February 2023

Remembering George Pell

Like many, I was stunned to learn of the death of George Pell last month. The polarising impact of this conservative culture warrior continues beyond the grave, writes Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner. 

No one was indifferent to George Pell. I first heard of George, as everyone referred to him, when I was appointed principal of a school within the Diocese of Ballarat in the early 1980s. 

Teachers talked constantly about Father Pell, Episcopal Vicar for Education and Director of the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education in Ballarat. They were in awe of the man, leaving me with the impression of a tough, hard-nosed, combative, towering figure who was going places and was not to be trifled with. 

My impression of ’George the ogre’ was challenged later when I worked in a Ballarat diocesan office where his name was often mentioned. A young administrative assistant would not have a word said against Father Pell because of his generous and discreet kindness to her family when they fell on hard times. I heard many such stories over the decades.

When Pell moved to Melbourne to become an auxiliary bishop, his higher status intensified his polarising impact.

This persisted throughout his life and continues beyond the grave. 

In the late 1980s, stories of the heinous crime of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and brothers began to emerge. At first it was a trickle, which Church authorities initially tried to cover up and then excuse as the work of a few bad apples. As the number of cases grew, Church leaders scrambled to respond appropriately. 

In 1996, George Pell, by then Archbishop of Melbourne, was credited with establishing the Melbourne Response, the first process anywhere in the world for responding to those who had been sexually abused by clergy and laity within the Church. How the Melbourne Response was established and how it evolved, was “typically George”, as one Church leader at the time observed.

I was a member of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, ACLRI (now Catholic Religious Australia), as we worked with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference endeavouring to establish a united Church process to respond to the abuse. Everyone was on board except one religious institute (the Jesuits) and one diocese (Melbourne). Eventually, the Jesuits joined the Towards Healing process. George flew solo.

Both the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing had good intentions but also systemic flaws. The subsequent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse singled out the Melbourne Response for prioritising the Church’s financial and reputational interests ahead of redress for victim survivors.

Pell was appointed Archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and became Cardinal, a ’prince of the Church’, in 2003.

As with all politically astute people, Pell’s greatest impact was felt with his appointments.

The ‘Bishop Maker’ was highly connected in Rome and wielded much influence. However, many of the Australian bishops were not enamoured of Pell’s style or stance. He was overlooked repeatedly for the role of President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, a prominent position I believe he would have relished.

Over several decades, Pell was dogged by claims that he had covered up abuse by priests and that he, himself, was an abuser. His seeming lack of interest in, or empathy for, victims and their families added to their suffering. He became the whipping boy and scapegoat for many of those disaffected with the Church. 

Allegations against Pell reached a climax in 2017 when he was charged with abusing two choir boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s. His subsequent conviction shocked and disturbed me. I had followed the case closely and, given the circumstances and logistics surrounding the alleged abuse, thought the charges untenable.

I was also disturbed by what I perceived to be the bias and vendetta-like mentality of the Victoria Police and Victorian judicial system, and sections of the media.

Some ABC journalists seemed to set themselves up as Pell’s judge, jury and hangman.

One of the Sisters in my Congregation who works in prison ministry visited Pell every week for the 57 weeks of his incarceration. Did she think him guilty or innocent? I don’t know. She said that she appreciated his endurance in extremely difficult and isolating conditions, their times of shared prayer, and his graciousness towards her. “He had an inner peace,” she said. “He was true to himself and consistent that he hadn’t offended.”

Pell spent most of his remaining years in Rome until his death on January 10 this year. I had thought him indestructible and, like so many, was stunned by the news.

Within days, further divisive controversy emerged. The Vaticanista blogger Sandro Magister revealed that Pell was the author of an anonymous memo condemning Pope Francis, his papacy and his commitment to synodality.

Such disloyalty, such hypocrisy! Pell was a ’faithful servant of the Church’, as long as it was the Church made in his image.

Since his death, one clip showing Pell and Pope Francis greeting each other has been played repeatedly.

Pell stoops to kiss the Pope’s ring but Francis instinctively and quite deliberately pulls it away.

For me, the clip is emblematic of both men’s ecclesiology, and how the Church is evolving.

Resistant to the spirit of Vatican II, Pell was the guardian of orthodoxy and dogma within a hierarchical Church where clericalism and patriarchy reigned; a Church replete with the trappings of courtly titles and power. His was a dogmatic teaching Church rather than a listening Church.

Francis’ vision is one of a welcoming, inclusive Church which consults, listens and learns. His synodal approach prioritises the dignity of the baptised rather than the authority of the ordained. He endorses collaboration and communal discernment where lay women and men are invited to engage in the decision-making process. 

Give me Francis’ merciful “smell of the sheep” approach over autocratic dogma any time!

The George Pell I encountered over the years could be charming and courageous, generous and genial, self-deprecating and with a good sense of humour. He bore his incarceration with heroic equanimity. He was also authoritarian and absolutist, a man who could be politically ruthless, and one who relished a fight. 

There are some who will continue to demonise Pell while others, like Tony Abbott, have canonised him already. It occurs to me that neither is an appropriate response. George Pell was neither evil incarnate, nor sinless and blameless. He was truly gifted and terribly flawed, like the rest of us.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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