George Pell

Last week, I noticed a strange news item from Fairfax in what was offered up as a “special investigation”.

The article from the title onwards — “Catholic Inc: what the Church is really worth” — seems to give the deliberate impression that the Catholic Church in Australia is like a monolithic corporation. In reality, it’s far from it.

The Catholic Church is not a single, centralised institution like the Kremlin, or the Church of Scientology. What is commonly referred to as “the church” is highly scattered, decentralised, diverse and occupying of a wide spectrum of beliefs, authorities, histories, practices, loyalties and customs. I have written that it’s this extraordinary diversity that best explains, in a Darwinian sense, why it has actually survived for the past two millennia when no other contemporary human organisations have.

It consists of hundreds of separate dots that are loosely and culturally, but often not corporately or legally, connected. Some of these entities are orders, parish property trusts, hospitals, aged-care organisations, schools (and their independent corporate boards), charities, universities, early-learning centres, NGOs and so on. Not just dozens but literally hundreds of separate entities exist.

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The visible assets of the church seem to be its vast property holdings and its priceless treasures of art. But the drain on daily cash flow caused by these kinds of non-liquid assets is tremendous. Property requires management and maintenance. So, Fairfax is being somewhat disingenuous when it claims, for example, that St Patrick’s Cathedral is a Catholic asset worth over $44 million that could readily be cashed in to pay redress claims.

In Rome alone, the amount of cash needed to maintain the hundreds of ancient churches, shrines, excavations and monuments like the Fontana di Trevi put a constant, mind-boggling strain on Vatican cash flow. The Pope selling the Papal Art Collection would be like the Queen selling the Crown Jewels: in theory, they both “own” these treasures but in practice they are merely caretakers for posterity. 

It’s precisely because there is no such thing as “Catholic Inc” that auditing the accounts of the church is a fiscal nightmare. Cardinal George Pell, who brought considerable financial oversight skills and forensic accounting resources to his top his job as the Vatican’s Secretary of the Economy, found it was virtually impossible to “clean up the accounts”. There was no centralised database or set of books.

There were, in fact, many and diverse separate financial silos all having a wide legacy of financial accounting practices from very ancient to contemporary (it was Luca Pacioli, a Catholic monk, after all, who is credited with inventing double-entry book-keeping more than 500 years ago). Pell even found, by accident, a missing (or hidden) billion euros in one set of accounts. What centrally incorporated entity would yield up that kind of audited surprise? As we saw, Pell’s work was fiercely resented and resisted by many cardinals who were used to running their own independent “principalities”.

In 2004, I was one of the first to decry a legal Catholic entity on abuse, when I called for the Catholic order of Salesian priests and brothers to speak out about abuse that took place at Rupertswood College.

And so I’ve watched and admired Fairfax for their role in maintaining the rage against abuse that has now been partly addressed by the royal commission. I say “partly” because I had pointed out the physical abuse, though the Commission was limited to only sexual abuse.

Should victims of child abuse by Catholic institutions receive cash compensation? Of course. There is no room for any other response but a big “yes”. But if we’re to demand redress from the Catholic Church, we first need to understand exactly what the church is.

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne cognitive scientist at School of Thinking and a writer at and has been a vaticanologist for 30 years.