Mar 1, 2016

Cui bono? Home field advantage in the inquisition of George Pell

Why is George Pell giving his testimony in the Vatican instead of Australia? Vaticanologist Michael Hewitt-Gleeson says there is always a reason.

Yesterday in Rome there was a unique kind of inquisition, an irony that has not escaped many observers. It is an extraordinary media event centred around a high-profile Vatican personality. Not Pope Francis but Cardinal George Pell, the No. 3 in the Holy See. This particular inquisition is the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The fact that such an event should be taking place in Rome at all is what makes it unique. It is true  that Pell, a former Archbishop of Melbourne and of Sydney, is today widely seen in Rome and the Church as one of the reformers, one of Pope Francis’ appointed team to help reform the Roman Curia. It's a daunting task. Pell is specifically in charge of reforming Vatican finances as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a post he has held since 2014. It is also true that back home in Australia, Pell’s image is quite different. Far from being seen as a reformer he is seen as a hardline, even tough-minded, conservative. This is a considerable contradiction. It’s a genuine paradox that there could be such opposite reputations for the same high-profile individual and at the same time. Beginning late Sunday evening in Rome at the Hotel Quirinale the Cardinal took up a Bible in his hand and swore to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and he began his testimony before the royal commissioners. The event is under way. The hearing is expected to run for four hours per day, including a half-hour adjournment, for three to four days. Let’s consider a few background facts. Fact 1: Pell is one of the world's most media-savvy Church leaders. Over the years he has done many hard yards with the Australian media, reputed to be perhaps the toughest in the world. Fact 2: few people are aware that, in addition to his financial role, the Cardinal is also in charge of restructuring the Vatican News media centre. The Vatican’s broadcast facility is one of the world’s first and oldest international media centres. It also includes rapidly expanding social media and live-streaming facilities. Pell has a history of promoting Catholic social media. In 2008, when Archbishop of Sydney, he launched a major social media project during World Youth Day, described as “the Catholic Facebook”. He has retained former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to chair this Vatican media restructuring project. It’s big. Fact 3: prior to this current event, the Cardinal has made several appearances before Victorian and Australian inquisitions into child abuse and is a well-rehearsed and experienced witness. These previous events were mostly covered by Australian media. Fact 4: now the Roman prince of the Church has chosen to make his royal commission finale appearance in Rome. This is quite a careful decision. It has been presented as being for mainly health reasons, in that he prefers not to travel to Australia. While this might be true, there could also be other reasons that are behind his decision to testify in Rome rather than Ballarat. What are the possible motives for this decision? A key forensic question that legal investigators ask when searching for a motive behind an action or a decision is: cui bono, or, who benefits? It is meant to search below the obvious motives to dig up other possible motives for a decision or action by seeking other possible benefits or gains. As an ex-soldier, I remember being taught that the first important priority in battle is the selection of the battlefield. Even Sun Tzu’s ancient Art of War points out the strategic importance of choosing where to fight the enemy. The one who chooses the battlefield already has an advantage before the battle begins. It makes obvious sense. So what is the Roman prince up to? A possible, perhaps likely motive behind his decision is this: if the event were in Ballarat and covered by the Australian media, he would have the wind against him. If the event is in Rome and covered not only by Australian media but also by the international media, then he would have the wind with him in the last quarter. It is going to be an interesting week. Stay tuned. *Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne writer at and has been an independent Vaticanologist for 30 years

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15 thoughts on “Cui bono? Home field advantage in the inquisition of George Pell

  1. paddy

    Interesting points Michael.
    I’m assuming (due to the nature of deadlines) that this piece was written prior to today’s airing of episode 2 of George Pell’s Adventures in Ballarat.
    With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably worth considering a few more facts.

    Extra fact 1. Being a media-savvy operator, doesn’t mean you can hide your own involvement in past horrors from a top flight barrister and a committed Judge.

    Extra fact 2. Rome is not necessarily a safe haven with lots of local support.

    Extra fact 3. When you have a *really* bad day in the witness box and the audience is now global, rather than just a few tens of thousands out in the Antipodes., it all gets very gory, very quickly.

    Extra fact 4. When the hand of God plays the joker and your car crash day in the box directly follows Spotlight winning the at Oscars.

    When all these awkward realities collide… Then that oh so carefully planned strategy can come horribly unstuck, horribly fast.

    Tomorrow’s episode will probably rate its socks off.

  2. AR

    I’m fascinated by the thought there is such a thing, even (TM to FDotM, of long longing), as “an independent Vaticanologist“.
    It reminds me of when Solidarity finally took over in Poland and the Kremlin’s “Chief Ideologist” made a lastminute dash to Warsaw to vet proceedings – his value of the planet diminishing with each kilometre – wonder what he does these days for a crust?
    Does the phrase mean ‘apologist’?

  3. zut alors

    If ‘Pell is one of the world’s most media-savvy Church leaders’ the bar must be set medium-low.

    Just as he demonstrated on a 2012 Q&A appearance, the Cardinal can be seriously out of touch with the non-ordained here in the parishes.

    Pell may be clever, may be smooth, may wield ‘holy’ clout – but he’s unaware his hem is showing.

  4. Deano647

    I finally get it. He’s simply a sociopath.

    No capacity to feel empathy for other human beings. I believe he is genuinely puzzled by “all the fuss” is about.

    Here is the textbook definition (from Mosbys)

    “A condition characterised by repetitive behavioural pattern that are contrary to usual moral and ethical standards and cause a person to experience continual conflict with society. Symptoms include aggressiveness, callousness, impulsiveness , irresponsibility, hostility, a low frustration level, a marked emotional immaturity, and poor judgement.

    A person who has this disorder overlooks the rights of others, is incapabble of loyalty to others or to social values, is unable to to experience guilt or to learn from past behaviours, is impervious to punishment and tends to rationalise their behaviour or to blame it on others”

    If that does not accurately describe George Pell, I don’t know what does

  5. Jaybuoy

    Has anyone seen a person with a better memory.. as long as it’s not about fiddling priests..describing child rape as an eccentricity.. Big George is the Albert Speer of what has been a holocaust for the survivors..

  6. Jaybuoy

    Pell needs to read the Gitta Sereny book.. Albert Speer : His Battle with Truth..

  7. ausGeoff

    Could it be that Pell has refused to return to Australia in case he’s subsequently found guilty of criminal negligence, and would have a safe haven in the Vatican as we don’t have an extradition treaty with them? I don’t believe for a second that Pell is so ill that he couldn’t survive a 1st class plane trip back to Australia, considering that he made the trip to Rome without any ill effects only 24 months ago.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    At the risk of being out of step with the Crikey Commissariat, here are a few more relevant facts than what’s pretended on this site.
    He faces an unusual collection of opponents.
    Some are out to weaken Pell’s efforts to reform Vatican Finances and make them less prone to misuse by extremely right wing Vatican Officers who are notorious for their past financial actions.
    They are hurling mud at Pell enthusiastically in the hope of this weakening his work re financial matters. Crikey commented on his media role in the Vatican while ‘forgetting’ to mention the far more significant one of Finances. How ‘careless’ that was.
    The rabid ‘left’ are of course pleased to have such allies, because anything thrown at Pell helps their ‘noble’ causes.
    That’s where Crikey could for once play the role of objective commentator; but that would be far more unlikely than flocks of porkers clouding the sky, wouldn’t it.

  9. James O'Neill

    “the Australian media, reputed to be perhaps the toughest in the world.” You’re kidding, right? Reputed by whom? In fact it is one of the more timid in the western world. Essentially controlled by two families. Vast areas are denied coverage in its pages for fear of upsetting its advertisers or the political masters. In the case of the Murdoch media only a passing acquaintance with the truth. As seen with the disgraceful Sheehan “Louise” episode, Fairfax is hardly better.

  10. Deano647

    If he is so ill that he cannot sit in the first class cabin of jetliner being pampered for 18 hrs…

    If his mental faculties are so bad that he is unable to remember anything to the extent that he has to answer most questions with variations of “I don’t know, I don’t recall, I can’t say ….

    If he claims that whilst he was in such a position of authority running (and prior to that, high up in) the the catholic church, yet was nota able to become aware of what hundreds and thousands of people knew that such was a notorious peadophile …

    Then if you believe that.

    Why on earth would he be made the CFO of the Vatican ? A position that would demand a healthy constitution for what would be a physically and mentally demanding job. Would require a fierce intellect and excellent memory. A enquiring mind to know all elements of his purvey.

    I beggars belief that he can have those deleterious conditions of body and mind, yet run the finances of the church.

    It is a pathetic and obvious falsehood that he is a) ill, b doesn’t recall and/or c) didn’t know about the abuse.

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