George Pell Vatican church
Cardinal George Pell

George Pell says he was framed. Taking umbrage with his brave attempts to drain the Vatican swamp of corruption, powerful forces inside the church conspired to “destroy” him, the cardinal has told Italian television.

The ever-divisive Pell, acquitted of historic child sex abuse by Australia’s highest court, must still mount a defence in the court of public opinion. And that’s what he’s done since the High Court quashed his conviction in April: fight a quiet PR campaign to recast himself as a victim.

The big conspiracy

Last week Pell appeared on Italian broadcaster RAI’s Sette Storie program to outline a conspiracy theory that’s all a bit “Dan Brown meets The Godfather”. There was, says the cardinal, “some evidence” but — conveniently — “no proof” that shadowy figures in the Holy See wanted him out of the picture.

The cover of George Pell’s Prison Journal

Pell says he was a crusader, trying to bring reform to the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances. He says everyone who went near the money found themselves attacked in some way.

“Every single one, with very few exceptions, has been publicly attacked in one way or another … Let’s not forget what happened to [Vatican banker Roberto] Calvi who committed suicide under a bridge in London with his hands behind his back … which is a very strange way to hang yourself,” he said.

Calvi’s mysterious death was a mere 38 years ago. But Pell also claimed the campaign by the Vatican’s old guard reached Australian shores.

Former Sydney diocese business manager Danny Casey’s car was set on fire. Pell said this was linked to Casey helping him with the finance probe in Rome. We contacted NSW Police for comment about the car fire but they could not provide details of the case without specifics, which Crikey could not source. Casey could not be reached for comment.

There is some evidence Pell was ruffling feathers in Rome. A recent tome by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, The Vatican’s Black Book, details decades of corruption and skulduggery in the Vatican and mentions Pell being shadowed by his opponents.

But Pell’s conspiracy claims appear baseless. Speaking to The Australian, Vivian Waller, the lawyer for Pell’s accuser, said there was no evidence of the Vatican transferring money to Australia to fund the case against him.

The PR blitz

The curious thing about Pell’s latest claim is that it’s the first time he’s spelled it out. At the same time he hasn’t lacked media attention.

The first volume of his tell-all memoir Prison Journal was released this week. Ahead of its release, he did a 90-minute interview with Reuters (nothing with an Australian outlet as yet) where he hinted at financial issues engulfing the Vatican and described the “dark moments” he faced in prison — but he stopped short of conflating the two.

And in an AP review of Prison Journal the theory doesn’t get a mention — time is spent instead on trying to justify the Catholic Church’s response to the child sex abuse crisis.

“If anyone in the mid-’90s knew the extent of the problem, they did not say so publicly, or to me privately,” he wrote. “We thought the Melbourne Response would finish its work in a few years.”

The book describes US President Donald Trump as “our Christian barbarian”, takes a few pot shots at Pope Francis and documents his legal strategy.

No mention still of the conspiracy.

Shifting the blame

Sinister Vatican forces are just the latest to be blamed for Pell’s ordeal.

In his first interview, a week after being released from prison, he spoke to Andrew Bolt, one of his most fervent defenders, and explained the initial conviction was the result of culture wars and hatred of his social conservatism.

“A lot of people don’t like my views,” he said. “I’m a social conservative.

“The culture wars are real.”

Certainly, despite his acquittal, Pell remains a culture war lightning rod, and a man widely despised by many. Don’t be surprised if the PR blitz continues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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