The sexual abuse charges that have been filed against Cardinal George Pell, a high-ranking Vatican official in the Curia, raise many questions and have set off alarms about the effectiveness of Pope Francis’s response to allegations of clergy abuse of minors.
George Pell was ordained a priest in 1966 in the diocese of Ballarat in Australia and became a bishop in 1987. In 1993, he accompanied his former housemate and fellow priest, Gerard Ridsdale, into court as he faced trial for serial sexual abuse in a show of support. Pell later stated that he regretted this decision because it seemed to show greater concern for the abuser than the survivor of abuse. But it was part of a clear pattern of support for the priests accused of assault and a defensive posture on the part of the Australian Church in responding to such accusations.
Pell has also been accused on several occasions of sexual abuse although he has never stood trial. The Cardinal did testify on several occasions before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.
But his 2014 appointment to the position of Cardinal-Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in the Vatican struck some in Australia as an attempt to get him off the local scene where he was broadly criticized in media coverage related to claims of a cover-up by the Church.
In August of that year and again in 2016, Cardinal Pell provided testimony before the Commission via video link, citing ill health in the second case.
The 2016 song “Come Home (Cardinal Pell),” written and performed by Australian performer Tim Minchin, criticized Pell for failing to return home to testify. The proceeds of this irreverent tune allowed 15 survivors of abuse to travel to Rome and watch Pell’s testimony in person.
Last July, when asked about the investigation into allegations naming Pell, Pope Francis reserved judgment until the Australian justice system had made a decision regarding the matter. True to his word, Francis is not obstructing this investigation and has granted leave to Cardinal Pell in order to respond to the criminal charges by appearing in court.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an institution created by Pope Francis in 2014 to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors, was seen as a major step forward in responding more openly to addressing claims of abuse. Yet the two survivors of sexual abuse who served on the commission have departed. When Marie Collins resigned her commission on March 1, she published a letter in the National Catholic Reporter explaining that the Commission had neither adequate independent resources nor the authority to implement even simple changes.
There is some cause for optimism about a shift in the culture of obstructionism and secrecy that has long attended abuse claims against Church officials. It is not surprising that someone who is a trusted adviser of Pope Francis and part of his inner circle would continue to receive support in the face of as yet unnamed and unproven accusations.
But there remains cause for concern, a lingering fear that our warm and pastoral Pope is still part of a closed system in which patriarchy and privilege have long protected their closed ranks.
Pope Francis must put the full force of his role as pontiff behind the efforts to bring the buried secrets of sexual abuse into the light of day for a just reckoning.