Cardinal George Pell is probably the highest profile Catholic back home in Australia – he’s the former Archbishop of Melbourne; former Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney; and the current Vatican Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy. (Think of him as the Pope’s treasurer.) He’s easily the highest ranking Prelate of the Catholic Church to originate from Australia. He is also the highest ranking Cleric of the Catholic Church to be facing sexual assault charges.
Huh, who would’ve guessed it would be going in that direction?
I’ve been holding off writing a review for this book because it was such an ugly read. I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into – I would expect nothing different from anything that touches on the child sex abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church. However, I was surprised at how long that feeling stayed with me.
The start of ‘Cardinal’ is like that of many other general biographies, detailing how Pell grew up, his days at the seminary and how he came to carry his more conservative Catholic beliefs. This part of the book paints a picture of a man who is intelligent, forceful, and even at this early stage, a bit of a bully. He’s also the kind of man who is not inclined to back down when challenged and will counter with his own attack.
This part of the biography has it’s own little undercurrent of horror as well. When talking about Pell’s days in the Corpus Christi Seminary, the author will often namedrop other priests and public figures who went through around the same time – and the number of them that carry the addendum of ‘was later convicted of 17 counts of X’, or ‘went on to be convicted of 11 offences of Y’ is quite disturbing. It appears the issues with abuse the church has been having are systemic, and the atmosphere in places like the seminary definitely contribute to that.
I want to stop here for a moment and make a comment on Louise Milligan’s writing style. For the most part, it’s quite straightforward and lays things out very plainly. However, she’s not above using quite emotive language. I don’t blame here; it’s a highly emotive subject. However, it’s in stark contrast to other books of similar subject matter that I’ve read, such as the cult expose “The Family’, and it took some getting used to.
Later in the book, there are two significant points of focus: those about the interrogation of Pell’s activities with regards to the Royal Commission Enquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; and those dealing with the later charges of sexual assault.
The Royal Commission, to keep it short, was started in 2013 to investigate historic cases of child sexual abuse within Australian institutions; with a particularly strong focus on the Catholic Church. To be clear here, Pell himself had not been accused of assaulting anyone at this point. The Commission’s primary interest in him was linked to the Church’s inadequate responses to accusations made against other members of the clergy and the lack of action taken against them. As I mentioned before, Pell is a very, very senior member of the church – and some genuinely horrendous activities occurred under his watch. It’s it this point I feel I need to bring up two of Pell’s (and to be fair – the churches) biggest oversights: Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson.
To be fair to Pell, he wasn’t that senior a member of the church in the mid-seventies and eighties, when the Ridsdale affair was at its peak. However, he would have been a consultor to the then Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, who was directly responsible. Gerald Ridsdale, whom Milligan points out is probably Australia’s worst serial pedophile priest, was the scrouge of country Victoria. His behaviour was so piss-poor that he was shipped around to over a dozen different parishes, including one late night secret flight, to escape the accusations against him. One of these communities was Ballarat, where his tenure overlapped with that of Pell – at one point, they were even living together. So you would think that with this degree of closeness that perhaps Pell would have twigged that there was something very wrong with Ridsdale before he got caught out? Mulkearns knew, as did many of the other consultors, and it took until the early 90’s until charges were finally brought against him.
Peter Searson was a bigger problem for Pell, as he was the Auxiliary Bishop responsible for the region when the accusations against Searson came to light, which made it harder to cover up or turn a blind eye. Additionally, while Ridsdale may have been the most ‘prolific’ offender, Searson was the most disturbed.
A list of grievances which had been prepared included ˜harassment of children, and a range of unsettling issues like hanging around the kid’s toilets, showing children a dead body in a coffin, forcing children to attend confession on demand, harassing staff and parents, and cruelty to animals.
There is a reference […] to Father Searson stabbing to death a bird in front of the children?
So, you can understand why people would be outraged on finding out Pell know about Searson but didn’t remove him from the parish.
Pell’s testimony for the Commission was a circus in its own right. By this point, he had left Australia and was residing in the Vatican, and when asked to return to give evidence, he pleaded poor health and only agreed to communicating with the commission via a video link. To say this refusal to face them angered the abuse survivors is an understatement – they were bloody furious. The phrase ‘Get him a fucking air ambulance!’ was overheard when it was announced that Pell would not be attending in person.
This incident was not the only poor publicity Pell received throughout the Royal Commission. When he was trying to explain that how he eventually found out about some of Ridsdale’s activities (before his conviction, but well after the Ballarat years), Pell made the following unfortunate statement:
I didn’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t. It’s a sad story, and it wasn’t much interest to me.
I might be one of those heathen-atheist types, so I don’t know how welcome my input is here, but for someone who’s job involves pastoral care, shouldn’t empathy be something they’re capable of practising? Or at least develop a clever fake of it? He didn’t fare much better when he started quibbling about whether or not Stearson’s bird was alive or dead when it got stabbed either.
The secondary focus of this book involves the accusations against Pell himself. While ‘Taskforce Sano’ had been looking into this issue for some years, it was done very quietly; and the general public didn’t hear about it until the author of this book, and another journalist, Lucie Morris-Marr, started reporting on it.
This case is ongoing, so I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the charges. What I am going to mention instead is the contention around this book with regards to the case. ‘Cardinal’ was published in May last year, and within two months, it was withdrawn from sale by the publisher. This was necessary to avoid prejudicing the trial against Pell. So I was unable to purchase a copy of this in my home state and had to wait until I moved overseas to get it from Amazon.es
Beyond the specifics of the case, what the latter part of the book discusses heavily is the difficulty of obtaining testimony from accusers who do not have a perfect background. Some accusors may not be taken seriously if they have a criminal record of their own, for example. Sadly, one of the first signs that something was wrong for many of these victims as children was that they started acting out, and depending on their home life or the support they got, many of them ended up on a downward spiral. Purity judgements against traumatised victims have proven to be a huge barrier against them seeking help, and its one that the author shows a great deal of sympathy for. It’s a pity the general public can be so callous about it.
So yes, I found this book to be very emotionally draining. However, it’s also an important read. I’ve decided against giving this a star rating. And I am not going to apologise for my choice of hashtags here either.
Also, in a roundabout way, this book hits the Fahrenheit 451 square on bingo.
(As a small postscript, to raise enough money to send a number of the people from Ballarat and Melbourne to the Vatican to ‘eyeball’ Pell while he gave evidence, a pair of comedians organised a Kickstarter and charity song “Come Home (Cardinal Pell).” I’ll leave a link here because it is quite… something)