I’m not an expert—not even close—on Australian politics or Catholicism Down Under, but over the past few years I’ve carried on correspondence with a number of Catholics in Australia. And these folks, all of them serious and learned Catholics, have consistently painted a picture that is often troubling, even disturbing. One of them recently lamented that while, until recently, “there was an identifiable thing in Australia known as Catholicism”, that “thing no longer exists.”
To Americans, this source noted, this will sound “pessimistic,” but to Australians “it could well not seem pessimistic enough.” Hyberbolic to some degree, but also indicative of the frustration of many Catholics Down Under. Anti-Catholicism runs deep, and while the U.S. certainly had its share of anti-Catholic nastiness in the day—notably in the Nativism of the early 1800s and the animosity against Catholic immigrants in the decades that followed—much of Australia seems to have held on rather tightly to its suspicion, dislike, and even hatred of the Catholic Church. (This is not to disregard how much the secular media and elites still go after the Church in the U.S., but to note the difference in degree between the two countries.)
Church leadership in Australia has, by and large, not helped matters in the least. Not because the bishops there have been overly orthodox or “conservative”, but because they have been mostly soft, squishy, or worse. Or, in the words of another correspondent, “worse than useless”. This same correspondent notes that Cardinal George Pell has been one of the few exceptions, being personally responsible for almost anything and everything good that has taken place in the Church in Australia since “the mid-1990s.” This has earned him many enemies, as Mercatornet.com’s Michael Cook—who writes from Australia, where the site is based—summed up in a recent piece:
George Pell’s problem is his strength of character. He was born two generations before Mark Zuckerberg, but the motto of Facebook, “move fast and break things”, expresses something of his style. Even physically, at 6-foot-3-inches, he is an imposing figure. He is a blunt speaker, a tough and practical manager, a theological conservative, a supporter of the Pope, and an outspoken critic of contemporary social mores. He was the plumber of the Australian Catholic Church, the man who fearlessly waded into the sewer of its sex abuse scandal and cleared the blocked drains.
So Pell has no shortage of enemies. When Australia had a referendum on changing the head of state from the Queen of England, he was a leading supporter of Australia becoming a Republic. That was divisive. He opposes homosexual activism, which is divisive. He strongly opposes same-sex marriage, which is bitterly divisive.
He supported John Paul II to the hilt and amongst his clergy that was divisive. He set up his own sex-abuse protocol and amongst the Australian bishops that was divisive. He shook up the Melbourne seminary and that was divisive. In his role in the Vatican, he has worked hard to set finances right and root out corruption and that was divisive.
George Pell’s career is a kind of mise en scène for an Agatha Christie novel in which Hercule Poirot finds that the dead man in a pool of blood was living in a hotel and every resident had a motive for murder.
Or, as one of my correspondents put it:
‘The Australian leftist establishment hates him, the gay lobby hate him, the atheists, liberal Catholics and feminist ideologues hold him in contempt and he has taken on the Italian mafia in trying to reform the Vatican’s finances. There is also the issue of freemasonic influence in the Victorian police force’.
Freemasonry? Many Americans will either scoff or be puzzled by such claims, but the role of freemasonry in Australia (and some countries in Europe) is not something of past centuries or moldy conspiracy theories. But even setting that aside, Pell has plenty of enemies from:
• Secular liberals, as Cook explains: “The attacks on Pell ultimately stem from a loathing of the Church and its moral teachings amongst the left-leaning Victorian political establishment. At the moment it is in government, noisily campaigning for euthanasia and transgender rights and quietly gloating over the possibility of destroying Australia’s best-known Catholic.”
• Liberal Catholics, as described by Peter Craven of The Sydney Morning Herald: “The antagonism between Pell and those urbane worldlings of the Church is certainly true and many people don’t realise that Pell was loathed by a lot of Catholic liberals long before he became identified with the abuse issue in the public mind. In fact, the opposition to Pell (which was shared by his predecessor as Archbishop in Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, who seems to have been rather more of an appeaser of sexual offences) was quite marked at the very stage that Pell was making an impact as the most forceful and personable churchman since Daniel Mannix.”
• The media, as lambasted by former politician Amanda Vanstone: “The media frenzy surrounding Cardinal George Pell is the lowest point in civil discourse in my lifetime. I’m 64. What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages. Some in the media think they are above the law both overseas and at home. Deep pockets of your boss or lesser pockets on your victim, build bravado. If your assets aren’t on the line you can trash a reputation with gay abandon.”
It’s worth pointing that the media in Australia has long had very low approval ratings (something that Americans can identify with). With such a poisonous and poisoned situation, the question many are asking is: Can Cardinal Pell get a fair hearing? “It has been Pell’s misfortune to be a good man, an effective manager and a loyal priest,” states Cook. “In today’s world that is a dangerous combination. Ensuring that he gets a fair trial will be the ultimate test of the fairness of Australia’s courts.” Vanstone, a political liberal, wonders:
If there were a real prospect of Pell being charged one might have thought authorities would have sought an injunction to prevent the publication of a recently published book on him and certain allegations. Isn’t it normal to try to ensure a person can get a fair trial by keeping prejudicial, untested material out of the public arena?
The book in question is Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (Melbourne, 2017), by Louise Milligan. “Each and every allegation of abuse and cover up against him is false,” said a spokesman for Pell in May about the book, adding it “is an exercise in character assassination.” The book, as of late June, has been pulled by the publisher. But the book has been reviewed in great detail by Julia Yost of First Things, and has been found wanting:
The formal charges against Pell may differ from those highlighted in Milligan’s book. It is in the nature of sex abuse hysteria that allegations, true or not, will multiply. So I would be surprised if the formal charges did not include novel accusations. But let us scrutinize the case we have before us, in the same way those formal charges must be scrutinized: in terms of their cogency, credibility, and underlying assumptions.
Milligan does not attempt to conceal her hostility to the Catholic Church. She recalls her Catholic girlhood with a shudder. When she can, she quotes her sources disclaiming any vendetta against the Church. But she is equally happy to quote a source, for instance, who recalls that his mother “took her shoe off and hit me in the face about six or seven times and said I was dirty”—in accordance, he says, with the “Catholic system.” Whenever she can, Milligan associates Catholicism with the victimization of children.
In her image of Pell, this association takes a monstrous form. Pell exhibits a “sociopathic lack of empathy,” not least in his adherence to traditional Catholic moral teaching. This portrait soon descends into schoolyard caricature. Taking up a popular epithet for him, Milligan calls Pell a “bully” over a dozen times. As a bishop, Pell used print, radio, and televisual media to bully his flock, by (for instance) voicing his concurrence in Veritatis Splendor. Pell is a bully because, when confronted by people who feel that Catholic moral teaching is unkind, he insists, nonetheless, that it is true. One source recalls Pell’s televised argument with actress and remarried divorcée Colette Mann: “There was sheer pain in her voice and there was pain and hurt in her whole attitude and she was speaking from her heart. If George had just reached out to her and touched her on the forearm and said something like ‘I am so sorry’ … But no. He hasn’t an ounce of empathy.” Pell is endlessly convicted by his critics of being insufficiently therapeutic, of failing to model emotiveness and bring about catharsis. The freighting of one churchman with such vast psychodynamic potency verges on the fetishistic.
There is much more, which is important reading—but not easy reading, as Yost does not turn away from questions about logistics, groping, and probing. Her comparison to the daycare abuse hysteria of the 1980s is, I think, a legitimate and important one; the parallels are quite striking on many levels. If Yost is correct in her analysis and Pell is true in his denials, then one of my Australian correspondents is right on the mark in stating: “He is the quintessential scape-goat. This is an example of white martyrdom.”
Yes, it is true that Cardinal Pell may be guilty of some or all charges. But I’m inclined to think he is probably “guilty” of being blunt, occasionally insensitive, orthodox, and unwilling to bent to the whims of those who would prefer he go away. He has expressed readiness, even eagerness, to clear his name. “However that plays out —” writes George Weigel at National Review Online:
and investigative reporters looking for a really good story should be digging into the possibility of an Italian–Australian connection or connections in this affair — George Pell will have his day in court. He will not be the only one on trial as he faces his accusers in a court of law, however. The reputation for fairness and probity of the Australian police and judicial systems will be on trial with him, as will the Australian media and those in Australian politics who have directly or indirectly encouraged — or at the very least failed to stand up against — the relentless and brutal attack that has been underway against one of Australia’s most accomplished sons for years.
July 9, 2017: Another reader/correspondent from Australia sends me the following note:
I saw your article on George Pell and, as I have lived in Sydney for the last 30 years, thought I would put in my “tuppence-ha’penny worth” on the Pell case.You are right to say he has many enemies. Many within the Church don’t like him because he stands against to those in the who think that Catholicism is socialism with a dog-collar.It is unlikely that he will get a fair trial in Australia, particularly in the People’s Democratic Republic of Victoria.A witch-hunt has been going on for some time. Andrew Bolt is a conservative commentator who writes a political blog and he has been complaining about the witch-hunt for some time (See: “The George Pell Witch Hunt”). There is a TV-show called “Common Sense” (I think they go into groups of people at that place of work) which asks the “average Australian” about current affairs and very recently they discussed Pell. One woman apparently said words to the effect that ‘I can tell from his face he is guilty’. Incredible stuff! I have heard from someone who knows someone connected to the case that Channel 10 will be getting a legal letter shortly.All that said, perhaps a successful conviction is not the aim, but to throw enough mud at him and the Church.The regard in which Catholics are held depends not only the viewpoint of the person or group, but also on the context. So for instance, the Catholic school system is held in high regard. Irish Catholicism is sometimes romanticised as rebellious against the English and feeds into Labor politics and the republican movement. On the other hand, when it suits the Labor left politically, they attack Catholicism with hatred and disdain.One example was when Tony Abbott, then the Leader of the Opposition the Federal Parliament in Canberra, was interviewed by the Australian Women’s Weekly. Abbott is a prominent Catholic who has three daughters. They asked him what he would advise his daughters in matters of sex and he replied that they should not do anything they would regret and not to give themselves away lightly. Sensible advice from a father to his daughters. This was quickly turned into an attack on all women, despite the fact that the interview was of a personal nature. (See: “Abbott lecturing women about virginity: Gillard”).