Last night, ABC’s 7.30 showed several men who accused Cardinal George Pell of sexual assault. The Sano Task Force of Victoria Police has been investigating multiple complaints of sexual abuse by Pell. They range from the 1970s to the 1990s, when Pell established the Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse allegations. Pell describes the claims as “totally untrue and utterly wrong” and has asked for an investigation into whether a conspiracy exists against him between Victoria Police and the ABC.
What will Pope Francis do with him now? Will Pell come back to Australia? And what would that mean for the Vatican power structure?
It is difficult to make predictions about Pope Francis as he thinks and acts quite outside the Vatican square. On the one hand he is the sovereign of an independent state and has to protect the interests of his kingdom, his treasure and his citizens. On the other hand he is a determined reformer and has done much to change the cultural emphasis of his Church from legalism to pastoralism.
Previous popes, like John Paul II, would have been easier to predict. When the American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was embroiled in the Banco Ambrosiano money-laundering scandal in the late 1970s, the pope protected him from Italian Police and he remained in the Vatican with his diplomatic passport.
Pell also holds a Vatican diplomatic passport and might choose to seek its protection. But whether or not Francis follows the lead of his predecessor and gives it to him is hard to predict.
Two things are relevant here. First, the Victorian Police commissioner has said police have no intention to interview Pell at present, so there is no legal need for Pell to return to Australia (this could change as the investigation proceeds). It’s in the hands of the Public Prosecutor, who has to make a judgement on the outcome of a trial that would depend on the balance of evidence.
Second, Pell was given the very difficult job of cleaning up the Vatican bank. He is recognised as having done a brilliant job. As a result of his work, just last Tuesday the Bank of Italy and the Vatican signed a historic co-operation agreement aimed at regularising their relations and ending years of Italian mistrust over Holy See finances.
Pope Francis has good reason to be grateful to Pell, whom he appointed as his financial tsar, for a job well done. However, in June Pell handed his resignation to the Pope, as is the custom at age 75. The Pope has not accepted it, and Pell is due to serve another three years in his post. This might change.
Finally, on the matter of Pell’s return to Australia, he already has set the precedent of not returning when in March he gave his royal commission evidence in Rome by video link, citing a heart condition as the reason for not flying to Australia.
All things considered, I’d put my money on Pell remaining in the Vatican and not returning to Australia anytime soon.
Vatican politics has always been a complex and fascinating topic for writers and is no less tantalising in 2016 under Pope Francis than it was a thousand years ago in 1016 when Benedict VIII had to flee Rome, pursued by an anti-pope, until Henry II came to his rescue.
Pell’s job as Secretary of the Economy, overseer of all Vatican finances, was a personal appointment by the Pope, to whom he answers directly. It is a new role and now equal in status to Secretary of State, which has always been the No. 2 spot in Vatican politics.
So, as you would expect, it has created quite a wave of reaction in the Roman Curia. Some have welcomed Pell and his team. Some are deadset against him. There are always jealousy, power struggles, gossip and endless clandestine meetings in the ristoranti of Rome.
As much as Pell is a figure of opprobrium in Australia, he is also an interfering outsider to many in the Curia, who will do what they can to see him deposed.
So, in what I would call Act II in this divine drama, I still think it is difficult to predict the outcome. I feel we will just have to wait until Act III.
*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne writer at Vaticanology.net and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years