With Cardinal George Pell, the Church loses the admonishing voice of a conservative that some tried to stifle during his lifetime.
(Rome) Five days after the funeral of Benedict XVI. the Australian Cardinal George Pell died yesterday at the age of 82. The Cardinal was energetic and a powerful voice of the Church. Not everyone liked that. Hardly any churchman in recent times has had a more cruel example set to limit his ministry and break his influence. Before the 2013 conclave, he was still considered a papabile, but a few years later he was pilloried. But he couldn't be broken.
George Pell, the son of a Catholic mother and an Anglican father, was ordained a priest in 1966 for the Australian diocese of Ballarat in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He completed his studies at the Pontifical Urbaniana University and the University of Oxford in England, where he was also resident chaplain at the elite college Eton. Returning to Australia in 1971, he has held various pastoral positions as well as senior positions in Catholic education.
In 1987 Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne. In 1996 he became archbishop of this diocese. In 2001 he was appointed to the more important Bishop's See of Sydney and in 2003 he was made a cardinal.
Since Pell was the only bearer of the purple in Oceania, Pope Francis nolens volens appointed him to the Council of Cardinals he had set up, in which – according to the initial idea – every continent should be represented by a cardinal. In order to remove him from his strong position in Australia, he was "promoted away" by Francis to the Roman Curia in 2014 and appointed the first prefect of the newly established Economic Secretariat. The able administrator initially experienced a culture shock with his British sobriety in Rome. He would probably have come to terms with that, but he wanted to dutifully fulfill his task and thus stumbled into a wasp's nest. The aftermath was incredible.
While he ran into walls in Rome and encountered resistance of an unexpected kind, an attack on his integrity was being prepared in Australia, which was to mark the rest of his life. It all started with a media campaign branding the cardinal a sexual abuser. The abuse scandal that has ravaged the church for the past 15 years has revealed a major wound inflicted on the Church by a small group of perpetrators. Dealing with it overtaxed some shepherds, others covered up culpably. To this day, the main evil, homosexuality, has not been named, least of all by Pope Francis.
Only: Cardinal Pell was not guilty of anything. He had neither sexually abused nor covered for abusers. [Risedale?] However, he was blamed for all of this. The example of Pell showed that the abuse scandal - as if it weren't bad enough in itself - was also misused as a means of killing: inside the Church to get opponents out of the way, outside the Church because a media mob, far removed from the Church, was willingly on every move pounces on a weapon, with which the Church can be attacked.
The theory that the abuse scandal unleashed against Cardinal Pell in Australia had its origins in the Vatican in order to get rid of him as Prefect of the Economic Secretariat has survived to this day.
Caught in the grip of the Roman resistance and the unjust Australian accusations, Pell chose a path that astounded and deserved great respect. In Rome he had to realize with disappointment that Pope Francis, who had called him, did not stand behind him when it came to overcoming the Vatican resistance because the individual dicasteries did not want to have their finances looked at. Rather, in 2016, Francis had sided with the other side and massively restricted Pell's responsibilities. It had displeased Santa Marta that the Australian defended the Church's doctrine of marriage and morals at the 2014 Synod of Families and signed a letter to Francis with 12 other cardinals in 2015 protesting pre-packaged findings at the Synod of Bishops on the family. It was no less displeasing that Pell also took a negative stance towards the innovations contained in the controversial post-synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia.
When Francis effectively ordered him to return to Australia and face the allegations, the cardinal decided to leave Rome in June 2017 to do just that and take up the fight against the criminal slanders. Pope Francis did nothing to save his collaborator. Apparently the opportunity to get rid of the Australian who had become a nuisance was even welcome. The New York Times rejoiced that resistance within the Church against Francis had been massively weakened within a few days. Just a day after Pell's departure, Francis had dismissed Cardinal Gerhard Müller as Prefect of the Faith. And the death of Cardinal Joachim Meisner opened new avenues for the Church in Germany, which has an above-average influence on the pontificate of Francis.
Without Roman backing, Pell had become fair game in his homeland. His case became an eyesore to Australia's media, who prejudiced him for taking pleasure in bringing down such a high Conservative Catholic dignitary. The German-speaking area had already experienced the unleashing of these base instincts by a hunting party against churchmen in the 1990s.
The actions of the Australian judiciary were not a glorious page either. The public prosecutor's office seemed to have misunderstood the abuse scandal as a "license" for a "witch hunt". Cardinal Pell was tried and sentenced by an apparently media-hyped jury on December 11, 2018 to a long prison term for alleged sexual abuse, becoming the first man in purple in history. The very next day, Pope Francis threw him out of the Council of Cardinals. In this situation, too, the deeply injured Pell took a very unusual path. To underline his innocence, pending the second instance, he refused to apply for a stay of detention or house arrest, but went to prison. The world hadn't seen that either.
In the second instance, the conviction was then confirmed by a panel of judges on August 21, 2019, but one of the three judges took a contrary position and pointed out all the weaknesses and errors of Pell's conviction (see also "Cardinal Pell is innocent, his accusers are not "). In the Supreme Court, on April 7, 2020, the cardinal finally won in full by a vote of seven to zero. The verdict was received, the cardinal was acquitted and immediately released from prison.
Pell had to spend more than a year in various Australian prisons and kept a prison diary there, which shows great intellectual and spiritual maturity and strength, and which he subsequently published. From prison, the cardinal also commented on ecclesiastical questions and warned against wrong paths in connection with the Amazon Synod. The deeper reason for the nightmare he had to go through can probably also be seen in his positions within the Church.
At least some Australian media had the decency to apologize to Pell afterwards. Others haughtily persisted and tried desperately to find new charges. [There’s a lot of real evidence about Pell which less independent minded influencers don’t address, as if there is an agenda to shoehorn Pell into the role of a lion of orthodoxy.]
Pope Francis refused to receive his cardinal for more than half a year. Was the acquittal so inconvenient? After the lack of backing in Rome, but also in the trial, Francis also refused the visible rehabilitation of the cardinal, whom an official audience would have meant in front of everyone.
What's more, instead of waiting for the courts to go through, Francis dismissed him as prefect of the economic secretariat while the proceedings were still ongoing. The signal was fatal and, as expected, was interpreted to mean that Santa Marta was also convinced of Pell's guilt.
On October 12, 2020 the time had finally come. Francis received the cardinal, but only in a private audience, and no longer gave the 79-year-old churchman any office, not even an honorary office, that would have shown appreciation. The “Pope of Gestures” also set standards in this way.
Cardinal Pell, however, continued on his way wherever he could. He gave catechesis, defended church moral teaching against liberal Jesuits in public discussions, such as in Oxford in 2021, warned against synodality with ulterior motives, criticized the secret agreement with the People's Republic of China and was skeptical about the motu proprio Traditionis custodes.
A few days ago he attended the funeral of Benedict XVI, whom he admired. Now he himself has been dismissed.
Requiescat in Pace
Text: Giuseppe Nardi