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 Vaticanology.net and has been an independent Vaticanologist for 30 years