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Summer 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: George Pell


by Tess Livingstone

Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, pp. 484, with index, $22.

Fair-minded, conscientious (though never smug) and sharply intelligent, Tess Livingstone is an anomaly amid modern Australian journalism. That Miss Livingstone - rather than, for example, Gerard Henderson or Robert Manne - should have produced this account of Australia's leading present-day clergyman is cause for relief. Her book emphasises (not that it needed much emphasising) the sheer folly of trying to divide biographies of living persons into "authorised" versus "unauthorised". It is evident that George Pell would have been a different sort of volume had its subject been determined to suppress its contents. It is equally evident - and he admitted as much in The Catholic Weekly on 10 November 2002 - that he, left to himself, would wish parts of the book unwritten, because of Miss Livingstone's willingness to give space to the Archbishop's sworn foes. At any rate, Miss Livingstone's production could hardly fail to shine among recent Australian biographies.

In 2002 Archbishop Pell turned sixty-one. Bob Santamaria several times remarked that any man who attained adulthood during the 1930s is forever scarred by his experiences of the Great Depression. In a similar way, any Catholic who, like Pell, attained adulthood during the 1960s is forever scarred by a still larger catastrophe: the Second Vatican Council, which Belgian Cardinal Lèon-Joseph Suenens called (New Jersey Catholic News, Autumn 1987) "the French Revolution in the Church". (Curiously enough, Suenens meant this description as a compliment.) Aggravating traditional Catholics’ pain, as they watched with disbelief and heartbreak the 1960s’ fruits ripening - the liturgy's gruesome vernacular trivialisation; the emptied seminaries; the almost Maoist hatred of musical excellence; the unashamed appeasement of infidels and pagans; the open championship by soi-disant Catholic leaders of contraceptive-peddling plutocrats - was the papacy's total powerlessness against such fruits, and at times its active endorsement of them. If Pell's bite has disappointed after his bark's fierceness, charity requires the realisation that his age group might well have forced such administrative self-contradiction upon him. An older man than Pell would have retained enough detailed memories of pre-1962 Catholic leadership to judge subsequent popes’ effectiveness by the standards which their predecessors (above all the great Pius XII) set, and thus to reject Vatican II in the clearest terms of "Wrong Way: Go Back." A younger man than Pell would have had no emotional investment whatsoever in the Council's false dawn.

Miss Livingstone has in one respect been fortunate, through needing to finish her book during 2002 rather than beforehand. After all, the plague of Catholic sex scandals - at their worst in, though not confined to, American dioceses - proved what before 2002 remained a matter of mere conjecture: the confluence between liturgical revolution and sexual revolution. John XXIII saw fit to babble, in the argot of his time, about Catholicism's aggiornamento ("awakening") with Vatican II; but critics have commented that the only permanent awakening that conciliar revolutionists implemented in practice consisted of an awakening to the boundless career possibilities afforded by sodomy. The conduct of Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland affords particularly relevant instruction, since Weakland remained for three decades the United States’ leading advocate of liturgical barbarism, only to be revealed in May 2002 on his own admission as an incorrigible pervert. Those who dared to censure the likes of Weakland - let alone to posit some linkage between contempt for the Tridentine Rite and contempt for Catholic teaching's centuries-old sexual morality - found themselves howled down as "homophobes", "reactionaries", "extremists", "elitists", "fascists", and (by individuals wishing to usurp the credit for possessing a dictionary) "schismatics".

It is untrue to say - as some, in George Pell's defence, have said - that a Catholic in post-Christian Australia automatically incurs New Class spite. He will in practice be often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and occasionally praised: but solely on the strict understanding that he treats his faith as a private hobby, like stamp-collecting, butterfly-catching, or indeed perversion. In short, he must remain content with precisely that second-class citizenship which, if demanded of the nearest Rwandan cab-driver or Haitian drug-dealer, would inspire screams of "bigotry". Let him drop any hint (however courteous) that genuine Catholicism and modish ersatz-Catholicism are incompatible, and he is doomed. Hence the fate of Pell.

When gossip about an alleged enslavement to a "Spice Girls" sacerdotal clique entered the public domain, it was rumoured that "girlie" elements afflicted the Melbourne archdiocese. Whatever data would have substantiated this rumour was not provided. Yet the ability to distinguish an uncomfortable truth from a libel is not one which our mass-media hierarchs now find it advantageous to cultivate, unless this ability's absence imperils their own expense-accounts; therefore the rumour-mongers obtained as much news coverage as (if fewer emoluments than) they craved. Although wisdom in hindsight is famously cheap, in retrospect the Archbishop erred badly through eschewing legal action against the "Spice Girls" and "girlie" charges. By his failure to punish the culprits, he unwittingly signalled to the nation and to the world that other, cleverer and deadlier conspirators could destroy his whole public life without the slightest risk to themselves.

A subsequent complainant, who eventually pressed against Pell a charge of sexual abuse, had spent much of his existence alternating between advancing the Painters’ and Dockers’ Union and periodic prison sentences to which his more flamboyant manifestations had led. To study Miss Livingstone's often harrowing pages on the Southwell inquiry - and on the strident public demands by Canberra Bishop Patrick Power for indulgence towards homosexuals’ "rights" - is to appreciate, not for the first time, the fearful cultural damage the English-speaking world has inflicted on itself by its adversarial judicature. If the Archbishop had been French, Italian or German, he would still have suffered greatly (besides, Power-style oleaginous heresies are scarcely unknown to European audiences); but he would have enjoyed four advantages which residence in Australia denied him.

European privacy laws retain sharp teeth. While they cannot wholly eliminate shrieking headlines and trial by the gutter-press rather than by the courts, they can certainly restrain such outrages against their own citizens.

In Europe, Pell's ordeal could well have been shorter. Europeans have yet to institutionalise the hourly fees for which today's Anglophone barristers are notorious, with the result that European hearings tend to be shorter.

The plaintiff's criminal record would in Europe have made it difficult for him to obtain counsel at all.

Most important, each detail of the plaintiff's past convictions would in Europe be entirely admissible as evidence; and most European courts would compel any adult plaintiff (as distinct from a minor) to forsake the coward's castle of anonymity.

It must be stressed that the complainant's menace exacerbated, rather than causing, Pell's difficulties in the Sydney post. By contrast, his Melbourne reign - including long-overdue action against genuine sex-abusers who had impudently called themselves faithful Catholic priests - had been comparatively satisfying for him. In Melbourne the post-Mannix doldrums were so renowned, and the de facto godlessness of "religious" periodicals like Eureka Street so blatant, that nearly all church bureaucrats admitted the prevailing crisis: they differed from Pell only in their attitudes towards easing it; whereas in Sydney, Catholicism's situation looked far healthier, having been cynically purchased by successive cardinals’ Erastian campaign to abolish all distinctions between their Church and the New South Wales Labor Party. Both cognitive enterprise and personal vigour turned into handicaps rather than weapons for Pell in Sydney's archdiocese, where (to James McAuley's disgust as far back as the 1950s) the religion of most Catholics has long resembled American beer as unforgettably described by the late columnist Mike Royko: "a thumb-sucking substitute, though not as tasty".

This reviewer finished Miss Livingstone's account with a sense of cumulative despair. If a Pell can be pushed so close to the abyss, none of his antipodean co-religionists can afford to sleep safely. The Archbishop's acquittal may perhaps have achieved nothing but a breathing space for him. However long the rest of his archiepiscopal tenure, it may well be crippled by future malicious attacks upon him. Unless it becomes as dangerous for the New Class to threaten Catholics as to threaten Muslims and Jews, there is every justification for concluding that Australia's Titus Oates Syndrome will adopt ever wilder forms, till even the average Sydney Catholic wakes from his euphoric trance of bingo, booze and betting-shops for just long enough to notice the forces gloatingly arrayed to annihilate him.

Rudolph Giuliani, when Mayor of New York, used to warn: "Never let your enemies set the agenda." Surely a simple enough creed; but one which Australian Catholic officialdom of our age finds meaningless, as George Pell's own recent humiliations demonstrate afresh.

R. J. Stove

National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003