More of the Same in the Cardinal Pell Case

Pell, standing before the the symbolic keys to heaven and hell of the Catholic Church

The news media has been awash in the story of Cardinal George Pell, the highest ranking Roman Catholic official in Australia and the number three person in the Vatican hierarchy.  Following a two-year police investigation, Pell has been charged in Australian courts with multiple accounts of sexual assault.

What I find telling is that, in the course of the investigation, Pell has declined to travel to Australia, citing ill health due to a heart condition.

So let me get this straight. The guy is the chief financial advisor to Pope Francis and one of the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic Church. He apparently has authority over the Vatican bank, the Catholic Church’s enormous investment portfolio (reportedly comprising as much as 25% of all Italian stocks and bonds), the Vatican’s massive world-wide real estate portfolio and more. He also likely is responsible for the asset transfers from the Vatican to American dioceses working to settle sex abuse cases. No doubt this is not a 9-5 job, and certainly not one for the faint of heart, especially considering the allegations that have surfaced over the years about Vatican corruption and dealings with organized crime. (Remember the Blackfriars scandal? That was scary.)

And yet Cardinal Pell has thus far testified only by video from the Vatican, citing his ill health? Even if there were a reason he could not fly — and there may be medical reasons why, including unstable cardiac arrhythmias — I’m willing to bet that the Vatican could send a physician with him, or put him on a cruise ship. 

So, until now, Pell has played the classic Roman Catholic strategy when confronted with evidence of sexual misconduct: Deny everything, argue that you’re being maligned, fail to produce records if you can, denounce sexual misconduct, and babble on about how you’re grateful that the pope has given you leave to go back to Australia to clear your name.

Meanwhile, allegations of sexual misconduct involving both his own conduct and his handling of other abuse cases have dogged Pell for years. Thus, putting Pell in a place where he has access to Vatican financial resources — including funds used to settle sexual misconduct cases in the US — and where he has direct access to the pope, is like leaving the fox to guard the henhouse. 

Moreover, it is scandalous that Pell wasn’t immediately suspended from his position when allegations first surfaced. If nothing else, his position at the Vatican may allow him to tamper with evidence and influence witnesses. In short, his very presence in office makes any investigation inherently suspect.

To compound matters, in 2016 Pope Francis abandoned earlier plans to establish tribunals to establish accountability for bishops who have failed to address allegations of the sexual misconduct, instead slapping some window dressing on existing canon law. That seems a case of trying to declare “peace with honor,” as existing canon law has done very little to fix the problem.

There’s also a wrinkle that many have missed in the recent coverage, which is that the Vatican appears to have sidelined both of the laypersons, themselves the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, assigned to assist the church commission on protecting victims of sexual misconduct. Marie Collins, molested by an Irish priest at a young age, resigned, citing a “shameful lack of cooperation,” by the Vatican. Previously, Peter Collins, the other lay advisor to the commission, was suspended after describing Pell as a “dangerous individual,” and his response to victims as “almost sociopathic.” 

Sure sounds to me like Collins is one of the parties behind the Australian investigation. I hope so, and that he has an opportunity to actually serve as an advocate for survivors of abuse.

Granted, it sounds like Collins is a firebrand. But why not? It is normal and healthy for victims to feel anger and resentment., and if Pope Francis is serious about things, he needs to understand that it goes with the territory. But then, given that Collins claims the pope has never visited the commission, lack of insight on Francis’ part is hardly surprising.

The more things change at the Vatican, the more they stay the same.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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