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George Pell’s mixed legacy to Australia

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Cardinal George Pell leaves behind a legacy his church would be proud of – the net assets of the Sydney archdiocese have increased 86 per cent to $190 million since he took over. Gross assets of the archdiocese are now estimated at $1.2 billion.

As the cardinal explained to the royal commission into child sexual abuse every bishop has an obligation to maintain the patrimony his diocese possesses and not to expend it unless forced to do so.

That means make sure what you inherit stays intact and don’t spend it unless you are absolutely forced to by circumstances.

Since his ordination in 1966, Dr Pell has faithfully fulfilled that obligation. 

He protected the church’s ‘goods’ just as he was required by canon law. He even built on them.

Theologians interpret the church’s goods to mean not just assets, but also justice and compassion. Survivors of clerical abuse in Australia say that interpretation escaped George Pell.

From the time he set up the Melbourne Response in 1996 to his conduct as Archbishop of Sydney, he has been accused of being more worried about the reputation and finances of the church than the welfare of his flock who were harmed by the very people meant to care for them.

The cardinal did not manage to dispel that perception during his two and a half days in the witness box at the Royal Commission into Institutional Handling of Child Sexual Abuse.

Indeed, his last act in Australia before starting work in Rome next week as the head of the Vatican’s finances was to fulfil those perceptions.

George Pell
George Pell and the Pope. Photo: AAP

He told the commission he instructed lawyers to vigorously defend a case against abuse victim John Ellis to discourage others from taking the church to court. He feared Australian dioceses could suffer the same fate as some in the US which went bankrupt following abuse claims.

He said that when the church won its case against Mr Ellis, even though he knew the former altar boy had been abused by a priest in Sydney in the 1970s, he was consoled by the court’s ruling that the church’s trustees couldn’t be sued.

He said many times that mistakes were made and he regretted that he had not insisted Mr Ellis be treated in a manner which “took greater account of the injury he suffered.”

He said the church did not deal fairly with Mr Ellis from a Christian point of view. And he said he was trying to be compassionate at every stage with Mr Ellis.

Yet those listening to him on the 17th floor commission hearing room at Governor Macquarie Tower were openly disbelieving of his expressions of contrition.

At the end of his second day of evidence, Australia’s most senior priest was given a damning character assessment.

“We’ve seen a sociopathic lack of empathy this morning from this man,” said Anthony Foster whose two daughters were raped by a priest in Melbourne.

Even when he ended his evidence by reading a fulsome apology to Mr Ellis, people noted he did not look at him.

Among the many survivors who came to Sydney to get insight into the man who has made an indelible mark on the Australian church’s response to people like herself was Trish Charter.

“I am shocked that he is so cold and calculating and so fixed on data rather than the victims” she said.

She and her older sister Kathleen had been abused in St Joseph’s Orphanage at Goulburn. John Hennessy sat in the hearing room clutching a picture of his mother May Mary Hennessy, who was told her baby boy was dead before he was shipped from Britain to a Christian Brothers’ home in Perth. They met 57 years later.

At one stage he stood and yelled “You should be ashamed of yourself, cardinal.”

In the witness box, the cardinal said of the Ellis case: “One of the few consolations, if that’s what I’ve got from this sorry mess, is that the court of appeal unanimously endorsed the view that the trustees were not responsible in this case.”

That has been the crux of the case – in his devotion to protecting the church’s assets, Dr Pell became convinced that Mr Ellis was seeking “exorbitant” damages of millions of dollars.

Among his expressions of regret and protestations that he followed lawyers’ advice to drown out his better instincts, one thing has emerged: protecting the trustees and persuading victims of abuse to think again before taking on the church were his motivations.

He consistently denied he was told Mr Ellis would settle for $100,000. The matter need never have gone to court if that had been accepted.

Can anyone say Cardinal George Pell lied to the royal commission about what he knew and did not know in the case of John Ellis?

He said senior church officials who gave evidence contradicting his own were muddled or mistaken.

He does not rank above others because the church has a flat structure.

But he says the Archbishop of Sydney and “Australia’s only active cardinal” is generally afforded a particular respect and stature both within the Australian Church and the broader Australian community.

His farewell mass in Sydney on Thursday night was full of many of those who respect him.

Locked out of St Mary’s Cathedral by security guards, however, were several protesters who give him little respect.

Dr Pell apologised to abuse victims in his final sermon in Australia, but it was dismissed by the subjects of the apology who weren’t allowed in to hear it.

“If he really meant the apology, why didn’t they let us in so he could say it to our faces?” one said.

Mr Hennessy said he was disappointed Dr Pell had not invited victims of abuse to his final service.

“It would have proved that he was fair dinkum. It would have shown that he meant everything he said,” Mr Hennessy said.

When he takes up his job as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See on Monday, he will be the third most powerful member of the curia, perhaps just a stroke or two of history away from being God’s anointed to lead the world’s 1.16 billion Catholics.

He certainly told his truths at the royal commission as if he were making infallible pronouncements that followers of Christ should disbelieve at peril of damnation.

Yet many abuse survivors are left wondering: does what he said at the royal commission beggar belief?