As Australian Cardinal George Pell returned to the Vatican this week a free man, after the guilty verdict which saw him spend 13 months in prison in Victoria was overturned, he finds himself embroiled in further scandalas the Roman Catholic Church is torn apart by infighting, jealousy, and greed at the highest level.
At a time when people across the world face their own crises of faith, the exposure of this corruption at the centre of the Church is certain to have a devastating effect on the efforts of Pope Francis to keep the Catholic family together.
My own 11-year-old daughter declared recently that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a Christian anymore, and was considering becoming a witch. With the chaos surrounding the religion she has been baptised into, what can I say? It becomes increasingly difficult to defend or promote the faith to your own children when you are horrified by what you see at the very top.
To hear of the alleged theft, mishandling, and looting of the Church’s coffers at the hands of our spiritual leaders in the Vatican while watching elderly folk reach into their pockets to add coins to the collection plate each Sunday, despite their financial struggles, is sickening.
And this apparent financial boondoggling is only a small part of the wider Pell saga.
The 79-year-old cardinal’s trial in Melbourne, Australia – my hometown – which ended two years ago, saw him become the highest-ranking Catholic to be accused of abuse, following a huge and very vocal campaign demanding he return from Italy to face the music.
Internationally renowned comedian Tim Minchin even wrote a song and released it on YouTube, goading Pell “to come down from your citadel”, while calling him “scum” and a “pompous buffoon.” It has so far been viewed by nearly four million people.
The Australian cardinal’s role in the Church was essentially that of the Vatican’s treasurer, and his particular area of concern was transparency in handling the vast amounts of cash under his control.
When the charges against him were made, they seemed clear-cut: historical child molestation accusations by two anonymous altar boys, one of whom went on to kill himself, in 2014. But, in reality, it was about a lot more than that.
The lead-up to the trial was tremendously divisive in Australian society. Pell became a lightning rod for all those with past grievances against the Catholic clergy and their involvement in child abuse at schools and institutions going back decades.
After he was initially found guilty, the mob wasted no time in exacting their pound of flesh. With Pell having been accused by the trial judge of behavior informed by “staggering arrogance,” and other abuse survivors claiming a prized scalp in their ongoing quest for justice elsewhere, plus the enemies of the socially conservative cardinal delighting in his downfall, the scent of blood was in the air.
The cardinal was stripped of his honorary position at an Australian Football League club, Richmond – the game has quasi-religious status in his hometown – and his former alma mater, St Patrick’s College Ballarat, planned to remove his name from a school building. To have your beloved football club and your alma mater both turn their backs on you is social death in Australia.
The agenda was clear: Pell was to be erased from history, from the Catholic community, from his role as a spiritual leader in Australian society, and from our memories. But there is just one problem. He is innocent. Because it now appears there was a conspiracy against Pell orchestrated by bitter enemies within the Australian establishment and at the top of the Church itself.
Pell had already found himself in conflict with the Victoria Police hierarchy in his hometown, after his launch of a local response to the investigation of historical child abuse claims that rubbed senior police figures up the wrong way. According to one of his influential supporters, Father Frank Brennan, the word from law enforcement was out on Christmas Eve, 2015: Get Pell.
An investigative trawl through his past, mining for wrongdoing, emerged with one complaint going back to 1996, from a man who claimed Pell had molested him and a companion in the priests’ sacristy at St Patrick Cathedral in Melbourne, immediately after Sunday Mass in late 1996.
This single complaint went all the way to trial, and it was on the basis of this allegation that Pell was later given a six-year prison sentence. But it seems there was more to this vendetta than anyone ever realised, even though the verdict was quashed this year and Pell vindicated.
Evidence has now emerged that suggests Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, 72, sent more than AU$1 million ($716,000) to pay off hostile witnesses against Pell in a bid to secure the cardinal’s conviction and derail his transparency programme, which threatened to expose Becciu’s allegedly corrupt handling of Vatican cash, after he had already successfully fought off a number of proposed audits.
Allegations against the Italian include claims that he channeled cash to charities run by his three brothers and was up to his neck in the purchase of a luxury building in a wealthy neighbourhood in London on behalf of the Vatican, which lost the Church money while making millions for the consultants.
This is the sort of errant behaviour we are used to seeing in the business realm – people running fast and loose with money that is not theirs. Corruption, lying, arrogance, backhanders, bribes, and outright theft. But the Catholic Church?
Cardinal George Pell might, for the time being, be back in Rome, but friends say it is only to clear out his apartment and say farewell to his colleagues, having passed the retirement age for cardinals three years ago.
Meanwhile, the fall from grace of Cardinal Becciu, his foe, who now faces difficult times ahead, provides no comfort to a man well acquainted with human foibles, and I have my own case to make to my daughter.
The struggle I face is to convince her that ‘Hail Mary’ is more worthwhile than ‘Hocus Pocus’.
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