Editorial: An Obituary for George Pell

Cardinal George Pell is dead, and we are not in mourning.

Ribbons tied to the gates of St Patrick's Cathedral in Ballarat in support of child sexual abuse survivors. Courtesy of Belinda Coates via Wikimedia

CW: Honi wishes to advise its readers that the following article contains reference to child sexual abuse and other atrocities committed by the Catholic Church including misogyny; denial of reproductive rights; and homophobia.

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” — Revelation 21:8

Cardinal George Pell is dead, and we are not in mourning. 

We cannot pretend to mourn a man who has caused and facilitated so much suffering. We cannot pretend to mourn a man who left his victims with lifelong scars. We cannot pretend to mourn a man who helped perpetuate child abuse in the Catholic Church. We instead mourn the childhoods lost, and the lives irrevocably shaped by this man’s harm. 

As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell established the controversial Melbourne Response in 1996. The program purported to provide counselling and legal support to victims of abuse in the Catholic Church, but was criticised by the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for capping compensation payments, liming victims’ access to legal support, and lacking compassion for survivors.

When he sat on a committee responsible for placements of  priests in Victoria, Pell facilitated Ballarat priest Gerald Risdale’s movements between parishes. This exposed potential victims to a man who had been accused of sexually assaulting parishioners, and is now a convicted criminal.

Pell stepped back from service in 2002, while a Church-appointed commission investigated allegations of misconduct levelled against him. A retired judge found that, on the available evidence, the accusations against Pell could not be proven. 

In 2007, Cardinal Pell was sued by former altar boy John Ellis, after a priest abused Ellis in the 1970s. The NSW Court of Appeal, however, found that since Pell and the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church were not the case’s “proper defendants”, Pell evaded responsibility for his actions. The “Ellis defence” gave the Church an out, withholding fair  compensation to the families of victims.  

As temperatures rose on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Pell absconded to Vatican City in 2014. He then served as the Vatican’s prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy, one of the most senior roles in the Catholic Church.

In 2018, Pell was convicted of molesting two choir boys while serving as Melbourne Archbishop in 1996. He spent just 405 days in jail, before the High Court unanimously overturned the decision.

Pell’s acquittal remains an indictment on the Catholic Church and Australia’s justice system, two institutions which continue to silence and disregard accounts of widespread child sexual abuse. 

Conservative to the end, Pell will be remembered for his refusal to allow women into the clergy, his concerted effort to limit access to birth control, and his alienation of queer communities. He was a stalwart protector of Catholic orthodoxy, and he failed to protect the people under his care.

Honi extends the deepest compassion to survivors of institutional sexual abuse, and recognises their bravery in standing forward and attempting to bring this man to justice.

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