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‘Polarising’ Cardinal Pell dies, leaving a mixed legacy

11 January 2023


Cardinal Pell, seen in St Peter’s, Rome, last week before the funeral of Benedict XVI

Cardinal Pell, seen in St Peter’s, Rome, last week before the funeral of Benedict XVI

CARDINAL George Pell, who died in Rome on Tuesday at the age of 81, is being remembered as a deeply polarising figure in Australian society, and a culture warrior of the right.

The Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Peter Comensoli, said that the Cardinal had died from heart complications after hip surgery.

Formerly Archbishop successively of Melbourne and Sydney, Cardinal Pell lived mostly in Rome after the Australian High Court quashed his conviction on child sexual-abuse charges in April 2020 (News, 7 April 2020). Cardinal Pell, who always professed his innocence, had served a little more than a year of a six-year sentence at the time his appeal was successful. He had been charged with the sexual abuse of two choirboys in 1996 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.

The father of one of the boys, now deceased, has instigated a civil case against the Cardinal, suing for damages for psychological injury, which he claims he suffered after learning of the allegations that his son had been sexually abused. Lawyers said that the case, which was being defended separately both by Cardinal Pell and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne, will continue.

The RC Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Anthony Fisher, who met Cardinal Pell several times when he was in Rome last week for Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral, described the Cardinal as “without doubt Australia’s most prominent ever churchman”. He was, he said, a “compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion”; his faith had never wavered “in the face of trial and tribulation”.

A Melbourne lawyer, John Rule, who represented victims of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, however, said that the Cardinal would be remembered for “absolutely failing survivors of abuse and their families”. Mr Rule said that Cardinal Pell was “a smart and effective administrator who prioritised the Catholic Church over everything else, including children who’d been raped by priests”.

A senior research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, Dr Miles Pattenden, has described the Cardinal as “one of the most conservative figures of his generation in the global Church”, and a “staunch defender” of traditional positions on morality and liturgy. While he had many admirers, there were also “many people who hold him at least indirectly responsible for many of the problems which have assailed the Australian Church over the past 20 or 30 years”, he said.

Francis Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops to respond to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, said that Cardinal Pell had been a “lightning rod” of discontent and a “polarising figure” in the Church for his views, particularly against homosexuality.

“He administered it with a very fundamentalist defence approach that increasingly distanced and alienated a lot of Catholics.” The “broader optics of the Church made us look like we were judgemental and out of touch,” Mr Sullivan said.

The Royal Commission, which handed down its final report in 2017, found that Cardinal Pell had known of sexual abuse committed by clergy but had not taken adequate action to address it. Cardinal Pell had disputed the findings.

The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said that arrangements were being made to return Cardinal Pell’s body to Australia for a funeral in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. He will be buried in the cathedral crypt.

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