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Rohan Salmond for The Religion and Ethics Report

Cardinal George Pell will be remembered as a reformer with 'a big heart' by some but reviled by many others

Forty-eight hours after Cardinal George Pell launched a review of major transactions at the Vatican Bank in 2014, something happened that his then-offsider Danny Casey describes as a "remarkable coincidence". 

A car was firebombed out the front of Casey's apartment in Rome. 

"It was quite remarkable that it occurred [but] it didn't slow us down. We continued," he tells ABC RN's Religion and Ethics Report

"I've been going around for nearly 20 years. I've never seen anything like that."

The sudden death of Cardinal Pell this week has been met with mixed responses, and he leaves behind a divided legacy, which is only partially explained by the traditional left/right culture war. 

There are many inside the Catholic Church who remember him as courageous and compassionate. And he was lauded in Rome for significant anti-corruption reforms in the Vatican's financial systems, even though he clearly had some significant critics.

Yet he is publicly reviled by many others, both inside and outside religious spheres. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made negative findings against Pell. And his death has been triggering for many survivors, victims and complainants of child sexual abuse in the Australian Catholic Church. 

In death, he is as divisive a figure as he was in life. 

The 'many facets' of Pell

Dr Rosemary Sheehan is Emeritus Professor at Monash University in the Department of Social Work, and she has a particular interest in child welfare and the law.

She says, in her numerous dealings with Cardinal Pell, she saw he had "many facets" and describes his legacy as "mixed".

"I imagine for those who have been harmed by the spectre of sexual abuse by the clergy, the death of Cardinal Pell is going to trigger for them, again, that misery and that distress," she says. 

"[Their] lives have been turned around and hurt in ways that we can't even begin to understand. It would be very triggering, and possibly a source of great fury."

However she says there were aspects of Pell's work, particularly in social services, that don't fit neatly into the conservative mould.

"Perhaps not well known was the willing support Cardinal Pell offered for mental health and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry I sought when I was part of a project to support women after prison. He asked, 'How much do you need?' and immediately provided it.

"It might not seem coherent that these two ministries were supported by him, but I think he will represent a particular chapter of Church history, and he has changed the lives utterly of many in the Church."

Catholics pay tribute to Cardinal George Pell

People who worked with the Cardinal directly, like Danny Casey, describe him in glowing terms.

"I think that there's many people who judge Cardinal Pell who've never met him and never came close to him," he says.

"Those of us who did know the man knew what a big heart he had, and the deep concern he had for the individual – the poor and the vulnerable."

Firebombs and the Vatican Bank

Casey worked alongside George Pell at the Vatican in 2014, when the Cardinal was appointed as Secretariat for the Economy, with financial oversight of the agencies of the Holy See. Casey had already worked closely with Pell for many years as business manager of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Together, they took on years of tradition and vested interests in the Vatican Bank.

"A long-standing Monsignor said it was the biggest reform in 500 years in Vatican finances and administration," Casey says.

"I thought he was being a little kind, but he was a historian, and I think he was quite correct."

Prior to Pell and Casey's work, financial scandals plagued the Vatican for decades, with many trials for embezzlement and money laundering still ongoing.

The reforms Pell made included basic compliance with international treaties and reviews of major financial transactions. These reforms were sharply opposed by what Casey describes as a vocal minority.

"I think [Pell] and I both underestimated the level of resistance. They were all reasonably basic things that we thought would not be a matter of great contest, but they were for some."

Neither that resistance nor the firebombing of the car outside Casey's Roman apartment slowed down their work.

"When the Cardinal presented the new financial management framework to the Holy Father, he signed it immediately. And that laid the foundation for the future.

Casey says Pell saw how important it was to clean up the Catholic Church's finances.

"He used to say we're not a business, but we need to be businesslike in the way in which we conduct our administration and affairs so that we have more money to actually do more good work. More money to be able to support the poor and the vulnerable."

'A symbol of child sexual abuse'

However, outside the inner workings of Vatican finances, public perception is far less positive.

In 2018, Pell was convicted of the sexual abuse of two boys. Despite his strenuous denial and the High Court's later decision to quash the ruling, an association with sex abuse remained in the minds of the general public. This can be seen widely on social media in the wake of his death.

Then, in 2020 the Royal Commission found Pell knew of child abuse by clergy in the 1970s but he did not adequately address it.

Francis Sullivan is the former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council – a national body that oversaw the Catholic Church's engagement with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"The Royal Commission revealed the culture of the church that led to concealment and encouraged secrecy … that is the abuse and misuse of power."

He says that during the Royal Commission, "George Pell became the symbol of the Catholic Church when it comes to child sexual abuse."

His death doesn't mean that chapter is over.

"The Royal Commission Report speaks for itself and was very damning of the episcopal leadership of the church, and that's more than George Pell.

"Many bishops and religious leaders were completely overwhelmed by the scandal and how to deal with it.

"I think people like George Pell knew that the modus operandi of the past was unacceptable," Sullivan says.

"In my time in my role at the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell was 100 per cent supportive of everything I was trying to do. That's very important and very interesting."

A conservative force

Beyond the Royal Commission, Sullivan sees Pell's legacy within the church as conservative – slowing or even halting what he sees as necessary reforms.

He says Pell was "frightened by" the outcomes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which included the celebration of mass in common language instead of Latin, reforms in church liturgy and a more open attitude towards other Christian denominations and other religions.

"George Pell, along with others … made a deliberate attempt to get into positions of power and influence to manage the fallout of Vatican II in their ideological interests. That's the political truth of the matter.

"He wanted to keep the ship on a particular course. Unfortunately, on any index, that looks like it failed, because more Australian Catholics have left the church during that time."

He points out that the Church's public tone and optics, particularly around LGBT+ people and divorce, "sound too judgemental and discriminatory," and Pell played a role in that messaging.

"The church's engagement in normal life of Australians is fractured. On that basis alone, the church has become divisive."

Both admirers and critics can probably agree with Francis Sullivan's summation of Cardinal Pell's legacy.

"He was a lightning rod for discontent. He was a cultural warrior. He had ideological positions that you never died wondering about, and he would say that of himself."

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