Home Features Saint or sinner? Australia split over Cardinal George Pell

Saint or sinner? Australia split over Cardinal George Pell

One of the most powerful figures in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell died at the age of 81 on Tuesday in Rome due to heart complications following a hip operation

In death as in life, Cardinal George Pell split opinion in Australia: while believers on Wednesday mourned the passing of a “great churchman,” sexual abuse survivors said they would shed no tears.

One of the most powerful figures in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell died at the age of 81 on Tuesday in Rome due to heart complications following a hip operation.

The man who was convicted, jailed and then cleared of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s remains deeply polarising.

“It was very sad personal news to hear and quite a shock,” said Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli.

But Phillip Nagle, an abuse survivor in Victoria, said he believed Cardinal Pell knew more about sexual abuse than he let on.

“None of us will be shedding any tears,” he was quoted as saying in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.

‘All of us are sinners’

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A Mass was held for Cardinal Pell in the city’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.

“The cardinal has I think been one of the great churchmen of Australia and internationally. He over many years has been a forthright defender of the faith, a great gospel man,” Archbishop Comensoli told reporters outside the church.

Asked whether the Church’s record of handling cases of sexual abuse might tarnish Cardinal Pell’s legacy, the archbishop said steps had been taken to address that history.

“I am a sinner, all of us sinners. And all of us in that sense have failed in different ways,” Archbishop Comensoli added.

Former conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, a friend who visited Cardinal Pell in prison, said the cardinal’s name had been tainted by a “monstrous allegation.”

“His incarceration on charges that the High Court ultimately scathingly dismissed was a modern form of crucifixion,” Abbott said.

“He strikes me as a saint for our times.”

Cardinal George Pell
Australian Cardinal George Pell gestures as he speaks during an interview in Rome, Italy Dec. 7. (Photo by Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

‘Olympian hypocrisy’

But for many, Cardinal Pell’s name will always be linked to the torment of sexual abuse victims of the Church.

In 2019, Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison and registered as a sex offender.

He spent 12 months in Barwon Prison near Melbourne before the Australian High Court quashed his convictions on appeal, opening the door for his return to Rome in late 2020.

Although cleared by the courts, a separate government inquiry criticised Cardinal Pell’s indifference to sexual abuse claims inside Australia’s Catholic Church.

“The Olympian hypocrisy and double standards of the Church hierarchy are on full display,” RightSide Legal lawyer Michael Magazanik was quoted as saying in The Age.

“An outpouring of love for a man who at the very least turned a blind eye to massive child abuse, dreamt up a legal scheme which ripped off abuse survivors and personally seemed incapable of empathy with victims.”

‘Battle continues’

Donald McLeish, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Cardinal Pell embodied the Church’s neglect of sexual abuse victims.

“There’s no joy in anyone dying of course, but a lot of the survivors will be very hard-nosed about it all,” he said.

“He’s gone but the battle continues.”

Australian lawyers, meanwhile, confirmed they would press ahead with a civil case listing Cardinal Pell’s estate as a co-defendant.

The case had been brought by the father of a former altar boy who alleged he was sexually abused by Caardinal Pell. His son died in 2014.

“The claim will continue against the church and whatever estate Pell has left behind,” Shine Lawyers said in a statement.

Asked about Cardinal Pell’s passing by reporters, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his condolences “to all those who are mourning today.”

The cardinal’s body is to be returned to Sydney for burial in the crypt at St Mary’s Cathedral, Church officials said.

Albanese refused to be drawn on whether he would attend the funeral, saying only that no date had been set.

“The announcements will be made. They haven’t been finalised yet.”

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