Now that Cardinal George Pell has finished his testimony before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Vatican-watchers are asking: where to from here? Will he resign? Be quietly retired? Or will Pope Francis try to use the moment of his No. 3 testifying about child sexual abuse to reform the Church?
Even though the royal commission has not yet delivered its findings, there are many people in Australia and in Rome who want Pell to go right now. For example, former Australian politician Kerry Chikarovski has jumped the gun and dramatically said three times on TV that Pell should immediately resign for reasons of contrition. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Others have also called for his summary resignation, for a range of reasons.
In Rome, Dr Francesca Chaouqui, a former colleague of Pell’s involved in reforming the Vatican Bank, says that Pell no longer has the “strength or authority” to continue in his clean-up role. It has to be said that Chaouqui has form when it comes to her relationship with Pell. She is facing a three-judge Vatican court for allegedly leaking confidential documents about Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy, and is now potentially facing a jail term. Chaouqui is not alone. There are many disgruntled officials lurking in the shadows of the Roman Curia who have had their wings clipped by Pell’s financial reforms and who are very keen to be rid of him.
For his part, Pell has since responded on TV that immediate resignation is not an option for him as he would see such a move as an admission of guilt. He has said that he would resign only if the Pope asked him to do so. I think, unlike many, Pope Francis will wait for the report of the royal commission before he makes any decision and takes any action. My prediction is that Pell will not immediately resign.
On June 8 this year George Pell will celebrate his 75th birthday. Canon Law 401 mandates that Catholic bishops reach retirement age at 75. In June he will hand his resignation to the Pope, who will either accept it or not. My prediction is that Pope Francis will not accept Pell’s retirement resignation in June.
Emulating Saint John Paul II, who gave him his red hat, Pell’s personal motto is “Be not afraid”. Pell is currently the Vatican’s top financial official. He is playing an important part in Pope Francis’ effort to reform the Roman Curia and the Vatican bank, which was central to the Pope’s electoral mandate three years ago. It’s a difficult job, and Pell’s toughness has been seen as an asset in bringing transparency, accountability, and integrity to Vatican finances. In Rome, it is clear that Pell is not on the side of the Vatican’s old guard. They see him as their mortal enemy. It would be a great blow to the Pope’s reform agenda if Pell went down. My prediction is that Pell will continue assisting Pope Francis to reform the Roman Curia.
“I think he gets it,” said Phil Nagle, who was abused by a priest in Ballarat while Pell was the vicar for education. “We talked about the future, not the past,” Nagle said about the victims’ meeting with Pell. “We talked about compensation, about care, about what the future will be for us survivors and how the Church is going to help out from George’s level down.” That implies that, going forward, Nagle sees a role for Pell as part of the solution.
After meeting at the Hotel Quirinale with the victims who travelled from Australia to Rome, in a personal handwritten statement, Pell publicly made the following promise:
“I undertake to continue to help the group work effectively with the committees and agencies that we have here in the church in Rome, and especially the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. I too, despite the separation of distance want to help make Ballarat a model and a better place for healing and for peace. Now I shouldn’t promise what might be impossible. We all know how hard it is to get things done. But I do want it known that I support the work to investigate the feasibility of a research centre to enhance healing and to improve protection. I owe a lot to the people and community of Ballarat, I acknowledge that with deep gratitude. It would be marvellous if our city became well known as an effective centre for the example of practical help for all those wounded by the scourge of sexual abuse.”
The Cardinal has also said the limelight he’s attracted might be of some use in Europe, especially in Italy, which lags way behind Australia in its efforts to deal with the abuse problem. My prediction is that Pell will use his Vatican power base to help create an Australian research centre for abuse prevention and detection in Ballarat.
*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne writer at Vaticanology.net and has been an independent Vaticanologist for 30 years