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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Cardinal Pell’s long shadow

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 11, 2023

Personal encounters

About twenty years ago, in a series of email messages, the late Father Paul Mankowski and I exchanged arguments against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. This was a private conversation, at first, and since we were old friends, accustomed to speaking freely, the language of the exchange was fairly colorful. Eventually, convinced that our ideas were worthy of a wider audience, we cleaned up that language, removing some of the saltier expressions, and published the result in Catholic World Report.

Before it was published, however, Father Mankowski told me that he had shared the exchange with then-Archbishop George Pell. I was taken aback. Had he sent him the original, uncensored version? Yes, said Father Mankowski, unperturbed. He knew the Australian prelate well, and knew that he would not be flustered by strong language.

In fact, Archbishop Pell shared that exchange with priests in his Sydney archdiocese. I don’t know whether he toned down the language before distributing it. But I doubt it. George Pell was not much inclined to tone things down.

Another (almost) personal encounter: When my wife Leila wrote her book God Has No Grandchildren, a study guide for the great encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubi, she asked Cardinal Pell to write a Foreword, and he happily obliged. Then a few years later, after the release of Amoris Laetitae, she wrote a new edition, including some blunt criticism of that encyclical by Pope Francis. Leila contacted Cardinal Pell again, offering to remove his Foreword from the new edition, so that he would not be associated with the criticism of the Pontiff. The cardinal’s response came back quickly: the foreword stayed in the new edition.

An ideological target

Anyone who had personal dealings with Cardinal Pell could probably tell similar stories. He was a big, brash, blunt man, given to plain speech and unafraid of conflict. You knew where you stood with him; you knew where he stood.

His unapologetic defense of Catholic orthodoxy made him a convenient target for liberals in Australia, where Catholics are a minority and most prelates prefer not to swim against the current. When he was called to Rome to head the new Secretariat for the Economy, his dogged pursuit of financial improprieties earned him enemies inside the Vatican. Even today, after his sudden death, news reports show how he continues to act as a sort of litmus test for attitudes toward the Church. The headlines that refer to him as a “divisive” Church leader indicate that his battles continue.

Cardinal Pell’s most painful battle—the battle to clear his name, after he was charged with sexual abuse—should never have happened. The charges against him were spurious, his conviction was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, and the fact that many obituary notices called attention to his conviction (and only later the reversal of the charges) demonstrates how far some of his ideological opponents are willing to go, ignoring facts in their zeal to destroy him.

After spending more than a year in prison, Cardinal Pell was finally set free when Australia’s highest court ruled that his conviction was rendered in clear disregard for the facts of the case. This was not a reversal on a technicality; the high court found that anyone who looked at the evidence could only conclude that the cardinal could not possibly have done what he was accused of doing; it was physically impossible.

How, then, had Cardinal Pell been convicted in the first place? His trial was a sham: a kangaroo court, governed by an animus against Catholicism rather than a concern for law. Oddly, his fellow Australian bishops were muted in their protests, and the Vatican continued issuing statements of confidence in the Australian system of justice long after such confidence should have evaporated.

Through it all Cardinal Pell maintained his dignity: always insisting on his innocence, but never attacking his accusers. In fact the cardinal sat down with some accusers in Rome, giving them a respectful hearing although he already knew that their claims were unfounded. He traveled from Rome back to Australia to face charges, rather than hiding behind diplomatic immunity in Rome (as at least one other cardinal has done), showing his own confidence that the truth would eventually win the day. Then after years of public humiliation, reaching its nadir when he spent months in solitary confinement without the opportunity to celebrate Mass, he used his imprisonment as an “extended retreat,” offering up his suffering, and writing the Prison Journals that show another side to the man. He was not always bold and brash; he was also humble, pious, and ready to forgive his accusers.

An honest legacy

Still most of those who knew him, friends and foes alike, will remember Cardinal Pell not as the patient victim behind bars, but as the outgoing and outspoken prelate who would say, in plain words, what many others were thinking. He was the one who would stand up at a meeting of the Synod of Bishops, slam down a book on his table, and roar: “You’ve got to stop manipulating this Synod!” With another Synod in preparation, just before his death he issued another clarion call, denouncing a “toxic” and “incoherent” preparatory document.

He was not always subtle. He was not always diplomatic. But in a world dominated by romanitas, where habits of subtlety and diplomacy often camouflage timidity and corruption, he was a welcome change—and a constant challenge. May he rest in peace.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jan. 14, 2023 11:39 PM ET USA

    Thank you Mr. Lawler for this wonderful appreciation of Cardinal Pell. He truly was one of the most honorable bishops we have had in the past 20 years. I must look up your wife’s book!

  • Posted by: Northern Digger - Jan. 14, 2023 10:10 PM ET USA

    Neither Archbishop Stepinac nor Cardinal Mindzenty was a Reverend Milktoast!

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Jan. 14, 2023 3:02 PM ET USA

    I can only say "Phil, you are entirely correct. He is what all of our bishops and our supreme bishop, Pope Francis, should be".