Pell fire and brimstone

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David Marr's new Quarterly Essay on Cardinal George Pell reveals a man totally unfit for high office, writes senior correspondent Barry Everingham.

(Image by Bruce Keogh /

DAVID MARR is not only Australia's essayist assoluta, he is our most fearless and he has – in the Current issue of the Quarterly Essay – painted a picture of George Pell, which reveals a man totally unfit for public office and a disgrace to the once powerful church of which he is a senior, though tarnished, representative.

Marr doesn't pull any punches.

He describes how Julia Gillard did what her political predecessors didn't have the balls to do for fear of offending Pell; she hit the road to Yarralumla and recommended that Quentin Bryce establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.

Let's take one step back here.

In 1993, there was an outcry when Pell walked the notorious paedophile Father Gerald Ridsdale into Court.

Jeff Kennett, foot in mouth, hosed down calls for a royal commission.

Pell was then himself accused of abusing boys (more of that later) and John Howard blocked calls for a royal commission.

Enter one of Australia's most decent politicians, the then Liberal Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu. He received a report from Justice Philip Cummins which, coupled with a report in The Age accusing the Catholic  Church of protecting paedophiles, got under the Premier's skin; he didn't take the big step, but did announce a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations.

Victoria Police then dropped a bucket over Pell, accusing him of the process he had put into place to inquire into abuse and compensation  for victims.

Then along came Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who dropped a bomb in the form of a letter to NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, saying he had investigated so many sexual assaults in his 35 years of policing he had 'lost count'.

He went on in the letter to O'Farrell:
'Having spent most of those years at the coal face I have seen the worst society can dredge up, particularly the evil of paedophilia within the Catholic Church.'

Pell went on the attack.

There was no need for a royal commission, he bleated. Such a commission wasn't needed to bring justice to victims and, anyway, hadn't his church apologised and set up procedures for redress?

(Image courtesy Craig Greenhill via Courier-Mail)

This was too much for Julia Gillard.

She heard calls from all sides of the Parliament to set up a Royal Commission. Abbott called Pell and told him the Coalition would support Gillard's Royal Commission.

Gillard called Pell and told him of her decision, which she would announce on that night's news.

David Marr's report on Pell's reaction is required reading and is repeated here:
The cardinal was beaten. He called the press to the headquarters of the church in Sydney. Pell wore on his dark suit insignia of both church and state: a cross and the gold pin of a Companion of the Order of Australia. An incongruous kiss-curl fell on his forehead. He was pale and fleshy. On the ring finger of his right hand he wore a heavy sheath of gold and he began to read from a typed sheet of paper.

What had to be done had to be done. In the louche talk of the press and the police, it's called eating a shit sandwich.

He said his church wasn't the only cab off the rank, we object to the exaggerated claims and blah blah blah...

As Marr pointed out, the Cardinal was unrepentant — the real victim in all this was the church and its enemy was the press.

In 1993, there was an outcry when Pell walked the notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale into Court.

In 1973, Father George Pell (as he was then) moved into the presbytery of St Alipius in Ballarat. It was one of the most dangerous  places in Australia for children. Living there with Pell was Father Gerald Risdale — chaplain  of the little primary school attached to the church. He was raping children. All four members of the staff, all Christian Brothers, were also abusing the children. George Pell noticed nothing, apparently.

Pell soon found himself among 115 young men living and studying and praying at Corpus Christi College, Melbourne.

Every summer, the students supervised on Phillip Island for altar boys. According to Marr, Pell helped organise fun games and worship for a couple of summers and seemed to have been liked and popular.

But Marr claims one of the boys, would later claim he had disturbing memories of a seminarian he knew then as Big George fondling his  genitals.

Phillip Scott recounts the experience:
He would grab my hand and put my hand down his trousers. This would happen at play, in the water on any occasion that it was possible. He was very skilful at grabbing me and forcing his hand down and grabbing my hand and forcing it down his pants. Big George would come into the tents and start wrestling and having pillow fights and he would grab me and thrust his hands down my pyjama pants.

Years later he would say he saw a friend, Michael Foleytelling Big George to "fuck off".

Years later Scott was watching TV with his wife; he saw a man in episcopal purple he thought  had the same walk and face as Big George. Pell was Archbishop of Sydney before any of this surfaced. A retired  judge hired by the church to investigate found Scott gave the impression  he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection but, in the end, he was not satisfied his complaint was established.

There was, however, no mention of exoneration.

Pell said he denied the claims utterly, but Scott said he would stand by the claims until the day he died.

Both sides claimed victory.

THE PRINCE: FAITH, ABUSE AND GEORGE PELL, David Marr, Black Inc., 124pp, $19.99.

Purchase David Marr's Quarterly Essay, 'The Prince', here.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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