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Cardinal Pell’s death brings few tears in Australia

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At St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, the polarising legacy Cardinal George Pell leaves in his Australian homeland was evident.

The cathedral is where Cardinal Pell first rose to the rank of archbishop. It is also where he is accused of molesting two choirboys in the 1990s.

As news of his death spread on Wednesday, mourners were pictured attending a commemorative mass at the church. They shuffled past ribbon tributes left for victims and survivors of child sex abuse on the cathedral fence.

Cardinal Pell was Australia’s most powerful Catholic, but he was also reviled by many.


During a career spanning six decades, Cardinal Pell worked his way through the ranks of the Church in Victoria, serving as Archbishop of both Melbourne and then Sydney, before he became one of the Pope’s top aides.

“He was a man who put Australia at the centre of the Catholic world in a way it never has been before,” Australian Catholic University historian Miles Pattenden told the BBC.

‘Unpopular figure’

Even before he faced charges himself, Cardinal Pell’s reputation in Australia was marred by the Church’s failure to tackle its child sex abuse crisis.

“There is a sense in which he became a lightning rod for the anger,” historian and former Catholic priest Paul Collins told the BBC.

As a leader, many Australians felt he bore some responsibility for the broader Church’s concealment of abuse, he says.

But a landmark inquiry into child sex abuse in institutional settings found Cardinal Pell also personally knew of child sexual abuse by priests in Australia as early as the 1970s and had failed to take action. Cardinal Pell disputed the findings, saying they were “not supported by evidence”.

George Pell

Image source, Getty Images

The cleric also faced criticism as an architect of the Australian Church’s first victim compensation scheme.

Called The Melbourne Response, the scheme was hailed by Cardinal Pell’s supporters as evidence of his keenness to address the crisis. But it capped compensation payouts, forced many survivors to waive their right to lawsuits, and was accused of generally lacking compassion.

A review of the scheme’s operations between 1996 and 2014 found it spent as much money on administration as it did compensating more than 300 victims.

Then in 2018 a jury convicted Cardinal Pell of abusing two boys while Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.

Cardinal Pell, who always maintained his innocence, spent 13 months in prison before the High Court of Australia quashed the verdict in 2020, finding the jury had not properly considered all the evidence at his trial.

But the father of one of his alleged victims is now suing for damages in a civil court. The suit will continue against the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Cardinal Pell’s estate.

Pell made lots of Church opponents

Cardinal Pell also divided opinion in the Church globally.

When he was appointed to lead the Vatican’s first ever Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, he took to cleaning up its finances in the same “forthright, uncompromising” manner he’d approached throughout his entire career.

A framed photograph showing Cardinal George Pell with Pope Benedict XVI is seen on display at St Patrick's Cathedral

Image source, Getty Images

“He was a man who got things done, who was able to plan and implement reform… he shot straight from the hip,” said Dr Pattenden.

“In doing that, he made lots of opponents within the Church.”

A social conservative, Cardinal Pell had also frustrated many more liberal believers.

“He didn’t accept any criticism of the Church,” Mr Collins said.

“His vision of the Church was very much the old-style triumphalist Catholicism, the know-all Catholicism.”

But he’ll nonetheless likely be remembered by the global Church as an unapologetic defender of traditional values and for his efforts to improve financial accountability, says Mr Collins.

Funeral details to be announced

In Australia his legacy is messier, and the country now grapples with how to mark the life of such a polarising figure.

His body will be returned to Australia after commemorations in the Vatican.

“I imagine that there are high-level discussions going on with the Australian Church and possibly within the government as well, thinking about what the right way to commemorate Cardinal Pell is,” Dr Pattenden said.

He was beloved by many conservative Catholics – former Australian Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard among them – many of whom see his prosecution as politically tainted.

“I liked and respected the late Cardinal a lot. His passing is a great loss to the intellectual and spiritual life of our country,” Mr Howard said.

Churchgoer Jeremy Ambrose, who knew Cardinal Pell personally, said he is devastated by the cleric’s death.

“I’ve always experienced him as kind, warm and generous,” the 38-year-old told The Age newspaper.

But for the broader Australian population, Cardinal Pell “wasn’t a very popular figure”, Dr Pattenden says.

“Sympathy for Cardinal Pell was not extensive in Australian public opinion, and hadn’t been for quite some time.”

And his death brings up difficult feelings for many survivors of child sexual abuse, which must be balanced.

There’s frustration Cardinal Pell died without accountability for his alleged role in Church abuse and cover-ups. No senior member of the Catholic Church has ever been convicted for the concealment of abuse in Australia.

Phil Nagle, who was abused by a priest in regional Victoria in the 1970s, said many survivors are glad Cardinal Pell is dead.

“None of us will be shedding any tears,” he told The Age.

“I reckon they’ll be drinking champagne.”

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