George Pell Vatican church
Cardinal George Pell

George Pell, both the man and his troubles with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, might be affecting Australia’s representation in the highest council of the Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals — which elects the Pope — given Sydney (and Melbourne) once more missed out in the latest, very eclectic list from Pope Francis.

With Pell in Rome, with his job looking at Church finances, Australia has been left without a cardinal on home soil, something that historically has been a very rare event.

Instead, Catholic backwater Laos, one of the smallest and most repressed churches in Asia, with only about 45,000 followers in the 6 million-strong country, has been rewarded with a “red hat” — along with other “peripheries” like Mali, El Salvador and largely Lutheran Sweden. Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher is, on paper, an obvious candidate to join the group; after all, for most of its history, Australia has had only one cardinal of voting age (under 80), or “Cardinal-elector”, and that has been whoever has held the role of archbishop of Sydney. This is the role that George Pell and his predecessor Edward Clancy held when named by (now Saint) Pope John Paul II. In the 1970s, Sydney’s archbishop James Darcy Freeman and Melbourne’s archbishop James Knox were both made cardinals, with Knox departing soon after to a senior role in the Vatican — as Pell now has.

This has led some to think that Australia should be in the running for a second red hat, with Pell now out of the country — and out of any role in the Australian Church — for the past three years.

One the other hand, with the exception of the situation with Knox and Freeman, aspirants have had to wait until the existing active cardinal reached retirement age, and Pell is only 75.

Still, the embattled Cardinal’s future is in increasingly cloudy with Victorian police reviewing fresh evidence as a result of both the royal commission and investigations by the ABC’s 7.30 led by reporter Louise Milligan. Last week, she published her book based on her research Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, which prosecutes the case against the Australian priest for his alleged involvement in criminal offences involving child sex abuse.

And with Pope Francis busy ripping up the Vatican rule book on all sorts of things, including ecclesiastical appointment, anything can happen. Along with his clear preference for building a more inclusive Church by recognising smaller and long forgotten congregations, he has a renewed focus on Asia. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have been given surprise cardinals in recent years, whereas other places, like the US cities of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, for instance, which have traditionally owned a permanent spot in the consistory, being studiously ignored.

As veteran Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens, writing for UCANews.com and La Croix International, yesterday wrote:

“Notably, the pope has again skipped over traditional red-hat sees in Europe and North America that are currently without a cardinal. They include Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Montreal; Bologna, Turin, Venice and Palermo; Seville and Marseille. And he will not be putting any Vatican officials in the College of Cardinals this time, either.

“More significantly, Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Ukraine — countries that have had cardinals for quite some time — remain with a handful of other nations that currently do not have a cardinal eligible to vote for the next pope.”

Indeed, in light of this, and other information uncovered by Crikey, Fisher might be beginning to wonder if he will ever get the nod for a red hat. For one thing, Fisher, a star lawyer at Clayton Utz before joining the Church, has, in his career as a priest, been an untiring acolyte of Pell’s. Fisher is a conservative who has been publicly vocal against gay marriage, including saying it could lead to polygamy or incest.

According to several Church sources, Fisher has other problems, too, not least being the controversial nature of his original appointment.

When the time comes for new bishops and archbishops to be appointed, the papal nuncio — the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to a particular country — researches likely candidates and prepares a list of three names known as a “terna”, which is presented to the Congregation of Bishops, one of the key Vatican bodies that reports to the Pope (this one, naturally, on episcopal appointments). Generally, the top name on the list is signed off and announced by the Pope.

It was widely rumoured in senior ecclesiastical circles that when Pell’s replacement was being sought that the top name on the list provided by then-nuncio Paul Gallagher — a British clergyman, now effectively the Vatican’s Foreign Affairs Minister (Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See‘s Secretariat of State) — was William Wright, Archbishop of Maitland-Newcastle, and key figure in cleaning up sexual abuse first in his own diocese and then nationally. Further, it was also strongly rumoured Fisher’s name was not even on the terna, a deliberate decision by Gallagher.

To add fuel to the fire, the process was unusually drawn out, taking well over 12 months, and when Fisher was finally announced, questions were raised about possible interference from the 33-member Congregation of Bishops, which at the time included George Pell. Vatican politics are notorious for a reason.

The other, less controversial, but more pressing, issue is Fisher’s health. Around Christmas in 2015, Australia’s youngest Archbishop was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that left him partially paralysed and leading to a lengthy period of sick leave. The Archbishop has returned to active duty and has said publicly he will fully recover, but Church insiders say the illness has taken its toll.

If Fisher were to step down, Wright and ambitious Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge are considered by Church insiders to be the leading candidates. Such appointments, unlike Fisher’s, or an unorthodox appointment of Australia’s next cardinal from outside Sydney, by this most refreshingly unorthodox of popes, would close the book on the troubled George Pell era — one in which the Australian Catholic Church has ceded, probably forever, any claim to moral leadership of the church in the region to figures like Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo, the emerging ecumenical moral consciousness of the war-torn nation and indeed Laos’ new environmentally activist Cardinal-elect Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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