This week past there has been pretty much only one story in the news. It is, of course, the passing of George Cardinal Pell, Australia’s globally known and mostly respected titan of the Rome Church. Perhaps appropriately, he died in the Eternal City, (I suspect) his favourite place.
A couple of personal experiences since Pell’s death provide a little flavour of the nature and intensity of the reactions his death occasioned. The first was the sister of a friend, who, out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation, randomly offered – “Oh, isn’t it great that that Pell is dead!” The second is the wife of another friend, who, when she asked me if I thought Pell had “done it”, and when I said “God no”, she simply stared at me in almost speechless disbelief until, “Why would someone the complainant go through all that if it weren’t true?”
Funny how these two vignettes just about sum up all the bile visited upon the Cardinal since that dismal day in 2017 when VicPol, after leaking slanders for months, finally and formally announced Pell was being charged with the heinous offences with which, by now, every Australian must be familiar.
Even, or perhaps especially, in death, George Pell still seems destined to ignite white hot emotions. I had always hoped he would lead a longish, post-prison life of peace, freedom, quiet reflection and robust scholarship, if only to put some space between the peak years of active Pell hatred and his final passing. This might, just might, have silenced his enemies who had mercifully gone silent since the timely analysis of Justice Mark Weinberg and then the wisdom of the seven High Court judges who freed an innocent man.
It is not to be. The Pell Wars have resumed.
Tony Abbott, not unexpectedly and irrepressibly, has described the late Cardinal as “a saint for our times” in an encomium that will only cement Abbott’s reputation as Australia’s second-most-hated man. But perhaps there is another category of Christian sainthood that George Pell might equally fit. One question raised by his life of being hated for his faith: is George Pell Australia’s primary candidate for “white martyrdom”? What is a white martyr? According to Faith magazine:
While we may never be asked to undergo torture and death for the sake of our Christian faith, we can still be martyrs.
When the early church persecutions waned in the fourth century, some Christians began to find other ways to live out the spirit of martyrdom. They called it “white martyrdom” – in contrast to bloody martyrdom – and they embraced the ascetical practices of fasting, praying and almsgiving, as well as more rigorous and unusual forms of penance.
Some lived on pillars and stayed until their deaths. Their austerity was in contrast to the decadence of the culture surrounding them. Most of us have a hard time imagining or even understanding this kind of practice.
Another definition of “white martyr” (from Mr Wiki) goes like this:
A believer was bestowed the title of red martyr due to either torture or violent death by religious persecution. The term ‘white martyrdom’ was used by the Church Father Jerome, ‘for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism’.
White martyrdom is typically defined as being persecuted for the faith, but never with the shedding of blood. It consists of living a life boldly for Christ, yet never being asked to die for it.
The fit seems very tight. Like two famous red martyrs with whom George Pell might best be compared, Jesus Christ himself and Thomas More, the Cardinal spoke truth to power, challenged inconvenient propaganda, corrected error and confounded the expectation that he would roll over and bow before the secular state.
Whether or not George Pell knew what was coming when he eschewed a promising football career with the Richmond Football Club for the Son of God, he placed himself in the line of fire, as fearless truth-tellers do. And didn’t the fire come! He wasn’t entirely ascetic, of course. He enjoyed the regular benefits of a good red and a social life of plenty, having, as he did, a gift for friendship, despite his undeserved reputation for prickliness.
But for God he did humbly offer up any chance at popularity, as serious Christians in the public square now seemingly must. The Cardinal somehow incited public and official hatred without remotely trying to. He ended up giving his reputation, his freedom – infamously, for more than 400 days – his health and possibly his life, to his God. He constantly ran the gauntlet of confrontation with his opponents by speaking truth to earthly powers and dominions. He attracted more vicious enemies and denunciations than just about anyone who isn’t a serial killer or a Nazi anti-vaxxing conspiracy theorist.
When considering the life of George Pell it sometimes seems that two different people are being spoken of. I cannot think of anyone else in my lifetime about whom this could be so easily said. Reading the Catholic and (thankfully) the Murdoch media, we find dispassionate accounts of a great Australian, a holy man of God, a man of conviction who stood up for his beliefs, one who acted on his core beliefs with firmness and resolve, a plain-speaking man, a towering Churchman, a highly intelligent and widely published scholar/writer, a mover-and-shaker (a player), a man with the common touch whose personal warmth and charity were apparent to all who knew him. It is telling that those cheering most loudly at his release from prison were fellow inmates.
Reading and hearing from the leftist media and politicians, we are presented with a child molester and protector of priest-paedophiles. The Saturday Paper, for instance, marked the Cardinal’s death with a rehash of the “crimes” for which he wasn’t tried. Written, inevitably, by Pell-hater-in-chief Louise Milligan, who has no doubt been itching to get the last word against a man who now is beyond his capacity to retort. Such contorted, spittle-flecked, embittered ex-Catholic anger! (I haven’t bothered to consult The Age, SMH, ABC or the twitterverse).
The now all-powerful Premier of MelDanistan pointedly refused a state funeral without being asked for one. Ahead of the curve.
There is, though, a third category of observers of George Pell. These people are the saddest of all. They are the insipid fence-sitters who care about the reputations they have with their enemies. See under Archbishop Tim Costelloe of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Mostly, the Australian Catholic hierarchy, or at least its bureaucratic-managerial arm, has a long history of Pell scepticism. Some, no doubt, are paid-up Pell deniers. Much of it may be entirely personal and borne of jealousy, I suspect. How did this guy get to be the successor of Daniel Mannix as Australia’s premier churchman? They are getting on with their Francis-man positioning while continuing with obsequious genuflections before the secular powers with whom they endlessly hope to court favour. They pursue their ludicrous and neo-Marxist “synods on synodality”, about which George still had things to say, seemingly from beyond the grave.
Perhaps, in the shadow of his evisceration of Pope Francis, written under the pseudonym ‘Demos’, or in The Spectator under his own name, the Cardinal was called home by One who had an interest in drawing maximum attention to the wrongs now going on in His Church, and to what Pell termed a “catastrophic” pontificate. Like all good detectives, God doesn’t do coincidences.
Those who still doubt Pell’s innocence and essential goodness might profit from his Prison Diaries, as many souls already have. There is no way that those convinced of his evil values and deeds will ever do so, especially those whose day jobs require a fixated Pell hatred. The Cardinal’s goodness, guilt or innocence is not an issue of priority for those to whom he will always remain the evil gift that keeps on giving, even after his passing.
A white martyr of almost textbook proportions has gone to his eternal reward. It caught us all by surprise, and we will mourn his passing, despite knowing – to the extent that we can know these things – that he has gone to a far, far better place. They don’t get the ABC in Heaven.
UPDATE: The Fourth Estate’s War on a Dead Cardinal
I have previously identified three categories of Pell-observers. The first are those who, like (say) Tony Abbott, see a “saint for our times”, a holy man of God, a vigorous defender of the truth. The next are the rabid, obsessed bordering on derangement, Team-Get-Pell types for whom every opportunity to stiCk in the knife is taken with relish. Think Louise Milligan – the queen of the castle – David Marr, Daniel Andrews, Ray Hadley and all the rest. The third category are the fence-sitting Catholic prelates who only ever mention the victims of sex abuse whenever Pell is in the news and they are asked to comment. Archbishop Tim Costelloe seems to be the current flag-bearer.
I should now add a fourth, following the publication of an article by Terry Barnes in The Spectator Australia.
Here are the two paragraph that give rise to position four:
As a parish priest, diocesan bishop, archbishop and head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Pell’s moral failure to lead, to act swiftly and decisively to ensure paedophile clergy were tried and punished rather than moved and covered up, and its failure to purge those parts of the Church under his care of their evil stain, cannot be quashed. (written in 2020)
The issue here isn’t that Andrews, like his NSW counterpart Dominic Perrottet, has declined to offer Pell a state funeral. That’s understandable, given Pell presided over a Catholic Church that too long turned blind eyes to abuse by clergy, and in too many cases harboured them by moving them from parish to parish. Given what I wrote three years ago, it would be hypocritical to suggest otherwise (emphasis added).
(To all these might be added as a fifth category of Pell observers, namely Greg Craven’s liberal Catholics who were internal political opponents of the cardinal’s conservative position on various matters of doctrine and Church governance, and who did not necessarily see him either as a child molester or a protector of child molesters. They just didn’t like Pell’s version of the Church. Think Geraldine Doogue, Frank Brennan – a staunch defender of the Cardinal in relation to his trials and the accusers behind them – and Kristina Keneally, as three exemplars).
But here we will focus on what might be termed “the fourth estate” of Pell haters. (Or if “hater” is too strong, leave it at critics).
The fourth group, typified by Barnes, have opposed Pell with vigour if not venom, on the basis of his alleged sins of omission in relation to not doing enough to stamp out sex abuse in the Church. This was also the position of the Royal Commission in its absurd and harsh findings in relation to the Cardinal (delivered in May 2020). In a nutshell, this amounted to “well, he should have known”. Members of this group of Pell critics, possibly wilfully, misrepresent the powers of individual bishops and archbishops in relation to issues such as clerical abuse.
Writing since the death of the Cardinal, Gerard Henderson simply notes in relation to the Royal Commission’s verdict on Pell:
The cardinal has been condemned by findings that would not stand up in court.
In the case of the Royal Commission, there should have been no excuse for misrepresenting the capacity of a particular prelate to stamp out sex abuse.
The Royal Commission declared that its findings would be consistent with the precedent laid down by the High Court in the Briginshaw Case – that is, the “reasonable satisfaction” test. This entails that the more serious the allegation – the higher level of proof required before a finding amounting to “reasonable satisfaction” of an event having taken place is made.
The Royal Commission did not apply this standard with respect to Cardinal Pell – in spite of the enormously serious allegations he faced, namely covering-up child sexual abuse. Yet “reasonable satisfaction” with respect to such serious allegations requires a high level of proof.
As I document in my book, there was no verbal or written evidence against Pell. None whatsoever. That’s why the Royal Commission found that it was, variously, “inconceivable”, “implausible”, “untenable” and “unlikely” that he did not know about clerical child sexual abuse. This is not proof of any standard – including the Briginshaw Test. Such vague words are frequently weaponised to cover-up a lack of evidence.
While critics like Terry Barnes are perfectly entitled to have their views on Pell the churchman and on sex abuse within the Church, they are not entitled to have their own facts. And their error is not a minor one, nor without consequences. Because this is a widely held and continuing misconception, and the source of great misunderstanding, perpetuating the error continues a grave injustice.
Barnes claims that Pell “presided over” the Catholic Church in Australia. He did not. Barnes and his ilk seem not to understand the authority structure in the Church and the nature of the episcopacy. Archbishops only preside over archdioceses, and (Ordinary) Bishops over dioceses. Not the whole Church. But wasn’t he a “cardinal”, I hear some ask? True but irrelevant. The functions of cardinals relate to Rome and their power rests only in Rome. They are papal appointments and papal advisers. They need not even be bishops. Pell was Australia’s most prominent Catholic cleric, but not its leader or powerbroker. Just ask the other Bishops.
Getting to the heart of Barnes’ quote, there was and is no evidence that Pell ever moved abuser priests from parish to parish, and if he knew or suspected it was going on elsewhere, he was never in a position of authority to do anything about it. Moreover, while Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell introduced the Australian Church’s first-ever process to achieve justice for victims of sex abuse (the so-called Melbourne Response). He sacked dozens of accused priests the moment he was able to. He and his appointees collaborated willingly with VicPol until they turned on him. Barnes never mentioned Pell’s exemplary record on this issue or acknowledge its power in driving reform in other parts of the Australian Church. He should have. “Moral failure” on the Cardinal’s part? I think not.
Continuing with the fiction that Pell ran the church in Australia and can therefore be held accountable for all of its crimes has led directly to the persistent fallacy that is still embraced in ignorance by a large chunk of the population. And which will unjustly continue to dog the Cardinal in death.
Saying that Pell did have the power to stop sex abuse of minor by priests and religious in Australia, or that he “should have known”, intentionally or unintentionally allows the demonisation of George Pell to continue apace. It provides cover for the Get Pell brigade, shown by the events of the last week to have simply been having a sabbatical since 2020. The Barnes argument should be nipped in the bud, or at least exposed for what it is. You could almost say that those who, whether from ignorance or simple virtue signalling, maintain the fictions that Pell “should have known” or that he should have “done something”, might best be described as useful idiots, or, indeed, controlled opposition working in the service of the real Pell haters.