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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Reflections on the life and times of Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell at St Mary's Cathedral. Picture by Sylvia Liber

IN the words of Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the late Cardinal George Pell was "without doubt Australia's most prominent ever churchman" - an accolade that was previously reserved for Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the all-powerful Bishop of Melbourne who held that title for 46 years until his death in 1963.

Cardinal Pell's career in the church was indeed a stellar one, and his latter-day work in Rome, tackling corruption in the Vatican and its banking system, would ordinarily be seen as exemplary and far-reaching, and all the more outstanding given the Australian's status - in Roman eyes - as an outsider from the dominions.

But for many observers, the image of Cardinal Pell will inevitably be tied to the crisis of clerical child sexual abuse that has been exposed, over time, as a global plague within an institution, which, at its heights, literally guided the development of the Western world, for better or for worse.

As Newcastle Herald readers know, sadly, all too well, the scourge of clerical paedophilia was particularly prominent here, in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

This was confirmed by the Royal Commission.

That history means that as word of the cardinal's passing spread yesterday morning, there were many who were less than salutary in their responses to the news.

In the eyes of the law, Cardinal Pell was a man who was cleared by the highest court in the land, the High Court of Australia, after he appealed against his conviction, and jailing, on charges of child sexual abuse.

The High Court, which acquitted Cardinal Pell, quashed the convictions after finding "a significant possibility" that an innocent person had been committed.

Having maintained his innocence from the start, Cardinal Pell returned to Rome, and resumed his work.

But the truth is that his reputation was damaged - in the court of public opinion, at least - well before these events.

His strenuous defence of his church was increasingly at odds with the broader acceptance of its failings, and while he complained of mistreatment by the media, the Shakespearean tragedy that engulfed him was largely self-inflicted.

Ultimately, Cardinal Pell was a product of the church to which he dedicated his life.

He was, indeed, a significant figure, but one whose stature was lessened by an inability to show humility when it was most needed.

ISSUE: 39,802

Cardinal George Pell in Newcastle in 2006 with the subsequently disgraced Anglican Dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence. Picture by Kitty Hill

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