Many who followed Cardinal George Pell’s royal commission and court appearances remember the reporting of them in leftist outlets such as the ABC, Nine-Fairfax, The Guardian and The Saturday Paper as a distinct style or genre of vilification. Condescending descriptions of his facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, gait, hair and attire were invariably mingled with accounts of angry reproofs and shouted insults from throngs of protesters, ‘survivors’ and sometimes presiding officers. The object was to ramp up the humiliation and reduce him to a figure of fun, pathetically fallen from grace but also venal and sinister. Were the exponents of this style aware of its precedent in Stalinist propaganda? Seventy years ago the notorious godfather of Australian left-journalism deployed it against another Cardinal on trial. There are intriguing parallels between the character assassination of George Pell and of Joszef Mindszenty (above), Cardinal and Prince-Primate of Hungary from 1945 to 1973.
The entry of Stalin’s tanks into Budapest in October 1944 consigned Hungarians to a predictable fate. Abandoned to the Soviet sphere of influence, they found themselves ruled by a Provisional National Assembly dominated by Communist representatives. At first Stalin decreed a semblance of multi-party democracy to deflect western scrutiny. But setbacks for the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) at the polls in November 1945 ushered in a change of course. Making use of well-rehearsed Leninist ‘salami tactics’ the Communists unleashed a ruthless propaganda assault featuring character assassination and conspiracy theories. With the help of blatantly rigged elections, rival contenders were easily dispatched. By 1949 the Communists were ready to declare a People’s Republic under the leadership of HCP General-Secretary Matyas Rakosi, who labelled himself “Stalin’s best pupil”. Naturally it was a Stalinist dictatorship backed up by the Red Army and enforced by the AVH, Rakosi’s brutal secret police. Thousands were arrested, tortured and executed as the HCP consolidated control over every aspect of life.
In these conditions a dramatic showdown between the Communists and the Catholic Church was inevitable. Joszef Mindszenty was appointed Primate of Hungary in September 1945 and Cardinal in February 1946, following a turbulent relationship with the wartime pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party government. He spent five months in prison for denouncing various of the regime’s excesses. Over the post-war period of Communist consolidation, Mindszenty fought fiercely against the seizure of Church-owned farmlands, nationalization of Catholic parochial schools and general encroachments on freedom of worship. In 1948 religious orders were banned and the Church was declared ‘a reactionary force’, leading to the Cardinal’s arrest in December of that year on forty charges of treason, conspiracy, espionage and theft. For six weeks he was subjected to beatings with rubber truncheons and other forms of torture. Having elicited a forced confession, the authorities referred him for show trial in Budapest commencing February 3, 1949.
On hand to record proceedings was none other than Australian-born “journalist” Wilfred Burchett. An unreconstructed Stalinist, Burchett became one of the most egregious defenders of international communism and its catalogue of mass atrocities. Burchett’s infamy peaked during the Korean War when he was implicated in the mistreatment of allied prisoners of war at the hands of North Korean interrogators. Originally from Melbourne, he died in Bulgaria, a traitor, in 1982, having been stripped of his Australian citizenship some 27 years earlier.
In Budapest, Burchett’s mission was to subvert Cardinal Mindszenty’s growing status as a hero and martyr. The ensuing hatchet job was published in 1951, in the form of his tract Peoples’ Democracies, particularly Chapter 5, The Cardinal at Home, and Chapter 6, The Trial of Cardinal Mindszenty. Burchett goes all-out to blacken the Cardinal’s character, framing him as the sniveling coward and petty thief of the regime’s trumped up charges. Absent genuine evidence he resorts freely to the poison-pen sketch in a narrative laced with ridicule and scurrilous imputations.
Chapter 5 draws on a personal interview Mindszenty gave to Burchett under false pretences. Setting the tone for what follows, Burchett starts off with a lurid account of his first impressions. “Underneath the trappings of the purple skull cap and the red-rimmed cardinal’s cloak, I had an impression of a morose, conceited man of limited intelligence …”, he writes, though just warming up, “… with drooping jowls, deep-set, brown eyes, a heavy jaw, and sadistic chiselled lips and sonorous voice, the Cardinal seemed to belong to the era of the Spanish Inquisition rather than to that of the Peoples’ Democracies”. References to the Spanish Inquisition, a staple of anti-Catholic propaganda, may be expected to lose some force coming from an apologist for the Soviet gulag. But there is little place for thoughtful reflection if the purpose is to evoke fear and loathing.
When, later in Chapter 5, Burchett questions Mindszenty on why he refuses to collaborate with the HCP regime, there is scant interest in his reply. The focus, rather, is on how “the Cardinal pursed his lips, rolled his eyes and answered …” The lexicon of anti-clericalism has barely evolved, judging by the work of Lucie Morris-Marr, author of the hit-job Fallen: The Inside Story of the Secret Trial and Conviction of Cardinal George Pell. “Pell pursed his lips and looked down at the carpet”, she says of the Cardinal’s reaction to his guilty verdict in December 2018, adding:
His large hands gripped his thighs as if he needed to steady himself. He turned so pale his skin looked almost alabaster against his black suit. He suddenly appeared older, lost and fragile.
Much of Chapter 5 is a rambling attack on Mindszenty’s intransigence towards the Communist Party’s heroic policies, interspersed with swipes at “the vain and foolish cardinal”, so “foolish, vain and impudent, [that] he became a willing tool of the Americans”. Burchett could have called him “arrogant, high-handed and graceless”, words applied to Cardinal Pell by Guy Rundle in Crikey.
It is in Chapter 6, however, covering the show trial, that Burchett hits his stride. Reporting from “the People’s Court” in Budapest, he begins with another tone-setting pen sketch. “First the Cardinal, morose, ill at ease, and glowering”, we are told, “but in a slightly obsequious way”. Some in the courtroom thought he looked drugged, about which Burchett, of course, says nothing. On the opening of Mindszenty’s interrogation by the State Prosecutor, Burchett observes that “some of his arrogance was missing”. In 2016 this petty crack was reprised in song by Tim Minchin, who savaged Cardinal Pell for staying in Rome while giving evidence to the royal commission into child abuse – “your intellectual vacuity, and your arrogance don’t bother me as much as the fact that you have turned out to be such a goddamned coward”. The cartoon of Mindszenty in the dock rolls on, ending much as it began:
I was reminded of the bully who used to tease me at school, and the expression on his face when he was faced with his superior in weight and punch power in the school playground. An expression which reflected shame, defiance, fear and appeal for mercy all at the same time. And that was the expression on the Cardinal’s face, as he stood and waited for the questions to start, his hands folded in front of him, leaning slightly forward as though obsequiously eager to catch every word the Judge spoke.
Burchett’s impressions were echoed by Wayne Flower on August 21, 2019, reporting in the Daily Mail on Cardinal Pell’s appearance in the dock to hear the outcome of his Supreme Court appeal. Flower, too, conjures a struggle to maintain composure:
Inside the prison dock, Pell bowed his head and placed his left arm on a ledge beside him in the prison dock. He remained that way for some time as Justice Ferguson recounted all the ways he had violated his position as a man of the cloth to abuse young boys. Pell slumped over, gripping the bench as if holding on for dear life. As it progressed he returned to his slouch, like a man in a bar who had had one too many pints.
There is no shortage of tendentious accounts of Cardinal Pell’s demeanour on the witness stand, not least from David Marr. His piece in The Guardian on proceedings before the royal commission in March 2016, for instance, asserts that Pell “cut a wretched figure in the witness box … after a couple of hours of interrogation he began to look like one of those Francis Bacon portraits of beefy men under torture”.
Done with the prejudicial descriptions, Burchett takes Chapter 6 onto new ground. He assails Mindszenty from other angles, initially with a potted biography portraying him, not as a Man of God, but a cynical opportunist and careerist:
In October, 1945, Mindszenty was appointed by the Pope, Archbishop of Esztergom which carried with it the automatic title of Cardinal, Prince Primate of Hungary. For 25 years he had worked as a parish priest at Zalaegerszeg – and then within the space of eighteen months he rocketed from priest to Bishop, from Bishop to Cardinal. A meteoric rise to such heights was enough to make even a stronger character than Mindszenty dizzy with success. But the Cardinal saw even greater fame ahead … From priest to bishop, bishop to Cardinal, with American help crowner of kings and emperors … and perhaps the next step to be called to Rome as Pope. Such dreams went like new wine to his head …
Traces of the same tactic and language are commonplace in the coverage of Cardinal Pell. A typical ABC report on the laying of charges by Victoria Police said “they related to Pell’s time as archbishop of Melbourne, mid-way through his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church”. More elaborately, they appear in the febrile output of David Marr:
A bright kid from an Australian bush town, George Pell kept his nose clean as he rose through the ranks to become chief of the Vatican’s finances … Young Pell was plucked from Australia to train in Rome and at Oxford for the big career that was always beckoning. He returned to serve briefly and unhappily in a remote parish on the Murray before being brought into the heart of the diocese of Ballarat … Rome first made Pell head of the Melbourne seminary … and then appointed him an auxiliary bishop … In the last years of the old century, Pell’s parallel career in Rome flourished … Rome made him archbishop of Melbourne at the age of 55 … He was always comfortable among the powerful.
From another angle, Burchett invokes the stereotype of the cunning priest, pounding Mindszenty for dissembling and cowardice in answering questions thrust at him by the judge and prosecutor. The Cardinal and his secretary “made use of their priestly training to try and wriggle out of every charge against them”, he claims. In particular:
[The Cardinal] tried to make the best of a bad job, however, in Court by evasions and half replies, by an amazingly poor memory when it served his purpose. Asked whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty, he answered, in low, measured tones.
And it was the vocal tone that struck Damien Murphy of the Sydney Morning Herald, who attended George Pell’s royal commission appearances in March 2014. “Normally a magisterial speaker, Cardinal Pell delivered his testimony in a quiet, disciplined voice”, he wrote, before stating gratuitously: “over his testimony his complexion went from a Roman autumn pink to a light rose”.
Burchett wraps up Chapter 6 with this pretence of a knock-out blow:
The small courtroom was packed, with relatives of the accused, correspondents and the ordinary public, workers, peasants, petty government officials, a cross section of the Hungarian population. Most of them were Catholics who a few weeks previously had regarded the Cardinal as their supreme spiritual leader. His moral stature was gradually destroyed before their eyes, as he disclosed himself to be a clumsy intriguer who would not hesitate to plunge Hungary into a war and destroy everything that had been accomplished since 1945. Stripped of his scarlet and privileges, standing before the People’s Court he appeared as a common criminal, a shifty parish priest caught out in anti-social crimes, trying to deny proven facts, shifting the blame on to others where he could.
Versions of the terms and reproaches in this passage reverberate across the anti-Pell firmament. Here’s some standard fare from Kristina Kenneally, also in The Guardian, on the Cardinal’s testimony before the royal commission on 2 March 2016:
Over and over again, Pell gave evidence that it was others who failed to disclose the apparently crucial details he would have needed in order to act … Pell tries to portray himself as the bobbing cork in the ocean, drifting along unaware of the flotsam and jetsam around him … It’s everyone’s fault but his.
In the courtroom, the humiliation was palpable. George Pell was led into the dock by five guards and gasps could be heard in the packed courtroom of more than 120 people, including victims’ advocates, supporters and media. Australia’s most senior Catholic and former treasurer of the Vatican was stripped of his white clerical collar. He looked dishevelled and weary in a black shirt with the top buttons undone, topped off with a beige jacket too big for his frame. His large gold ring was also missing.
Cardinal Mindszenty was inevitably found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 but when Soviet forces invaded Hungary to crush the uprising, he sought and was granted asylum in the US embassy in Budapest. He remained there for 15 years, allowed to leave only in 1971, after which he lived in Vienna until his death in 1975. He is joined by, amongst others, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Poland, Cardinal Josef Beran of Czechoslovakia, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Croatia, Cardinal Josyf Slipyi of Ukraine, Cardinal Nguyen Van Than of Vietnam, Cardinal Ignatius Kung of China, and Cardinal George Pell of Australia in the ranks of Cardinals of the Catholic Church falsely imprisoned by the left totalitarians they dared to defy.