How Cardinal George Pell Became the Highest-Ranking Catholic Official to Be Convicted of Child Abuse

Nicholas Lord

In late October 1996, Cardinal George Pell stood before a panel of reporters in Melbourne, Australia, and apologized. He apologized on behalf of the Australian Catholic Church, who, as it had recently surfaced, was complicit in covering up pervasive and unimaginable child abuse by priests. “I would like to make a sincere, unreserved, and public apology,” Pell said, according to David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell. He had a peculiar manner of speaking — an Australian accent polished by an Oxford education. “First of all to the victims of sexual abuse, but also to the people of the archdiocese for the actions of those Catholic clergy.” He declared himself an advocate in the fight against child abuse, and announced a new compensation scheme for the victims of his religious brothers.

Yet only a few weeks later, Pell cornered two thirteen-year-old choirboys in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and sexually abused them, a jury has found. He forced one boy to perform oral sex while the other flinched away — “crying” and “sobbing” and “whimpering,” as a judge later described. It was a Sunday morning, after mass. The boys had just finished singing hymns. They were on a singing scholarship and came from poorer communities. Pell had just been appointed archbishop.

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After years of accusations involving Pell’s complicity and direct abuse — and several trials later—Cardinal Pell has been convicted of child abuse on five counts and sentenced to six years in jail. News of the court proceedings was suppressed until only recently, as his case was protected by a strict media gag order common in high-profile criminal cases in Australia. The verdict was announced formally only days after Pope Francis’s Vatican summit to address child abuse within the Catholic Church, an institution that’s still grappling with its horrifying history of child abuse around the world. As the global investigations continue, the church is left in a crisis: how to handle the child abuse epidemic, how to ensure it doesn’t continue and how to respond to a community left at odds with their faith.

And in Pell — the staunchly conservative cardinal who’s long denied the many accusations that have riddled his career — the church has a Weinstein figure. Widely considered the “third most powerful man in the Catholic Church,” Pell was a senior advisor to the pope and acted as the Vatican’s treasurer, single-handedly undoing some of the church’s financial troubles that dated back to the Seventeenth Century. And just like the church he devoted his life to, his survival depended on a well-oiled machine of cover-ups, denials, and lies.

If Cardinals are “princes of the church,” George Pell has been a prince of many institutions. Born and raised in the Australian country town of Ballarat, Victoria, Pell excelled in both the classroom and on the football field, where his talent earned him a contract with the elite Richmond Football Club. In 2017, Richmond won the grand title in the AFL, the Australian equivalent of the NFL. Ever since he was a teenager Pell was a ruthless footballer who played hard on the field. “I was very fiery,” he once said of his footballing days. “I’ve got a formidable temper which I almost never show. But the discipline that is needed for me not to lapse in that way, I think helps explain my wooden appearance.”

Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court in Melbourne, Australia, 27 February 2019. Australia's most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell was found guilty on five charges of child sexual assault after an unanimous verdict on 11 December 2018, the results of which were under a suppression order until being lifted on 26 February 2019.Australia's most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell found guilty of child sexual assault, Melbourne - 27 Feb 2019

Cardinal George Pell outside the court in Melbourne, Australia, February 27, 2019.

He came from a quintessential Australian family in a historic Australian town. His father was Anglican though his mother was Catholic, and she took her religion seriously. Pell inherited her faith and, though still a teenager, decided he would commit his life to the church. As he was preparing for priesthood, Pell spent his summer vacations on Phillip Island, off the coast of Victoria, where he helped run a summer camp for young altar boys. It was here, according to Pell’s earliest accuser, that he started abusing boys.

The boy’s name is Phillip Scott; he was twelve years old. Pell was twenty, bright-eyed and fresh faced, and looked more like a footballer than a priest. He was broad-shouldered and over six feet tall, earning him his nickname from the campers: “Big George.” Scott alleged that Pell molested him “on any occasion that it was possible” during the camp — in his tent, on nature walks, while they were swimming. He also alleged that Pell abused another camper, Michael Foley. As typically happens in cases of child abuse, the victim didn’t come forward for decades; he was left to process his trauma, while Pell was welcomed into the church as a priest. His career had begun.

Five years after he was ordained and took a vow of celibacy, Pell received his Ph.D. in church history from Oxford, where he was able to showcase his intellect and argumentative skills. His doctoral thesis ran on a core belief: the archaic values of the church must be respected, and need not be updated as society evolves. He would sustain this belief through his rise in the church.

After he graduated, Pell returned home to Ballarat, where he lived and practiced in the St. Alipius presbytery. There, he immersed himself in a crisis; the St. Alipius boys’ school had become overrun with child sexual abuse, perpetrated by a ring of Christian brothers and a pedophile priest. They were raping, beating, and abusing the schoolboys. Kids were violated in just about every corner of the school, including the principal’s office. In one fourth grade class, over a third of the boys went on to commit suicide. “It was one hell of an evil place,” says Lyndon Monument, one of Pell’s accusers who went to the school. “Just pedophiles — a network of pedophiles.”

The horrifying details of St. Alipius reemerged during Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where Pell was called in for questioning. As they spell out in their 2017 report, the abuse at St. Alipius was so “blatantly obvious” that “every boy in the class knew his turn would come.” The royal commission wanted to know: why didn’t Pell do anything to stop it?

He did nothing, Pell claimed, because he was unaware that any abuse was happening at all. He made this claim even though he was Episcopal Vicar for Education of the Ballarat diocese and gave mass at St. Alipius several times a week. Moreover, he lived in the clergy house with Australia’s worst pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, who raped victims in that presbytery.

Years later, multiple victims testified that Pell knew about the abuse, both at St. Alipius and other parishes. He even sat on a committee that facilitated Ridsdale’s moving from parish to parish, allowing the priest to abuse countless more children while keeping the scandal under wraps. Years later, when Ridsdale pleaded guilty to 27 counts of child abuse, Pell walked him to his day in court — an image that many Australians have never forgotten. “I didn’t know whether [Ridsdale abusing children] was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t,” Pell told the royal commission. “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.

It seems there was much that wasn’t of interest to Father Pell, and a sense of disregard was essential to his advancement in the church. “Back in those days,” Pell told The Australian in 2012, “they were entitled to think of pedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of.”

Protecting the church and its assets was always his first priority. And Pell was hardly alone; as the child abuse crisis has shown, his behavior wasn’t just common — it was church protocol. In 1962, Pope John XXIII issued a directive called crimen sollicitationis, which threatened to excommunicate Catholic officials who reported pedophile priests. The order remained in place until 2001. It was far easier to sweep the abuse under the rug, move the abusive priest to another parish, and let God do the rest. And Pell, a lifelong conservative, seemed to believe there were greater issues afflicting the church. As he told a crowd of youngsters at the Toronto World Youth Day Festival in 2002: “Abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.”

As the Seventies rolled on, Pell became headmaster
at Aquinas College, where he worked for eleven years. He started editing the Ballarat diocese’s Catholic newspaper, Light. During the blistering Australian summers, Pell kept cool the same way the local children did: by visiting the Eureka Swimming Pool. “He loved swimming in the local pool with the youngsters,” a parishioner told his official biographer, Tess Livingstone.

Years later, three of those youngsters alleged that Pell abused them at the pool. He molested them under the water, the boys alleged, when his hands weren’t visible to other swimmers. “When we were in the deep end… Father Pell would let one hand go and I felt his other hand reach up and hold my crotch area,” Lyndon Monument, one of his accusers, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The allegation was echoed by Damian Dignan and Michael Breen, who gave their accounts to ABC journalist Louise Milligan. Monument also alleged that Pell loitered in the boys’ changing rooms, an allegation repeated by another accuser, Les Tyack. Tyack claimed he saw Pell naked with three young boys for an extended period of time in a boys’ changing room in Torquay, a seaside town where Pell vacationed for many years.

Lyndon Monument during an ABC Australia interview
Courtesy ABC au

None of these allegations came to light for decades, and Pell continued his swift rise through the church. Aided by his staunch conservatism that kept him in the news and on the church’s radar, Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne, then Archbishop of Sydney. Assuming a position of power meant fighting on the church’s ideological warfront, and he became a figurehead for conservative Catholicism in Australia. To those Catholics, Pell was “The Defender of the Faith Down Under,” as his official biographer titled his story. To liberals, Pell was the enemy. He fought their “secular agenda:” gay rights, abortion, IVF, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage. He opposed giving communion to divorced people. He wrote about his beliefs in his slew of books, one of which he devoted entirely to arguing why women shouldn’t be priests. “George Pell was a cultural warrior who divided the Australian community,” Louise Milligan, author of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, tells Rolling Stone. “For years he was telling us how to live our lives.”

When Pell was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne, the child abuse scandal had reached its boiling point. Father Ridsdale was sentenced, causing a media frenzy, and more victims came forward. The public demanded action. When Pell became archbishop, the church had developed a compensation and reparations program for victims of child abuse, later known as Towards Healing. Coming into power, Pell revised the scheme and made it his own, calling it the Melbourne Response.

The response was a similar scheme used by the Boston archdiocese that was exposed in the Globe’s spotlight investigation in 2002. Victims reported their abuse to the church, who settled the matter privately outside of the courts. Though promising, the scheme capped victims’ payouts at roughly $35,000 of U.S. currency, and they had to sign an agreement to not sue the church — in which case they’d likely receive closer to a million dollars or more. Victims had to face their childhood abuser in person, most commonly decades after the abuse, and those abusers were apt to scrutinize the allegations. “I haven’t been able to find a single survivor who had anything good to say about [the Melbourne Response],” Milligan tells Rolling Stone. “The amounts of money that victims were given — $25,000 for a lifetime of pain — is atrocious.” Roughly half of the survivors would later report that they were left “highly dissatisfied” with the Melbourne Response.

As his career progressed, Pell continued to point to the Melbourne Response as evidence that he fought child abuse. Yet his trial — which found him guilty of abusing two choirboys around the same time he implemented the scheme — revealed his true intentions. And ultimately, Pell saved the church a lot of money; had those victims sued, the church would be facing a legal bill of hundreds of millions of dollars. Such financial skills helped secure Pell’s future position handling the Vatican’s finances.

In 2003, after many years in the Catholic spotlight, Pell was made a cardinal by John Paul II. Pell had become the star of the Australian church. He was appointed cardinal only a year after the Southwell Inquiry, when Phil Scott came forward with his claim that Pell abused him on Phillip Island. Judge Southwell found that Scott wasn’t lying; rather, he felt there wasn’t enough evidence to establish the complaint. Pell flatly denied the allegations, as he did with the Eureka Pool and St. Patrick’s allegations.

Even with the Phil Scott scandal attached to his name, Pope Francis would later invite Pell into his close circle of advisors. Pell was one of only nine. Francis created a new position especially for him: Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, a kind of Secretary of the Treasury for the Vatican. The position made him one of the most powerful religious figures in the world, and he achieved sweeping reform of the Vatican’s finances. It wasn’t until 2018, after the survivors came forward and Pell was formally charged with child abuse, that Francis dropped him from the position. Nevertheless, Francis was slow to act, aided by a media gag order that suppressed the media from covering Pell’s trial.

As he falls from such spectacular power,
Pell has delivered a deep blow to the church he intended to protect. Though he was once a beacon of the church’s traditional values, he now represents its darkest sin. He exemplifies that clerical child abuse is a global phenomenon, and his history of inaction, complicity, and direct abuse shows how the crisis became so widespread — from small country parishes through to the Vatican. Because of men like Pell, we haven’t yet seen the true extent of the cover-ups, despite being decades in to the child abuse crisis. And as more priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals fall as the endemic is exposed, it won’t be so easy for conservatives to doubt the victims, and not the church. “The crisis is now a tipping point I believe for the church,” says Lucie Morris-Marr, author of a forthcoming book about Pell’s trial. “We’ve had all the horrific clergy abuse scandals from Ireland to Boston, Australia and Chile, and now Pell, the third most powerful figure in the Vatican, has also been convicted. What more will it take to make vital changes to the internal culture?”

Pell’s story is echoed around the world, from the abuse committed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that calls Pope Francis into question, to the thousands of priests and bishops who are being defrocked in the United States and beyond. In much the same way that Pell rose to power amidst a child abuse scandal, Francis’s papacy will be marked by his ability, or inability, to handle the crisis. The lies and hypocrisy of figures like Pell exemplify how deep the corruption runs, worsened only by an obstinate few who still refuse reform. Pope Francis himself has refused to reconsider priests’ vow of celibacy, a policy that many believe is linked to clerical child abuse. Instead, Francis turned to the words of a pope before him, Paul VI: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law on celibacy.”

One day before he became Cardinal, George Pell stood on the steps of a cathedral, after denying communion to a gathering of churchgoers. Beneath the towering gothic spires, by the statue of a former archbishop whose portrait once hung in Pell’s childhood kitchen, was a sea of reporters and Christians waiting to hear Pell’s response. While he wore his full crimson regalia complete with gold trimming, some of his churchgoers had worn their insignia: rainbow sashes, in solidarity for gay rights. But these Catholics, Pell believed, didn’t deserve the body of Christ: “Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking,” he preached. It was all part of his moral code he’d etched out of Christian teachings; sex belongs within heterosexual marriage, for procreation. Yet three years earlier, in the sacristy of that same cathedral, Pell did the unthinkable.

In his 2010 book, Test Everything, Pell invited his readers to do exactly that — test everything we face in life, and find the answer in God. In facing the child abuse crisis, the church ought to follow Pell’s advice: “We have always been a Church of sinners,” he wrote in those pages. “However, true Christians recognize their sins… They do not try to define sin out of existence.”

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