Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Coming out of Cardinal Pell's shadow

  • 26 February 2014

When it was announced in 2001 that Melbourne Archbishop George Pell was to be made Archbishop of Sydney, the incumbent, Cardinal Edward Clancy, said Pell was 'a controversial figure, and controversial figures generally create a few enemies as well as friends along the way'.

Pell's latest promotion, to head an important new office in Rome with authority over all financial matters within the Vatican, is proof of the powerful friends he has made. Pell's appointment as Cardinal Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy was approved by Pope Francis — the third pontiff to have demonstrated extraordinary confidence in Pell's abilities since he was made Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne at the comparatively young age of 46 years in 1987.

As for enemies, it is not hard to compile a list of those who will be glad to see Pell go. It would include most liberal Catholics, many priests who have served under him (one of whom once described him as 'a memory of all those silly stereotypes of authority that used to haunt us as children'), and many of his fellow bishops, who saw him as too eager to please Rome and too prone to do his own thing without acting in concert with them.

Aside from a few extremely conservative Catholic groups that he has favoured, one group that is likely to regret Pell's departure are those journalists and commentators for whom he has loomed large as a figure of ridicule, especially over the issue of clerical sexual abuse. The reason for this has nothing to do with any proven remiss on Pell's part and everything to do with what attracts media attention to him.

By any standards, Pell is the kind of tall poppy people in the media love to cut down. He is the highest profile leader of any church in Australia. He is not shy of media attention. He never takes a step backwards in defending traditional Church teachings and legitimate Church interests. And, publicly at least, he stands his ground in the kind of imperious way that easily invites the charge that he is out of touch, arrogant, and a bully.

Yet Pell has not actually achieved much in terms of his ambition to restore unity to the Church and restore the confidence of 'rattled' Catholics. His star has risen in an age when Australian Catholics ceased to be a tightly-knit community of largely Irish working-class migrants and their offspring