Cardinal Pell: Disgraced but still defiant

George Pell
Australian Cardinal George Pell (C) is escorted in handcuffs from the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne on August 21, 2019. Disgraced Catholic Cardinal George Pell was sent back to jail after an Australian court rejected his landmark appeal against convictions for child sex abuse. / AFP / William WEST

MELBOURNE — Cardinal George Pell remained defiant after losing an appeal against his conviction for child sex abuse Wednesday, a stance that surprised few observers of the once-powerful Vatican official’s fall from grace.

From his days as a country priest in Australia’s rural Victoria state to his position as one of Pope Francis’ closest confidants, Pell stood out as a vigorous defender of Catholic orthodoxy in the face of myriad challenges to the Church.

He has just as steadfastly denied all the charges of which he was convicted by a jury in December concerning the sexual assault of two choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral when he was Archbishop of the diocese in the 1990s.

“What a load of absolute, disgraceful rubbish,” Pell told Australian police who first asked him about the allegations during a filmed interview in Rome in late 2016.

And after being charged a few months later with a series of offenses, Pell again dismissed the allegations as “products of fantasy”.

He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for what presiding judge Peter Kidd described as “callous” and “brazen” assaults by a powerful figure against two teenage choirboys in St Patrick’s sacristy.

Pell remained defiant after his appeal against that conviction was rejected Wednesday, issuing a statement via a spokeswoman saying he was “obviously disappointed” with the ruling and insisting he “maintains his innocence”, while leaving open the option of seeking a new appeal to Australia’s highest court.

That reaction was in character for the cleric, an imposing and outspoken champion of conservative causes long accustomed to mingling with prime ministers and Australia’s elite.

Born in June 1941, Pell grew up in Ballarat, a rural Australian gold rush town about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Melbourne.

He was a keen member of his college debating team, a lead actor in school productions and a champion Australian rules footballer.

His devout Catholic mother was reportedly pleased that her son decided to pursue a career in the Church.

His father, an Anglican, was bewildered that he turned down a contract from one of the country’s top Australian rules football teams.

Having chosen a religious path, Pell completed part of his studies in Rome before being ordained as a priest for the Ballarat diocese in 1966.

As his star rose, he went on to become Archbishop of Melbourne and then of Sydney at the behest of Pope John Paul II.

In 2003 he was named to the Vatican’s powerful College of Cardinals, a position that allowed him to vote in the conclaves that elected popes Benedict and Francis.

In 2014, he was handpicked by Pope Francis to run the Vatican’s finances, viewed as the third-most powerful position in the Church.

At home, he was considered a religious and conservative hero with a tough stance on euthanasia and gay marriage, while rejecting climate science.

Former conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was effusive in his praise: “Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen.”

From the pulpit, and publicly, Pell espoused traditional Catholic values.

But over the years he was the subject of multiple rumors and accusations of serious wrongdoing.

He fervently denied claims that he covered up abuse by priests in Victoria state where he worked.

A national inquiry into child sex abuse in Australia between 1950 and 2010 found that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abuse, but that the allegations were never investigated.

The inquiry heard that there were 4,444 alleged victims of pedophilia, and in some dioceses more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators.

Repeatedly questioned during hearings about pedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s and 80s, Pell apologised on behalf of the church but insisted he had no memory of claims of sustained mistreatment.

He did, however, admit he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in the 1970s, but said he was deceived by senior clergy about what was happening during a time of “crimes and cover-ups”.