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Fifty years of friendship with Cardinal Pell

Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization.

Australian Cardinal George Pell delivers a statement in the Vatican press office June 29, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, my pastor when I was growing up in Baltimore, was a striking character: Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; former Wall Street broker; high-ranking Army chaplain in World War II; world traveler; founding rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The latter two roles led to some creative thinking about arranging “coverage” at the cathedral during the summer, when he could be found abroad: one by one and year by year, Msgr. Whelan brought to Baltimore newly-ordained Australian priests who had studied in Rome, wanted to visit the U.S., and could use some money.

And so, precisely fifty years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967 he had become a fast friend of my family. Little did he nor I know that the next half-century would lead us into the same foxholes in various ecclesiastical battles; or to a shared friendship with a Polish priest, pope, and saint; or into synods, consistories, papal elections, and other adventures. We’re both a little slower and a little heavier than we were in the summer of ’67, when, if memory serves, I helped introduce the future cardinal to Frisbee at the beach. But the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.

That summer, Father Pell was heading for doctoral studies in history at Oxford after ordination in Rome from the Pontifical Urban University (horsemeat was a staple on the menu in his day). His intellectual gifts might have marked him out for a scholarly career. But Providence (and John Paul II) had other plans, and rather than teaching history full-time, George Pell made history, becoming the defining figure of 21st-century Catholicism in Australia. 

Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization. Thanks to Pell’s courage in facing-down the Australian forces of Catholic Lite, the Church in Oz today has a fighting chance.

Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has not been cost-free. Australia is a contact-sport country, and that national tendency to hit hard extends to both the Aussie media and to intra-ecclesiastical life. George Pell’s enemies, and their media lapdogs, have not caviled to lie about him for decades. Perhaps the most absurd charge was that this man, whose sartorial style rings up “Salvation Army Thrift Shop,” kept a house full of Church finery to satisfy his vanity. As it happens (and as I wrote at the time), I had just stayed in the cardinal’s house when this nonsense appeared; I hadn’t seen a vestment anywhere, but had noted thousands of books and the current issues of every major opinion journal in the English-speaking world.

More recently, the calumnies have become much darker, as the man who designed and implemented the Australian Church’s first vigorous response to the sexual abuse of the young has been charged with being an abuser. His friends are confident that the charges, like other fanciful allegations the cardinal has consistently denied and of which he has been exonerated, will be shown to be gross falsehoods – not least because we believe Pell is telling the truth when he flatly and forcefully denies the current accusations.

There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions that had become epidemic, ingrained, and virtually institutionalized. Given the stakes and the sleaziness involved, it would not be surprising to learn that some who would be most adversely effected by Pell’s success in Vatican financial reform may have been generating false accusations now in play in the Australian judicial system. Australia, it seems, is not the only place where hardball is played, and in very unsavory forms.

Cardinal George Pell is a big man in every sense of the word and his stamina under assault is entirely admirable. Its deepest root, however, is not his native combativeness but Pell’s faith. Its solidity, and the courage to which that rock-solid faith gives rise, may be what aggravates his foes the most.

It’s also what inspires his legion of friends, among whom I am honored to number myself – for fifty years and counting. 

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About George Weigel 420 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. I posted this comment some days ago with the Nat Cath Reg: “When will it end? Cardinal Pell is one of the few Cardinals who agree submitting the Dubia has merit. Also 2016, “Pell pointed out that ‘those emphasising ‘the primacy of conscience’ only seemed to apply it to sexual morality and questions around the sanctity of life,’ the Catholic Herald reported.” Adding “‘The idea that you can somehow discern that moral truths should not be followed or should not be recognised [is] absurd’. Along with Cardinal Burke, Pell was recently removed from the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican liturgy office” (LifeSite). We can’t assume the Vatican had a covert connection with the revival of these charges [long ago repudiated by Pell] by the Australian courts. However from my perspective Cardinal Pell has held the doctrinal line along with Cardinals Burke, Caffarra and co. And his embarrassment hurts their cause. It may also end with his removal. We seem to have a growing collection of dismissed prelates [the latest Cardinal Mueller Prefect of the CDF] who oppose the premises of AL and what’s occurring in National Bishops Conferences. This seems a prelude. Leaving the source or sources to the readers own devises that those who openly oppose the Pontiff’s policy of scriptural revision and redirecting the Church will meet with continued difficulties. There is a pattern. And cause for courage, support from Laity and clergy. But then is it not expected of us”. Author Weigel has similar suspicions that I expressed then, “We can’t assume the Vatican had a covert connection with the revival of these charges”. If someone with far more knowledge of Vatican machinations than I raises the question, then perhaps we can consider that possibility.

  2. I have long admired Pell, and hope he is vindicated. But this piece does not even touch on the question of the accusers. Much like the Fr. Maciel case, how is one to know the truth here? I always wonder why lie detector tests, though fallible, are not administered.

  3. My thanks to Mr. Weigel for his gallant public support of his embattled friend. I only have one question. Does Mr. Weigel have any friends which, are say, janitors or plumbers?

  4. I wish to thank Mr George Weigel for his wonderful article on our dear Cardinal Pell. I am totally convinced he is innocent as do many Australian Catholics. He is a wonderful example to all of us but he is carrying a heavy cross. In the end I believe he will be exonerated. Hopefully one day we will have him back in Aus.

  5. The problem of being a character witness for a friend is that it is subjective. Extremely difficult to be objective to a friend. It might end the relationship. Others who have known and worked closer to Pell have a different take.
    The merits of his case will not be determined on how many friends think he is a nice guy but did he or did he not do not nice things to others, especially young persons, and whether or not he covered for others who did not do nice things to young people. As Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am!” Hopefully, a court of law will deliver a more objective accounting of Pell.
    Interesting the Weigh throws in this assertion: There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions…
    GW doesn’t provide any hard core facts other than his personal assertion.
    I recall years ago when the clerical sex abuse scandal was emerging publicly, GW dismissed it as an American thing without any factual data. Did GW ever offer a mea culpa for this egregious diversion?

    • Considering that Catholics worldwide were in shock and disbelief when the priest sex scandal first gained credibility, Cardinal Pell’s initial response was no different than myself and every Catholic I know. Even Pope John Paul II, having first-hand knowledge of how Nazis and Communists lied about priests, was slow to believe there was truth behind the scandals. Yes, many believed the scandal was an “American thing,” so please don’t single out Pell.

    • Calm down. Have you studied the trial? Are you seriously proposing that the same biased legal system from which George Cardinal Pell got convicted based sympathy for an accuser and not evidence; which offer and objective judgment? This is a test for the future of the Australian Judiciary system and its children.

  6. The list of cardinals being dismissed/terminated is growing day by day – one thing is certain- all of these good men are clinging to the faith and opposing heresy – is there any doubt as to who the real followers of Christ are?
    God bless C. Burke, Sarah, Mueller, 3 CDF priests who were dismissed by PF, and now, C. Pell. Strange how heretics like James Martin, Capozzi (recent sex scandal), Paglia, Ricca, Daneels, Schonborn, Kasper, Bruno Forte, Badisseri and get plum positions and enjoy PF’s favor !
    We pray for the godly men who are suffering like Christ said his followers would suffer. May God reward their faithfulness.

    • You should not lump these people in with cardinal pell. Cardianl peel has been hounded by the left in Australia , particularly the national broadcaster , ABC ever since he took over the archbishopric of Sydney. For them he is a symbol of the church militant. He has been vociferously opposed to the current campaign for same sex marriage , as well as every other fashionable left libertarian cause. The charges stem from accusations aired on the ABC, which could hardly be called criminal, and a lurid book written by one of their journalists, a weird combination of hearsay and her summation of his character, and it is thought by many to be a fiction. We are supposed to believe while the cardinal was supposed to be a serial pedophile , he also instituted the first and only inquiry and compensatory mechanism to deal with child sex abuse. At present we don’t even know the actual charges are. The police spent a whole year investigating this. It was sent to the Victorian public prosecutor TWICE and sent back with no recommendation to charge. The police have charged him, many believe, to simply save face. Pell has been supported by a large number of prominent non Catholic people ,including an prime minister , the leading indigenous politician, the Victorian law council and an ex ambassador to Italy who is fierce critic of the church. In short, it is a total fit up.

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