The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis was always going to peak at the Vatican.
The only surprise is it was an Australian who took it there.
Then again, we’re the only country in the world that’s held a national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Shine the Light: the Newcastle Herald’s complete coverage of the Royal Commission
Cardinal George Pell is Pope Francis’ prefect of the secretariat for the economy – in effect the reforming Pope’s chief financial headkicker who’s generally accepted as number three in the Vatican hierarchy – but he’s also the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be charged with sex offences, as of Thursday.
Cardinal Pell works in the Vatican. He lives just outside the Vatican’s 44 hectares of diplomatically protected ground, and he’s thereafter Pope Francis controversially appointed him in February 2014 before the cardinal’s first bruising encounter with the royal commission.
The Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse crisis was always going to peak at the Vatican. The only surprise is that it was an Australian who took it there. Then again, we’re the only country in the world that’s held a national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
He’s stayed at the Vatican after – again, controversially – not returning to give evidence at a second public hearing in March last year for health reasons.
The irony is that Pope Francis’ need to address one crisis – the quite shocking scandals swirling around Vatican finances – was given priority over the other – the Catholic Church’s moral leadership crisis that’s flowed from devastating evidence at the royal commission about appalling child sexual abuse over decades.
And so here we are.
In March last year after Cardinal Pell’s evidence from the Quirinale Hotel in Rome about how he responded to questions about his and the church’s handling of child sex allegations in Victoria, I argued he needed to resign and Pope Francis needed to say why.
I wrote back then that the church in Australia was going to bleed numbers indefinitely if he didn’t.
‘‘The Pope’s statements about child sexual abuse will be seen as nothing but more words from a church whose standing has been trashed on the issue, and shockingly so over the past three days.
“Pell has no credibility as a moral leader. Pope Francis’ reputation as the people’s Pope – champion of the poor and powerless – is damaged by association if he fails to act decisively, and immediately,’’ was my response to Pell’s evidence back then.
Pope Francis saw things differently.
In his 2015 book, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican, Italian author Gianluigi Nuzzi said of the Pope about Pell that he was ‘‘indifferent to criticism of the man’’.
From April 2013 when Pope Francis appointed Pell to a council of eight senior cardinals, the Australian was groomed to ‘‘take control of the Curia’’, which is shorthand for reforming the Italian stranglehold on the Vatican and its finances.
Nuzzi’s book – which was produced in part on Vatican documents quite sensationally leaked to Nuzzi by Pope Benedict’s butler – ended on a pessimistic note after describing Pell as one of Pope Francis’ handful of ‘‘reformers’’.
‘‘Francis – the great, singular Pope – has to count the number of his friends every day to make sure he will not be left alone,’’ Nuzzi wrote.
And now the Pope’s number three has been charged with historical sex offences in Australia.
Cardinal Pell has always strongly argued his innocence and is entitled to that presumption.
Cardinal Pell is a big man who radiates power, and his open displays of that power explain, in part, why he has become something of a lightning rod for community anger about the Catholic Church and the global child sexual abuse tragedy.
He walked into a royal commission hearing in Sydney in March 2014 to give evidence about the Sydney archdiocese’s dreadful treatment of abuse victim John Ellis and people silently stepped back to clear his path.
He didn’t seem to notice.
Those of us who were there will never forget seeing Pell leave the witness box after reading an apology to John Ellis, then pass within a metre or so of Ellis without pause, without blinking or acknowledging him at all.
In Pell’s evidence he conceded the treatment of John Ellis by the church had been un-Christian.
Ellis was put through the legal wringer after approaching the church for compassion and help.
At the royal commission Pell did himself no favours when he summed up his response to notorious child sex offender priest Gerard Ridsdale, that ‘‘It’s a sad story but it wasn’t of much interest to me”.
But Cardinal George Pell is just one member of a Catholic Church responsible for a global tragedy, decades in the making and under successive Popes, propped up by governments and the powerful who were prepared to ignore the truth for too long, and despite the courageous efforts of survivors to speak that truth.
The charging of one of the church’s most senior members with sexual abuse is a momentous day, but also a solemn one.