ROME – After having been freed from jail in April when Australia’s High Court ruled unanimously he never should have been convicted of child sexual abuse in the first place, and after watching his erstwhile Vatican archenemy not just fall but plummet from grace last month, Cardinal George Pell completed his comeback tour Monday with a half-hour audience with Pope Francis.
When Pell left Rome in 2017 to return to Australia to face those abuse charges his future seemed bleak, while that of his nemesis, then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu, seemed almost unlimited. Becciu was as the height of his power as the sostituto, the pope’s Chief of Staff, having wrested control of the Vatican’s financial reform away from Pell and centralizing it largely in his own hands.
The changes of fortune since that moment have been almost too numerous to track.
A year later, Becciu was out as the sostituto, though it was a soft landing since he was made a cardinal and assigned to run the Vatican’s department for making saints, one of those positions in which it’s possible to make new friends and reward old ones. Still, the view was that the boss must have lost a degree of faith in Becciu to remove him from what is, by common consensus, perhaps the most important post in the Vatican after the papacy itself.
Several months later, Pell was convicted in a second abuse trial in Australia in February 2019 after a first resulted in a hung jury, and he began serving what would turn out to be more than 400 days behind bars.
Yet, after a little more than a year, Pell was once more a free man. Several months later, Becciu wasn’t quite in prison but unquestionably in the dog house – fired from his post at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and his rights as a cardinal, and a magnet for accusations and investigations regarding virtually every form of fraud on the books.
So, is Pell back? More likely than not, it depends on what you mean by “back.”
His Monday tête-à-tête with Pope Francis clearly means that his exoneration on abuse charges is complete, at least as far as Francis and his team are concerned. If there were any lingering doubt about his guilt, not only would he not have gotten a half-hour with the pope, but Vatican News wouldn’t have published a lengthy piece that ended with the subhead, “The Holy See welcomes the acquittal.”
Moreover, sources around Francis say the pontiff deeply admires the way Pell handled his ordeal, trusting in his own innocence and allowing the Australian justice system to do its work without any assertions of special privileges. The pope was photographed smiling during the encounter, and was seemingly happy to have the chance to pass some time with Pell.
As far as Becciu goes, we already know that Pell has taken deep satisfaction in his dismissal, issuing a statement congratulating Pope Francis and expressing hope the cleaning of the stables will continue. Becciu’s downfall has been read by insiders as an indication that Pell was on the right track when he was running the financial reform and had the old guard quarterbacked by Becciu in his sights.
Therefore, it’s entirely fair to say that Monday’s audience put an exclamation point on the vindication of George Pell.
Some, however, wonder if Pell is “back” in another sense, meaning a return to power in the Vatican, finally being able to finish what he started as Francis’s “tip of the spear” for financial reform in 2014.
A resurgence in that sense is much less likely, for a variety of reasons.
First, there’s no job available right now. Francis has already appointed his own team, meaning people he trusts, to the relevant positions of financial leadership, including Pell’s old post as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. That’s now being led by a member of Francis’s own Jesuit order, Spanish Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, and all indications are that Guerrero enjoys the pope’s confidence.
In addition, Pell turns 80 on June 8, and it’s also unlikely the pope would appoint him to a position from which he’d probably have to resign in eight months.
Second, there’s no indication Francis has changed his mind on a couple of crucial points which caused him to trim Pell’s wings and return control to the Secretariat of State three years ago.
Pell wanted the Vatican to rely on external auditors and consultants, both for the expertise they can bring and also to have independent sets of eyes on the Vatican’s books. That was judged a mistake, not only as a possible dilution of the Vatican’s sovereign autonomy but also because those external actors often don’t have a solid grasp of what makes the Vatican so unique and thus which solutions would work without compromising its identity.
Pell also believed in profits, meaning that the point of reform wasn’t merely to end corruption but to convert the Vatican into a savvy international investor. He wanted to generate a sufficient return on investment that other major Catholic players would want to join forces, driving the bottom line even further into the black.
While Francis has approved the idea of investing Vatican income to generate more resources for charity – ironically enough, he even did so in November 2019 in the context of semi-defending a controversial London deal with which Becciu was linked – he nonetheless has a somewhat different vision than Pell, one deeply skeptical of big-money capitalism and its investment culture.
None of this is to say that Pell can’t become the elder statesman of Vatican financial reform, playing a sort of éminence grise role. He obviously knows where many of the bodies are buried, and anybody currently charged with financial responsibility in the Vatican would be crazy not to want his advice.
However, it’s not quite as simple as “if not A, then B.” The fact Becciu is out doesn’t automatically mean Pell is back in, at least in the sense of running the show.
On the other hand, whether or not Pell is able to participate in another conclave, the odds are now dramatically lower that he’ll ever have to watch Angelo Becciu walk out as the new pope. That might not qualify as a full “resurgence,” but it’s a good bet it still feels pretty satisfying.