ROME – A senior Vatican cardinal who’s become a target of a national inquiry in Australia regarding institutional child sexual abuse has drawn strong support from his successor in Sydney, who on Wednesday called scorching criticism of Cardinal George Pell’s record “tremendously unfair.”
“In reality, he was the first bishop in the country to move on [confronting abuse scandals],” Archbishop Anthony Fisher, appointed last September to succeed Pell in Sydney, told Crux in an exclusive interview.
Fisher, generally seen as a Pell protégé and confidante, suggested the cardinal’s critics today are after something more than justice.
“There’s a desire for a scalp, for a big name to go down,” he said. “They want to put [Pell] in the stocks and throw tomatoes at him … they want humiliation.”
Despite that, Fisher said he believes Pell has the backing of Pope Francis and predicted Pell will keep his Vatican job.
Fisher spoke in Rome, three days after receiving the pallium, a short woolen cloth that’s a symbol of the archbishop’s office, from Francis.
Pell, 74, today serves as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a new Vatican department created by Pope Francis to oversee a sweeping financial reform. He served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, and then in Sydney until being named to his present post in Rome.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013 to examine child abuse in settings such as churches, schools, youth clubs, and government facilities. Its mandate is to produce a final report, with several interim reports on specific cases or themes along the way.
The six-member panel has taken a special interest in the Catholic Church’s record in the city of Ballarat, where a notorious former priest named Gerald Ridsdale was convicted on dozens of charges of indecent assault and abuse, in some cases with children as young as four, from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Fisher said “the evidence is pretty overwhelming that [the Ridsdale case and others] was handled very, very badly by the then-bishop,” Ronald Mulkearns, who stepped down in 1997.
Pell was born and raised in Ballarat, and served as a young priest in the diocese. From 1977 to 1984, he was a member of Mulkearns’ college of consultors.
Some critics who’ve testified before the commission implied Pell had knowledge of abuse at the time but failed to report it, while others suggested he helped cover it up later as he began to climb the ecclesiastical ladder.
Peter Saunders, an English abuse victim and a member of a Vatican commission advising Francis on reform, told a national television broadcast in Australia that Pell’s treatment of victims has been “almost sociopathic” and called Pell himself “a serious threat” to the protection of children. Some Australian media outlets have called for Pell’s resignation, or for Pope Francis to fire him.
Fisher, however, said much of the backlash is about matters beyond child abuse.
“For so long he was the most prominent churchman in Australia, so people assume he’s in charge of everything and has been since birth,” he said, noting that Pell was never the bishop in Ballarat and had no direct responsibility for Ridsdale or other priests in the diocese.
“Add to that a lot of people didn’t like him for the very strong conservative stand he took on a number of issues, and they would be happy to see him humbled,” Fisher said.
Fisher said there’s also a personal edge to the anti-Pell sentiment.
“Probably, some people too are looking for public contrition. They think George looks too self-confident or too gruff, too defiant. There’s a kind of Aussie male macho element about his whole demeanor they don’t like,” he said.
“They’d like to see him crying, they’d like to see him blush … they’d like to see him in some way looking hurt,” Fisher said. “Maybe they’re thinking that by putting him through this again, he’ll finally crack.”
Noting that Pell has responded to most of these charges several times before, Fisher said the experience of having to do it again seems to be taking a toll.
“People think he’s indestructible, but I’ve sensed seeing him this time that it’s getting to him,” he said. “It just goes on and on. No matter how many inquiries there are it just keeps coming back, and it gets a bit more vicious each time.”
Fisher predicted that Pell will return to Australia later this year to face another round of interrogation by the Royal Commission, and said it’s possible the final report will contain “adverse findings” accusing Pell of having failed to act appropriately.
It’s unlikely there will be any criminal indictment against Pell, he said, but there could be additional lawsuits as a result of the report, triggering what he called a “show trial” about Pell’s conduct.
“That’s part of the punishment, I think, for someone in this situation,” he said. “It’s the shaming rather than the ultimate damages awarded.”
Despite that, Fisher predicted that Pell will survive.
“I don’t think people are expecting new evidence, new findings, or some new revelation that ‘I knew about all along and I helped Fr. X do this terrible thing.’ There’s no smoking gun waiting to be discovered,” he said.
“I think it ends with [Pell] coming back to Rome and continuing his job here,” Fisher said. “I may be surprised, but that’s very much my belief about what’s going to happen.”