Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Anatomy of a Pathology

Published in The Catholic World Report on May 25, 2020


Those who imagined that the sliming of Cardinal George Pell would stop as of April 7, when a unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia acquitted him of “historical sexual abuse,” did not reckon with the climate of venomous hatred that has surrounded Pell for decades, fouling Australia’s public life, legal system, and politics in the process.

That climate certainly was a factor in the Victoria police department trolling for accusations against George Pell (most of which were dismissed before trial; others were finally quashed by the High Court decision). That climate surely tainted the trial that led to the cardinal’s conviction in December 2018, despite a jury having been shown that it was literally impossible for him to have done what he was alleged to have done, where he was alleged to have done it, and in the time-frame proposed by the prosecution. That climate likely influenced the otherwise incomprehensible decision of two justices of the Supreme Court of the State of Victoria when, in August 2019, they upheld the jury verdict in spite of a devastating dissent by the one justice on the appellate panel with substantial criminal law experience. That climate shaped the commentary of the gobsmacked anti-Pell Australian media in the immediate aftermath of the High Court’s acquittal; no one in that baying mob of Pell-haters had the honesty or grace to admit that the case against Pell had been irrational from the start, or that the High Court had saved Australian justice from becoming an international laughingstock (and worse).

The incessant, even obsessive, degradation of Cardinal Pell has continued in recent weeks. After the High Court’s decision, previously redacted portions of a report by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse were released. The anti-Pell media, trying to rebound from the defeat it had just suffered at the hands of Australia’s supreme judicial authority and stung by the bludgeoning it had taken from a few brave commentators in the Australian press, claimed that the Royal Commission’s full report confirmed their claims that Pell had been part of a vast cover-up of such crimes as a young priest – this, despite the cardinal’s vigorous rebuttal of those claims and massive evidence that it was Pell’s superiors who had engineered and carried out the cover-up, sometimes in consort with the police..

The Royal Commission’s work will be addressed later, for it, too, was affected by the anti-Pell climate of hate prevalent in many Australian circles: a climate of intellectual dishonesty, religious prejudice, and vile politics redolent of that which fouled the public air during the Dreyfus Affair in late-19th century France. The first order of business, however, is to try to understand just what spawned this climate of hatred.

The short answer is that the public climate of rabid Pell-hatred is the by-product of certain poisonous fumes that have polluted public life Down Under for decades. Some of those fumes were spewed into the atmosphere from Australian politics. Others were generated by a very ugly Catholic history for which George Pell has been scapegoated. Still others involve an aggressive secularist assault on biblical religion. Together, these combustible elements ignited to create a public atmosphere of irrationality unbecoming a mature democracy. That atmosphere created the circumstances in which George Pell’s critics and enemies were able, with virtual impunity, to defame one of Australia’s most distinguished sons, and do so with a ferocity that has led the unhinged to issue death threats against him.

How did this happen? Australian public life is not for the faint of heart, but this is not typical Aussie hardball. This is something properly described as pathological, and the underlying pathogens should be explored. In doing so, it will be helpful to distinguish the pathogens generated by Australian politics from the ecclesiastical pathogens, although the two reinforced each other for decades and continue to do so today.

The Political Pathogens

The political side of this tawdry story requires a dive into the mid-20th century history of the Australian trade union movement and the Australian Labour Party: a tale that revolves around a formidable figure named B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, arguably the most controversial Catholic figure in Australian history prior to George Pell.

Many Australian unions were deeply penetrated by communists in the 1930s and were thus aligned with the policies of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The disturbing effects of that penetration were soon evident. As a member of the British Commonwealth, Australia quickly entered World War II when its government accepted Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3, 1939; Berlin, however, was then allied with Moscow through the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939. So when Australian troops were sent to the Middle East in support of Britain’s efforts to halt the German advance there, unionized Australian dockworkers refused to load military supplies intended for their deployed countrymen – and would not do so until the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 put paid to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Stalin switched sides, and the word went out from Moscow that Hitler was now the enemy.

Strong communist influence in the Australian unions also had serious repercussions in the Australian Labour Party [ALP], which was wedded to the country’s unions even more closely than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party was to the unions of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the U.S., trade unions were one important part of a complex Democratic coalition that also included Wilsonian progressives, southern segregationists, and big-city Catholic ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest; in Australia, the ALP was the political expression of the unions, period. And while communists had not completely gotten control of the ALP, non-communist members of the party feared, in the early 1940s, that it was only a matter of time before the takeover was complete and the ALP became irreversibly aligned with Soviet policy.

Enter Bob Santamaria.

A labor activist and devout Catholic whose mind and spirit were shaped by the social doctrine of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, Santamaria was a shrewd political strategist and tactician as well as a serious thinker. As such, he realized that the only way to break the communist hold on the unions, and therefore on the Australian Labour Party, was to out-organize the communists from the bottom up, on the shop floor level. At the state and federal levels, communists controlled the levers of power; and while they did not insist on communist ALP candidates for state and federal office, they welcomed what were then known as fellow travellers. Their grip on the unions and thus on the ALP could be broken, however, if the communists could be out-voted at the most basic level of union activity: individual workplaces or shop floors, where the process of choosing state and federal union and party officials (and thus selecting political candidates for election to the state and federal parliaments) began.

Santamaria, often working through parish priests who helped him identify union members amenable to reason, created what became known as the Movement: a reforming effort that taught trade unionists the principles of Catholic social doctrine, trained them in leadership and organizational skills, and then, shop floor by shop floor, took back the Australian labor movement from the communists. By the mid-1950s, communists had lost control of every major union in Australia and their influence within the ALP had been seriously eroded.

None of this was easy, and the battle to save Australian trade unionism created rifts within the Catholic Church, religious home of many union members. Bishops with different ideas of the Church’s role in public life took different positions on Santamaria and the Movement’s efforts, to the point where an appeal was made to Rome to sort things out; Rome’s Delphic response (don’t form a Catholic political party – which no one, including Bob Santamaria, was proposing – but fight the communists) settled nothing, and the division between pro-Santamaria bishops and anti-Santamaria bishops presaged, in a way, the split in the ALP itself in the mid-1950s. A new party, the Democratic Labour Party [DLP], was built on Santamaria’s principles. As the junior partner in a coalition, the DLP helped the Australian Liberal Party (which is actually the conservative party in Australia), dominate the country’s national politics until the mid-1970s.

It would be an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to say that Bob Santamaria was the crucial figure in forestalling what might have been the communist takeover of Australia. By breaking the communists’ hold on the key trade unions, he undermined the communists’ influence in the ALP. The subsequent fracture of the ALP was a bitter one, and Bob Santamaria was never forgiven by the ideologically hardened elements of the Australian Left for his work in the 1940s and 1950s.

Over time, the hard Left in Australia, like others of similar disposition throughout the world, took the exit ramp from Marx-and-Lenin Boulevard onto Antonio Gramsci Parkway: making its peace, more or less, with a market-oriented economy, the Aussie hard Left, tutored by the Italian Marxist theorist Gramsci, began the long march through the institutions of culture. Rather than pursuing control of the “means of production,” as old-school Marxists would have tried to do, the hard-core Australian Left undertook a program of radical secularization of public life, support for the sexual revolution in all its manifestations, and, most recently, identity politics.

That program successfully conquered much of the Australian media, much of the Australian university world, and indeed most of Australian culture (high and low); at the same time, cowed politicians of more conservative social instincts were brought to heel, such that what was once the far Left became the center of Australian politics. The result in much of Australia is a de facto dictatorship of relativism, in which shaming, ridicule, and the relentless media persecution of dissenters from the mainstream, nihilistic cultural consensus have been used to create a public climate that (as one veteran Australian political operative put it to me) “makes California look like Alabama by contrast.” In his exasperation, my friend perhaps heightened the contrast (for one ought not sell California’s polymorphous perversities short); and he was specifically referring to the State of Victoria. But similar, if not quite-so-dramatic, situations obtain throughout the country, not least because of the virtually complete capture by the Left of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the taxpayer-supported national television and radio service.

Yet despite its success in the long march through the institutions of culture and the transformation that success has produced in Aussie politics, the ideologically hardened Australian Left continued to hate Bob Santamaria. For Santamaria had compounded the original sin for which the Left never forgave him – beating the communists at their own organizing game in the 1940s and 1950s – by his defense of Pope Paul VI’s teaching on human love and the appropriate means of family planning in the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. In that defense, Bob Santamaria was a lonely figure among publicly prominent Australian Catholics and did not have the same success within the Church as he’d had in his struggle for the body and soul of Australian trade unionism. But he fought on. And in the decades between Humanae Vitae and his death in 1998, Santamaria became a vocal proponent of the dynamic orthodoxy and social doctrine of Pope John Paul II.

In that, as in his ongoing battle against the lifestyle Left, he found a co-belligerent in a man he befriended and to whom he became something of a mentor: George Pell.

Preaching the homily at Santamaria’s funeral in 1998, then-Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne began on a wry note: “We are told that the sure mark of a false prophet is that all people speak well of him. In death, as in life, Bob Santamaria has triumphantly escaped such a fate.” And then, at the mid-point of his homily, Archbishop Pell highlighted two facets of Santamaria’s character, the first of which was ignored by Santamaria’s enemies in their polemic against him: “He had huge and hidden reserves of compassion for individuals, which never obscured his clarity of mind about principles and issues.” In the retrospect of two decades, it seems an eerie premonition of the fate that George Pell himself would suffer at the hands of the same enemies – the degradation of one’s essential humanity and decency because of the political incorrectness of one’s ideas.

Thus one important piece of the puzzle in the anatomy of Pell-hatred: George Pell, the political disciple, as stand-in for B.A. Santamaria, the ancient bogeyman of the hardcore Australian Left.

The Ecclesiastical Pathogens

Seeking to ignite the flames of evangelical fervor, Pope John Paul II often used unexpected, even shocking, episcopal appointments to jolt self-satisfied, dispirited, or moribund local Churches into renewed Catholic vitality. Appointing Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Polish Jews, as archbishop of Paris was one such example. John J. O’Connor to New York and Francis George, OMI, to Chicago (after very short stays in their previous dioceses) were two more instances, as were Desmond Connell to Dublin and Joachim Meisner to Cologne. In some cases, this papal form of shock therapy worked; in others (notably Ireland and Germany), it didn’t. The nominations of George Pell as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne and then that city’s archbishop, followed by his appointment as archbishop of Sydney and a cardinal, certainly fit that pattern. And while Pell’s indefatigable work in reigniting dynamic orthodoxy in Australia has borne considerable fruit over the past several decades, it has also cost him dearly. For the situation he was charged with changing was a particularly foul one, and, for a variety of reasons, both political and ecclesiastical, Pell took (and is taking) the blast of opprobrium that ought to have been directed at wickedly malfeasant churchmen.

When George Pell returned to Australia after theological studies in Rome (where he was ordained in 1966) and doctoral studies in history at Oxford, he served in numerous capacities in the Diocese of Ballarat, where he had been born in 1941. The bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, was a typical clerical autocrat of the pre-Vatican II era, trying to govern his diocese in the post-Vatican II Church through the old methods. When Pell was appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, he found himself under the authority of an archbishop, Frank Little, who did not welcome Pell’s appointment (to put it gently). In their different personal styles, Mulkearns and Little presided over local Churches that exemplified many of the serious problems besetting Australian Catholicism in the immediate post-Vatican II years: a rapid decline in Mass attendance and other forms of Catholic sacramental practice; a meltdown of consecrated religious life and a mass exodus from the priesthood; doctrinal ambiguity, weak spiritual formation, and moral laxity in seminaries; catechetical silliness that emptied Catholic faith of its content and its mystery, and thus of its magnetism; a deterioration of Catholic identity and the reduction of Catholicism to an ethnic marker; a deep deficit in evangelical energy; and, because of all this, an unwillingness or inability (or both) to respond creatively to the secularist assault being mounted on the culture (and the Church) by the new Gramscians of the Australian Left.

These deficits of Catholic conviction and ecclesiastical spine were evident for those with eyes to see and ears to hear in the 1970s and early 1980s: a small band that included Bob Santamaria and George Pell. What was not evident, and which bishops like Mulkearns and Little did everything in their power to keep hidden, was Australia’s grave crisis of clerical sexual abuse. That crisis involved both diocesan clergy and religious priests and brothers; and it was as bad, or worse, than elsewhere in the world Church. Lives were ruined; bishops and religious superiors, intent on preventing the “scandal” they imagined would ensue if the facts became public, determinedly kept these sins and crimes away from public scrutiny – thus magnifying the scandal when the dike of deception inevitably broke. And in that strategy of information-lockdown, bishops and religious superiors had, at the time, the cooperation of the public authorities, including the Victoria police department.

When George Pell was named as Archbishop Little’s successor in 1996, he immediately got to work putting dynamic orthodoxy in business in Melbourne, paying particular attention to the reform of religious education and catechetics. Perhaps his most striking effort involved the lax local seminary. When Archbishop Pell insisted that daily Mass and the regular recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours begin again – moves regarded by the seminary faculty as reactionary – the faculty, thinking to call the archbishop’s bluff, threatened to resign en masse. Pell, a former Australian-rules football star who does not scare easily, accepted the resignations and then set about reforming the curriculum and discipline of the seminary. It was an unmistakable signal that the lassitude, flaccidity, and general weakness that had too often characterized post-conciliar Catholic life in Melbourne were going to be challenged, and by the leader of the archdiocese.

Pell also addressed the abuse crisis vigorously, the first bishop in Australia to do so. His predecessor, Archbishop Little, had kept no records of abuse claims, from his installation as ordinary in 1974 until 1993, three years before his sudden retirement; Little handled such cases personally and in strictest confidence, determined to quarantine the information he had as much as possible. Bishop Mulkearns in Ballarat had followed a similar policy, which included, in both Melbourne and Ballarat, reassigning known abusers. Pell was determined to take a radically different path, which he believed was both a demand of justice and an essential part of his broader work of authentic Catholic reform.

Within a hundred days of becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell appointed an Independent Commissioner to receive and evaluate claims of clerical sexual abuse, and worked closely with the Victoria police to avoid archdiocesan interference in their investigations and to seek their counsel in developing the protocols by which the Independent Commissioner would work. Neither the Independent Commissioner’s findings nor police findings were contested by the archdiocese. Pell also created what became known as the Melbourne Response. The first procedure of its kind in the world, the Response was intended to facilitate financial assistance and counselling for abuse victims through a process that did not require them to seek legal representation or to establish the Church’s legal liability. At the time, the Victoria police welcomed the Response (which was led by lay legal professionals), calling it “a positive step in tackling this very sensitive community issue,” and similarly applauded the appointment of a distinguished barrister as Independent Commissioner. (Some 224 complaints of sexual abuse from the 1970s, 82 complaints from the 1980s, 12 complaints from the 1990s, and one subsequent complaint were upheld by the Response.)

George Pell took a similarly vigorous approach to Church reform when John Paul II transferred him to Sydney as that city’s archbishop in 2001, and two years later created him a cardinal. As in Melbourne, revitalizing the local seminary, strengthening religious education, and supporting lay renewal movements were Pell priorities. And in Sydney, Pell seized the opportunity to underscore one of his longstanding concerns as an archdiocesan ordinary: reanimating Australian Catholicism’s sense that its local Churches were component parts of a universal Church centered in Rome. Thus Pell asked, and Pope Benedict XVI agreed, that World Youth Day-2008 be held in Sydney. And contrary to the carping of the usual naysayers, it was a considerable success.

At the outset of his Sydney years, Pell was himself accused of acts of sexual abuse allegedly committed forty years earlier. Having established protocols for handling such accusations similar to those he had created in Melbourne, Pell, after vigorously declaring his innocence, stepped aside from the governance of the archdiocese until a former Victoria Supreme Court justice could independently investigate the matter – a step Pell took against the advice of an overwrought senior Vatican official who urged Pell to “sue him [the accuser]; sue him!” Justice Alec Southwell, Q.C., dismissed the complaint.

In the eighteen years he served as archbishop of Melbourne and archbishop of Sydney, George Pell’s reforming efforts in those two large archdioceses were subject to relentless criticism by the proponents of Catholic Lite, who found a ready megaphone for their anti-Pell attacks in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and much of the Australian print media. In those same years, Pell’s refusal to kowtow to political correctness lit up the Australian Left on a regular basis – and like his ecclesiastical critics, his political foes found ABC and many print outlets eager to amplify their complaints. Pell refused to bend to the gay insurgency and was thus regularly portrayed as a homophobe. He debated with relish the “new atheist” Richard Dawkins, in what ABC must have imagined would be Pell’s intellectual Waterloo; the cardinal more than held his own as Dawkins, presumably sharing ABC’s view that Pell was a pre-modern booby of a Catholic bishop, was ill-prepared and boring. When the Gramscian Left in Australia converted to Gaia-worship and declared anthropogenic global warming a settled fact, and a civilization-ending threat to be handled by a massive expansion of governmental control of economic life, Pell begged to differ – and was thus anathematized by his enemies as a heretic as well as a homophobe and a scientific ignoramus. It hardly needs saying that Pell was also attacked for these opinion crimes by his ecclesiastical opponents and enemies, who saw in them further challenges to Catholic Lite, which had long made its peace with the political Left in Australia.

George Pell infuriated his critics because he refused to concede that what the Gramscian Left and the proponents of Catholic Lite had long assumed settled was in fact settled. He did not think the ratchet of history worked in only one direction. He was not cowed by the polemics typically deployed from the portside of the political and ecclesiastical spectrums and then disseminated by much of the Australian media. This led to befuddled outrage: What was it about this man, this infuriating public figure who did not bend as so many others had?

So a venomous conviction seems to have formed in the minds of George Pell’s enemies: Pell must be a wicked man, because only a wicked man could hold such retrograde views and espouse such a reactionary cause as classic Christian doctrine and morality.

Thus George Pell’s dynamic Catholic orthodoxy and his refusal to concede the moral, social, and political rectitude of the hardened Left’s most cherished causes enflamed the minds of his critics and enemies, both political and ecclesiastical, generating pathogens. Those pathogens interacted to create the pathology of phobic Pell-hatred: in truth, a form of public mental illness, similar to what might have been found in Dreyfus-era France or Cultural Revolution-era China. This pathology often precluded rational judgment about anything involving Cardinal Pell. And whipped up into a public frenzy by ABC and others in the Australian media, Pell-hatred inevitably led to the determination, Pell delendus est: Pell must be destroyed.

Precisely how this project was then acted upon, in Australia and perhaps elsewhere (once Cardinal Pell was transferred to Rome to reform Vatican finances and attracted new enemies in the dark underside of international finance), remains a puzzle. Solving that puzzle requires the discovery of a few more essential pieces, and thus cannot be explored here – although, from a legal point of view, the most recent effort to destroy George Pell once and for all was rebuffed in no uncertain terms by the Australian High Court on April 7, 2020.

Yet the phobia of Pell-hatred remains, fouling the public atmosphere of Cardinal Pell’s beloved country. And that brings this analysis, by way of a (mercifully!) brief conclusion, to the release of the previously redacted sections of the Royal Commission’s report on sexual abuse – and the latest public wave of assault on Cardinal Pell’s character.

In the Star Chamber

Royal Commissions are not judicial bodies and do not operate under the strict rules of evidence and the standard of guilt-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt that govern (or should govern) criminal trials. And while the Royal Commission in question was established to look into various Australian institutions’ handling of the sexual abuse of the young, it seemed clear from the outset that the Royal Commission was primarily interested in the Catholic Church – and in Cardinal George Pell in particular. The Commission, half of whose members did not have legal experience, seemed to give something of a pass to the Victoria police, who, knowing of abuse, had gravely failed in their responsibilities to protect young people in the 1970s. But during twenty hours of their hostile grilling of George Pell, the commissioners and their counsel seemed to imagine that a young priest would have been told about, and should and could have done something about, crimes being concealed by a secretive and autocratic bishop – even though the Commission found that Bishop Mulkearns had hidden information about Gerald Ridsdale, one of the worst of the priest-abusers, from others, including senior Catholic officials. And in its assessment of Pell, the Royal Commission gave short shrift to his vigorous response to clerical sexual abuse when he had the authority to do something about it – a response that included, shortly after his becoming archbishop of Melbourne, sacking two abuser-priests as well as empowering the independent Commissioner to investigate abuse claims and creating the Melbourne Response to aid victims.

That the Royal Commission’s assumptions and judgments were almost certainly warped by the fetid public atmosphere surrounding George Pell – and indeed by the specific ideological content of much of that anti-Pell venom – was illustrated by the different treatment the Commission meted out to Paul Bongiorno and George Pell. Like Pell, Bongiorno was a priest of the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s. One of Gerald Ridsdale’s victims told the Royal Commission that he had informed Bongiorno about Ridsdale’s crimes. The Commission did not call Bongiorno to testify; Bongiorno said in a statement that he did not remember such a conversation.

Now, compare and contrast: There is no corroborating evidence, written or oral, to buttress the Royal Commission’s judgment that George Pell must have known of Gerald Ridsdale’s crimes; there is, in fact, ample evidence that Bishop Mulkearns deliberately kept diocesan consultors like Pell in the dark about such matters. And there is Pell’s testimony, as well as that of others, that he was not informed of Ridsdale’s crimes. By contrast, there is a victim’s testimony that he had told Paul Bongiorno what Ridsdale was doing.

The Royal Commission accepted Bongiorno’s statement that he recalled no such conversation (claiming that it could not resolve the difference between the victim’s account and Bongiorno’s). The Royal Commission disbelieved Pell’s testimony and the testimony of those who adamantly insisted that Pell was telling the truth when he insisted he knew nothing of Ridsdale’s abuse (and others’) because of Mulkearns’ cover-up. Why?

Might that have something to do with the fact that Paul Bongiorno abandoned the Catholic priesthood to become a left-leaning journalist and ABC commentator, fully in sync with the dominant Australian media culture, while George Pell is a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a foe of political correctness? Why did the Royal Commission evidently assume that Bongiorno is a man of integrity while assuming precisely the opposite about George Pell? Did the poisonous atmosphere analyzed here have something to do with that?

Leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia in the last decades of the twentieth century shamefully covered up the sexual abuse of the young. So did various public authorities, often cooperating with bishops and religious superiors in doing so. Why, then, has Cardinal George Pell become the scapegoat for the gross negligence of others?

Score-setting is an ugly business. It has assumed an exceptionally repulsive countenance in Pell-hatred and its attendant scapegoating. An innocent man continues to be defamed. And there is a real danger that, because of hatreds political and ecclesiastical, young people are being left at risk because public attention to the societal plague of the sexual abuse of the young is being misdirected.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II(1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His most recent book is The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform.

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