate Pell has left behind.”
George Pell’s Victims
For the survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated at the hands of Church leaders, Wednesday was not a day for celebration. As one abuse survivor wrote, the death of George Pell and the discussion of his alleged crimes, is incredibly triggering.
“We are no longer innocent children, most of us that are still alive and lucky enough, have our own children and grandchildren,” Julie Stewart has written.
“But those little girls and little boys are deeply burrowed inside of us … and we carry deep pain and grief for that little girl or little boy that we used to be, that child that did not get to be a normal little girl or boy like the rest of you. We carried shame and guilt and secrets, and all we wanted to do was to matter.”
To separate Pell’s alleged victims from those his actions allowed to be abused is a tricky one. While Pell was only ever convicted of abusing two young boys, the priests whom he was supposed to be watching over, managing, and ensuring they weren’t causing harm, ran rampant. People like Gerald Ridsdale, Peter Searson, Edward Dowlan, and Nazareno Fasciale collectively abused potentially hundreds of children. The true extent of their crimes, and others who got away with it, are likely never to be known.
Pell, as Archbishop and as one of the most senior figures in the Church at the time to whom allegations about these men were brought, bears at least some of the responsibility for their crimes.
In Ballarat, the country Victoria town where Pell was born which later became the epicentre of institutional religious sexual abuse, they hang ribbons from the fences of churches. Known as ‘loud fences’, each ribbon is supposed to fly in the memory of a survivor of church sexual abuse. There are hundreds of them.
This is Pell’s old stomping ground in Ballarat, Australia today. Each ribbon flies for a sex abuse victim by the clergy.
Pell knew nothing about any of this. pic.twitter.com/NAb5sRi9ld
— 🌴🌳🌲ija (@flickafaida) May 19, 2021
To date, no one has been convicted of concealing the sexual abuse of children in Australia. With Pell now beyond the reaches of Earthly judgment, he too will have escaped this charge. Let’s hope wherever he is now has a more robust system.
If this article brings up any issues for you or anyone you know, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) — the National Sexual Assault, domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), all of
which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7.