C: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0 https://bit.ly/3W6HUfX)

For whom the Pell tolls!

“Don’t spend your life sitting on the fence, keeping your options open, because only commitments bring fulfilment. Happiness comes from meeting our obligations, doing our duty, especially in small matters and regularly, so we can rise to meet the harder challenges”. — World Youth Day homily (2008).

On hearing of the death of Cardinal Pell I was filled with sadness at the loss of such a loyal friend and servant of the Church and an enormous influential figure within the Catholic community. For many, he was a true disciple of Christ. 

In the final years of his life, he endured incredible suffering. In 2019, the Australian cardinal, then the Vatican’s chief financial officer and advisor to Pope Francis, was wrongly sentenced to six years in prison for molesting two boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.

The cardinal was wrongly convicted on five counts in December 2019, making him the most senior Catholic official — and the first bishop — to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors in what was described as a “show trial”.

After a five-year legal battle, in 2020, an innocent Pell was finally vindicated after the Australian High Court unanimously overturned his conviction on five counts of historical sex abuse in a 7-0 decision. 

After enduring five years of devastating accusations, humiliation, character assassination – and 405 days in prison – he was released from jail. Eight of his 13 months in prison were spent in solitary confinement. The cardinal used his time in prison as a sort of “extended retreat” and his full writings, his ‘prison diaries’ including prayers, personal thoughts, and details of his daily activities, are to be released in full in the aftermath of his death.

Speaking upon his release from prison, he told the media: “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.”  Words, which in the eyes of many commentators, should have served to heal and haunt the Catholic Church all at once.

In the eyes of The Australian’s Legal Affairs contributor, Chris Mettitt, the treatment of an elderly Pell represented “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice we’ve ever seen in this country,” comparing the “lynch mob” before his trial, his unsuccessful appeal, and his 405-day imprisonment to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s wrongful conviction in one of Australia’s most high-profile murder trials.

Despite the terrible injustice he suffered, Pell was not bitter. In a statement released after the ruling, which surprised some, he declared: “I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.” And he was right.

Cardinal Pell was a very close friend of Pope Benedict who had died just days earlier and it seemed surreal that two of the great figureheads of Catholicism should pass away so close to each other. Like Benedict he was a fearless defender of the faith and Church doctrine. He called a spade a spade, and never compromised on sin. Being a man’s man he would inevitably incur the wrath and vitriol of the effeminate elites. A man who could not be cancelled, even in a post Christian world, he declared: ‘Truth is the only defence for all of us.’

While some ghouls on the left couldn’t wait to hop on the twitter bandwagon to spew their venom and vile celebratory remarks about his death – Twitter has been overrun with hatred since his death – anyone with an ounce of compassion would realise that this was terrible and unexpected news for millions of Catholics in Australia and around the world.

Cardinal Pell was a fierce defender of the faith and its orthodoxies. His stand against the new sexual liberation got him in real trouble. He believed that the Church should be a beacon of eternal truths rather than promoting modern sexual mores. 

One issue in particular which made him an obvious target for the media and the cultural progressives was his staunch support of catholic teaching on marriage and homosexuality. The most memorable instance of this occurred on Pentecost Sunday 1998. About 70 members of the Rainbow Sash Movement attended Mass at St Patrick’s cathedral where Pell was chief con-celebrant. He refused to give them Holy Communion because their sashes indicated that they rejected church teachings.

This for Pell was not ostracism of a marginalised group within the Church but a ‘teachable moment.’ In a statement he said: ‘this incident allows me to explain the centrality of Catholic teaching on marriage and family. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ 

He was also unwavering in his proclamation that abortion was a grave sin. He was a frequent guest on television, and often graced the pages of national newspapers, willing to take on the most ardent of atheists and critics of the Catholic faith.

It would be fair to say that Cardinal Pell’s strict adherence to the Church’s teaching on sexual matters became a lightning rod for the far left which believes that by sweeping away Tradition we can create a utopia on earth without God. In such a scenario, institutions that promote faith, family and religion must be eradicated. 

Many believe that is why Pell was railroaded on sex abuse charges. Everyone knows that the charges brought against him were nonsensical. Sky reporter and close friend Andrew Bolt who closely followed the case stated that Pell was an innocent man who was the victim of one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice in Australian legal history. Mr Bolt said it is “impossible to believe” Cardinal Pell was accused of child sexual abuse in 2019. 

“Victoria Police advertised for so-called victims and eventually found nine people who lodged 26 charges,” he said.

“All of those charges were so preposterous that they ultimately failed, some didn’t even make it to court, they were so intrinsically stupid.”

He added that Cardinal Pell was “crucified” and “died for the sins of others”. As the crowds spat upon Pell they got their pound of flesh for 405 days. As Michael Cook remarked: ‘If you can tell the quality of a man by the venom of his enemies, George Pell was a mighty figure.’

To his admirers, he was a warrior of orthodoxy, an unwavering defender of the faith and a courageous culture combatant. To his enemies, of whom there were many, he was an object of fear and repugnance – someone who was a clear target for character assassination who had to be brought down.

Another memorable moment came when plain-speaking Pell, then Archbishop of Sydney, went head to head with professional atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. 

The 2012 showdown between ‘God and the Godless’ became famous, and saw the pair debate everything from the existence of God, to evolution, to resurrection, and eternal damnation. The famously divisive Q&A has since racked up millions of views across YouTube:

In the years since his release from prison, Pell returned to normal life as best he could. In a moving tribute, Chavagnes International College, a British-style private Catholic school for boys in France, where Pell was Patron, friend, and supporter of the school’s principal for the past 25 years, recalled fond memories made with him during his last summer on earth.

“He spent a happy holiday week at the College this June among friends,” the school said on Instagram this week, sharing cheerful photos of Pell spending time with pupils, staff and fellow priests, young and old. 

“A great barbeque of two, beautiful weather, visits to the sights of the Vendee, Confirmations, Pontifical Mass and a beautiful concert. We also enjoyed his talks and homilies,” the school reminisced on learning of his passing. 

They described him as “a great and holy man who suffered much, loved much, and understood much”.

“We need more leaders like him. May he rest in peace,” the boarding school wrote – sharing a carousel of images of a contented-looking Pell teaching in the classroom; smiling down at buttery-yellow candles on a birthday cake during an outdoor celebration; and smiling beside friends in the brightness of summer.

Looking at the photos, I felt I had gained a small, personal insight into who Pell was in his final years, and I felt happy to know he was afforded that sense of freedom and peace after such a gruelling five years of injustice and anguish.

C: Chavagnes International College (Facebook)

C: Chavagnes International College

In volume 1 of his prison journal the late Cardinal wrote: ‘Many of us are tone deaf to the supernatural. Not tuned in to any godly wavelength.’ 

This could not be said of Cardinal Pell. He was the first Church leader globally as Archbishop of Melbourne to hear and respond to whispers of God’s voice which led to the Melbourne Response Protocol being established in 1996 to investigate and deal with complaints of sexual abuse in his Archdiocese. The Melbourne Response, though not perfect, preceded the creation of ‘Towards Healing.’ which opened the door for abuse survivors to come forward to tell their stories and to begin to hold Church leaders accountable.

Many of those who were close to Cardinal Pell paint a picture of a man who was fearlessly honest, clear sighted, ever forgiving, ever generous, all combined with a wickedly subtle sense of humour. He was a wise scholar and defender of Holy Mother Church; he endured profound suffering these past years, being falsely accused of a crime he could not have committed as well as serving 13 months in prison. 

Known as Big George in his youth, he was tall in stature, and known for having a commanding presence in person. Early in his life, he showed huge promise as a sportsman, and excelled at Australian Rules football. Ultimately, he decided that despite his athleticism, his calling was not on the football field.

He was not some antique fuddy duddy as the media liked to portray him but a man of the people. From his life, we can learn to stand up for what we believe in and not to back down in the face of bullies who promise us an easier life if we succumb to their demands. 

Thankfully while most of us will never see the inside of a jail cell, much less be locked up in one for more than 400 days on horrible charges of which we are innocent, Cardinal Pell teaches us how to react to circumstances in which we find ourselves: never give in to despair.

Finally he lived by his motto ‘Be not afraid’ to the end. Maybe at his funeral they will play this beautiful hymn with the following words in it:

‘And if wicked men insult and hate you

all because of me,

Blessed, Blessed are you

Be not afraid

I go before you always

Come follow me

And I will give you rest.’

(May eternal light now be his, who so steadfastly believed in the God of Jesus Christ).’


Gearóid Mac Mánais

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