After a bruising week of testimony by Cardinal George Pell before an Australian Royal Commission examining his record on child sexual abuse cases, the 74-year-old prelate may have given Pope Francis enough reason to justify keeping him around in the Vatican, both because of the lack of any new “smoking gun” revelation and also by pledging his support for anti-abuse efforts.
If so, the urgent question will be whether Pell’s past will trump his present — meaning whether he’ll still have the papal backing he needs to finish the work of bringing transparency, accountability, and integrity to Vatican finances, which is the central reason Francis brought him to Rome two years ago.
Pell, the Vatican’s top financial officer, was giving testimony about his response to abuse cases in the city of Ballarat, where his priestly career began and which has been an epicenter of Australia’s abuse scandals, and also about his time as archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001. He appeared via a video link from Rome, after a heart condition made the long flight home inadvisable.
The four-day hearing was not a walk in the park, and Pell undeniably took some hits.
Over and over, he insisted he was not aware of what he conceded was a “world of crimes and cover-ups” regarding pedophile priests, that he, too, had been deceived, and that at most he was guilty of being insufficiently curious. Those claims strained credibility for many Australian observers, including his chief interrogator, who described them as “implausible.”
A columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote Friday that “two George Pells” fought for control of the history books during the testimony, and “one lost.” Some survivors who were on hand to hear Pell’s testimony protested on Thursday that anyone watching had been “deceived and lied to.”
Yet against all odds, there are five ways in which Pell actually may emerge in a stronger position from this experience.
First, the lengthy examination failed to produce any new “smoking gun” proving that Pell had direct knowledge of abuse and covered it up. He did admit to one instance in 1974 of being told by a student that a priest at a local school was “misbehaving with boys,” but said the student did not request action.
If there was such a bombshell, this surely would have been the moment in which it emerged.
By the end, the main charge seemed to pivot not on what Pell knew, but what he should have known — not what he did, but what he should have done. Those are serious questions, but there was no suggestion of any act that would rise to the standard of a crime, and the same questions could be asked of virtually anyone else who was in Ballarat at the time.
Second, Pell went through the strenuous process without complaint, agreeing to testify from 10 p.m. every night in Rome until 2 or 3 a.m. He was under no legal obligation to do so, which makes his cooperation meaningful.
Third, at the end Pell met with several of the 15-20 abuse survivors, relatives, and supporters who flew over from Australia for the hearing, with at least some coming away striking positive notes.
“I think he gets it,” said survivor Phil Nagle, who was abused by a priest in Ballarat while Pell was the vicar for education.
“We talked about the future, not the past,” Nagle said. “We talked about compensation, about care, about what the future will be for us survivors and how the Church is going to help out from George’s level down.”
That implies that Nagle sees a role for Pell as part of the solution, not just the problem.
Fourth, Pell pledged his support for the survivors and for recovery efforts from the abuse scandals, including offering to help create an Australian research center for abuse prevention and detection.
Fifth, at the end of the hearing, Pell did not use comments to journalists to issue laments about the unfairness of it all or to suggest that he’s some kind of martyr.
Instead, he said the limelight he’s attracted might be of some use in Europe, in terms of raising awareness of the abuse issue and cajoling the Church into abandoning its traditional culture of omertà regarding clerical crimes. (That’s probably an especially pointed comment with respect to Italy, where the abuse scandals in most respects are still to arrive.)
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Pell, who turns 75 on June 8. There are calls in Australia and elsewhere for Pope Francis to set an example by firing him.
In Italy’s L’Espresso magazine on Thursday, journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, who’s currently facing a Vatican trial for publishing leaked financial documents, insisted the pope must get rid of Pell now, because otherwise it would “gravely put at risk the image of a revolutionary and inflexible pope, the sworn enemy of the maniacs who infest the Church.”
It’s not clear whether Francis will act on that advice, although in the past he’s shown himself deeply reluctant to make personnel moves under pressure.
Assuming Pell does stay on the job, it will be important for the pontiff to find a way to make clear that Pell’s Australian difficulties have not damaged his capacity to implement the financial house-cleaning that was a key component of the pope’s electoral mandate three years ago.
The worst of all worlds for a reforming pope probably would be to frustrate those who want to see Pell held accountable as a symbol of “zero tolerance” for child abuse, and simultaneously to hand a win to the Vatican’s old guard terrified of Pell’s clean-up efforts on money.
The pope’s challenge boils down to this: If Pell stays, then he needs to stay for real, with the tools he needs to do the job. Otherwise, the actual “grave risk” to Francis’ image would be to allow criticism on one front to impede real change on another.