In death, as it has been for much of his life and career, it’s clear former Catholic power player George Pell will be trailed by a cloud of scandal.
Leading child abuse advocates have spoken to The New Daily of their “deep hurt and anger” over Ballarat-born Cardinal Pell being hailed as a “saint” following his sudden death in Rome.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has been accused of “denying the truth” after eulogising about the former Vatican treasurer in glowing terms.
After the news broke in Rome early on Wednesday morning that the 81-year-old had died following complications from hip surgery, Mr Abbott spoke of his late, close friend as “a fine man wrestling with a cruel fate”.
Mr Abbott said Cardinal Pell’s conviction in late 2018 for historic child sexual abuse, which resulted in a prison term before he was freed after a High Court appeal, was a “modern form of crucifixion”.
“In his own way, after dealing so equably with a monstrous allegation, he strikes me as a saint for our times,” he stated.
‘I’m appalled, quite frankly’
Advocate Chrissie Foster, who met Cardinal Pell after two of her three daughters were abused by a Catholic priest in Melbourne, told TND Mr Abbott’s comments were “hugely triggering and upsetting”.
“I’m appalled, quite frankly,” Ms Foster said.
“Suggesting he should be seen as a saint is so opposite to what should be happening.
“When you know the truth and you’ve travelled that road and someone pulls that out of thin air and is not taking in everything that has gone on – it’s just trampling on victims’ feelings and reality.”
Other political and church figures also spoke of Cardinal Pell in highly positive terms as news of his death made headlines around the world.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton called Cardinal Pell an “important intellectual figure” while Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli prayed for him in a special service, calling for his sins to be forgiven for him to be admitted to heaven.
Ms Foster said that powerful figures praising Cardinal Pell was “disturbing” and was denying the official findings made by the extensive Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Foster’s daughters Emma and Katie were abused by Melbourne paedophile priest Father Kevin O’Donnell when they were in primary school in the 1980s.
Tragically, Emma later went on to suffer from eating disorders, drug addiction and self-harm. In 2008, at the age of 26, she overdosed and died.
Katie became a binge drinker as she reached adulthood and was hit by a drunk driver in 1999. She was left physically and mentally disabled, requiring 24-hour care.
“Pell may have seen his conviction quashed by the High Court, but there is a long list of terrible cover-ups and failures he committed over decades,” Ms Foster said.
“In my view if you deny these established facts then you’re part of the cover-up.”
In May 2020, major sections of the five-year royal commission were finally released after the criminal proceedings against Cardinal Pell were concluded.
The majority of the redactions related to what Cardinal Pell knew about accusations of child sexual abuse against various clergy in Ballarat and Melbourne, and what he should have done at the time.
Of his time in Ballarat as a young priest, he claimed to have been unaware of the horrific abuses of the now-notorious convicted paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and the Christian Brothers who were teaching in Ballarat schools, despite living with Ridsdale in the St Alipius presbytery in the early 1970s.
But the royal commission ruled otherwise, stating they were satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had “considered measures” of avoiding situations that might spark gossip about it.
Most damningly, the commission rejected Cardinal Pell’s evidence that Bishop Ronald Mulkearns lied to him and the other consultors about the true reason for moving Ridsdale, most notably for his sexual abuse and grooming of children including choir boys and school pupils. Many of Ridsdale’s victims later committed suicide.
The reports stated that pupils at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, told Cardinal Pell that Christian Brother Edward Dowlan was abusing boys there. They also accepted that Cardinal Pell said, ‘‘Don’t be ridiculous’’, before walking away.
The reports also said Cardinal Pell failed to report Father Peter Searson for violent and sexually abusive incidents.
“It’s all documented so a rejection of these failures by Pell, which meant more children were abused, is an insult to those of us impacted by clergy abuse,” Ms Foster said.
Child abuse advocate and survivor Stephen Woods, who finally won a “sizeable” legal settlement last year, has also told TND of his “anger” over what he views as misplaced positive comments regarding Cardinal Pell following his death.
The 61-year-old told how he was woken by his phone ringing about the news of Cardinal Pell’s death early on Wednesday and realised his anger towards the former Vatican treasurer was still very close to the surface, triggering memories that no payment, no matter how large, could ever erase.
Although Cardinal Pell didn’t carry out the abuse against him, the ambitious young priest was “very much on the scene” at the time around St Alipius school in the 1970s and working in the Ballarat area.
“It was only ever about power for Pell,” Mr Woods told TND.
“It’s what drove him his whole life. Like many I believe he absolutely knew exactly what was unfolding all around him, but was so ambitious for himself and the church he did nothing.”
Mr Woods was abused by two Christian Brother teachers at St Alipius and also by Ridsdale, leading him to suffer a lifetime of horrific memories and turmoil.
Social media triggers
On social media news of Cardinal Pell’s death also triggered anger among many with some recalling how his orthodox stance on homosexuality during his powerful career had made them feel suicidal as teenagers.
Another comment quietly posted online was made by the former choirboy at the centre of the allegations that the Cardinal, then Archbishop of Melbourne, had abused him in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.
TND is not quoting the man in full, to help protect his identity, but he called for people to remember the “survivors”.
As plans were under way for Cardinal Pell’s body to be flown from Italy and buried in Sydney, it is yet to be seen just how welcome his final homecoming will prove to be.
Lucie Morris-Marr is a freelance investigative journalist based in Melbourne. She wrote The Pell Diaries on the Pell legal matter for The New Daily and won the 2020 Walkley Book Award for her book on the case; Fallen, the inside story of the trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell