Hugh Riminton: The Cardinal's Legacy Is One Of Crime And Cover-Up

Peter Fox was in his caravan on the NSW mid-north coast when word came through of George Pell’s conviction for abusing two choirboys in the 1990s.

It was vindication.

“He’s gotta be jailed,” said the retired former Detective Chief Inspector, who put his career and name on the line to call out what he claimed was the deliberate protection of paedophile priests by the Catholic Church.

Of Pell’s victims, he said:

“I think there will be some degree of satisfaction that finally the courts and people are believing them.”

Pell has denied the charges, and complained previously of being the victim of “character assassination”. His lawyers have already signalled they will appeal his conviction on five counts. 

Jail time is now an option.

Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court in March 2018. (AAP Image/Luis Ascui)

“It is a phenomenal fall from grace,” said Fox.

“This was the man who was lauded and praised, held aloft. He came up with his ‘Melbourne Response’, saying ‘I’m the one doing something about it.’ It’s the hypocrisy. The whole thing was a charade.”

George Pell is the most powerful churchman Australia has ever produced. He rose to rank third in the Vatican hierarchy, taking charge of Catholic finances.  He was confessor to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

He was spoken of as a future Pope.

Rupert Murdoch was an enthusiast, declaring the churchman “brilliant” and saying his 2014 Vatican appointment was Australia’s loss but the world’s gain.

Pope Francis signs a cricket bat he received from Cardinal George Pell, at the Vatican, in 2015 (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

If normal form is followed, Pell will now be put on a sex offenders’ register.  He will likely face restrictions on travel and access to juveniles for the rest of his life.

Just last week, Pope Francis stripped the once-powerful American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of priestly rank for abusing children. He “defrocked” him.

The same fate now awaits George Pell.

Pell holds Australia’s highest civilian honour, a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). Pressure will now be applied to see that stripped, too.

Pell leaves court in Melbourne in May 2018 (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

For nearly two decades the rumours have swirled. In 2002, a man came forward to say he had been abused as a 12-year-old in 1961 by a Catholic seminarian he knew as “Big George.” Pell was identified as the suspect. The matter was investigated by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell.

Southwell wrote he was “not satisfied the complaint has been established,” noting that the level of proof had to be high.

But he found the alleged victim, who in adult life accrued a long criminal record, “gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection.”

(AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

Pell declared himself exonerated and the following year was elevated to Cardinal. The spotlight moved on.

But then it returned.

Three times he was called to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. He also faced a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry. He met with families and survivors of priestly abuse.

Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were raped by the priest Kevin O’Donnell, attended one of those meetings. He said Pell showed “a sociopathic lack of empathy.”

On oath, Pell conceded the hierarchy’s “instinct” in the face of sex abuse allegations was to “protect the church.”

“I’m not here to defend the indefensible," he said in 2016. But he always said he was part of the solution.

The legacy of Pell’s criminality has already begun.

Pell with former Pope Benedict XVI in July 2018 (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

The Vatican’s four-day summit this month to determine a new approach to sexual abuse was conducted with every senior player – including the Pope – fully aware that Pell had been convicted. Suppression orders had prevented the verdict from last December being reported in Australia, to prevent prejudicing his second trial, which has now collapsed. 

An Australian representative at the Vatican meeting, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, was frank.

“I accept our credibility has been shot to pieces,” he told the BBC. Decades of child abuse scandals have left the moral authority of the Catholic Church “massively damaged,” he said.

There is now no legal doubt that contributing to that damage was the Church’s most senior Australian servant, the paedophile prelate, Cardinal Pell.

To speak to somebody about sexual assault, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or the Kids Helpline (ages 5 to 25) on 1800 55 1800.