Cardinal (The Rise and Fall of George Pell) by Louise Milligan

One of the most difficult books I’ve read this year.  Child sexual abuse, regardless of who the perpetrators are, is one of the most horrific things that can befall a child.  Any child.  How could anyone know about it, and do nothing?  That’s the big question for me.

Cardinal by Louise Milligan

‘Truth is the child of time.’

Cardinal Pell is Australia’s most prominent Catholic.  Since this book was published in May 2017, Cardinal Pell has returned to Australia to face (and to fight) multiple charges of historical sexual assault offences.  He faced the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 26 July for a filing hearing.

I approached this book with some trepidation: I’ve read several accounts about the horrific sexual abuse suffered by children and about the effects of this abuse on those children (and their families).  I’ve also read about how some of the priests were moved between parishes, thus allowing for even more children to be abused.  I cannot begin to understand how the church hierarchy permitted this.  And, perhaps, this is why I decided to read Ms Milligan’s book.  Cardinal Pell has claimed that he was the ‘first in the world’ to introduce a sexual abuse protocol, and also claims to have not known about the abuse going on around him.

Ms Milligan certainly covers, in detail, the rise of George Pell. But I think that any talk about his fall is premature.  He is after all, still a Cardinal.  And he has not yet been found guilty of anything.

But I cannot warm to Cardinal Pell.  I would expect a practicing Christian to demonstrate empathy for victims of abuse well ahead of any concern about legal cases, costs and consequences.  I would expect a member of the clergy to want to protect the vulnerable, to be attuned to signs of distress, to investigate as to the cause(s) and act.  I would not expect to read the following exchange between Gail Furness, SC and George Pell at a hearing of the Royal Commission in March 2016:

‘There is a reference in that paragraph to Father Searson stabbing to death a bird in front of the children.’  To which George Pell replied: ‘I don’t know whether the bird was already dead.’

I froze.  Why on earth would it matter whether the bird was already dead?  Surely, in this context, it is the behaviour of Father Searson in front of the children which is most important?  What does this response say about Cardinal Pell?

I don’t want to write more about the contents of the book– the story is not yet complete – there is a court case pending.  This book is uncomfortable and unsettling, but worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith