News Analysis

In Australia, Pell’s most outspoken defenders are outside the hierarchy

What the papers say (Getty)

When the McCarrick scandal first broke in America, Catholics began to leave the Church in droves. But when the verdict against Cardinal George Pell was leaked in December, and the suppression order was lifted on February 27, Australian Catholics continued to attend Mass in the same numbers as before. One reason for this is that many do not consider the cardinal guilty.

Beyond the Church, the public – for whom Pell has often been a hate figure – certainly reacted. Outside Melbourne’s County Court the crowd chanted “Go to hell Pell” and displayed “Pell-ophile” posters. An online petition demanding the removal of his Order of Australia gathered 100,000 signatures, Richmond Football Club removed him as its vice-patron and his alma mater, St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, renamed its “Pell Wing” as “Waterford Wing”, putting a line through his name on the college board.

By contrast, the bishops’ reaction has been cautious. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, head of the bishops’ conference, issued a short statement, noting that “the same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the cardinal’s legal team has lodged.” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney took some heat for urging his congregation “not to draw any final conclusions until the appeal”.

But few clerical voices have actually criticised the verdict. One was Fr Frank Brennan SJ, who sits on the opposite side of the theological fence to the Cardinal. Fr Brennan wrote in the Jesuit magazine Eureka Street: “The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible.”

The strongest denunciations of the verdict have come from outside the Church hierarchy. Ten high-profile Australians have submitted written character witnesses to Judge Kidd, including the former prime minister, John Howard.

At the time of writing, Australia’s most prominent Catholic is sitting in Melbourne Assessment Prison on Spencer Street, “on retreat”, as he has reportedly said. This last week has served as a sobering reminder to faithful Catholics that the Cross may be closer than we think.