I have met George, Cardinal Pell, four times. The first was when a friend of mine, one with far greater devotion to Catholicism than I, organised for him to speak at Monash University in mid 1988.
He was a newly appointed auxiliary bishop at the time, and he spoke diffidently but firmly, like someone might speak who was still new and unused to the spotlight that would from then on be part of his life.
I do recall clearly still that he said something like “Karl Marx was a pretty nasty piece of work who usually sponged off his friend Engels instead of getting an honest job.”
The last time I met Cardinal Pell was in Rome in September 2016, when I first visited Italy, and we did lunch, organised through the auspices of that same close friend in common we had.
We spoke for almost three hours, whilst eating pasta and slowly sipping wine, and talked about many different topics – literature, business, politics, economics, history, and absent friends and acquaintances.
We shared a fondness for the writings of Evelyn Waugh, although he did see much greater value in Waugh’s out of milieu biopic about the Emperor Constantine’s mother than I did (and I will say that much as I appreciate Brideshead Revisited for its theme of repentance and redemption, I much prefer the wickedly irredeemable Decline and Fall).
But as a churchman, it would not be surprising that Helena would be preferred – it is as close to a biography of that particular saint as we are likely to see.
He also did remark on his stay in a Roman hospital in relation to his heart condition. He observed that whilst health care in Australia is probably much better, health care in Italy is probably much kinder.
My mind immediately turned back to that remark this morning, when news broke of Cardinal Pell’s death in an Italian hospital following a hip replacement operation.
Pell was a Prince of the Church, as devouter Catholics than I of an earlier generation might have said. He was both archbishop of Melbourne, and then of Sydney, and Vatican treasurer, one of the senior ministers of the Church.
But his legacy is forever shadowed, in this world at least, by the elephant in the chapel, the allegations of child sex abuse. That the High Court overturned those convictions is not going to change the opinions of those who always presumed him guilty.
Most people, like me, have never really looked closely at the evidence or the circumstances of those allegations. The people who told me they were glad to see him in gaol were mostly speaking from prejudice, a willingness to believe in the worst in him, and particularly not from the belief that he had actually done anything himself, but that he deserved to be punished for being perceived as covering up the crimes of other priests.
I have not seen a need to look at the evidence. If there is another life after this, there will be a court where there is more perfect knowledge of truth than we have here, where justice cannot be escaped. If on the other hand there is no other life than this, then was the evidence presented to the jury and then examined by the learned jurists of the High Court sufficient to establish those accusations as facts?
I’m not a lawyer, nor have I been called to serve on a jury. Nor am I am active in the Church Laity and seeking exoneration or condemnation of a Church leader. Looking at the case presented, which has ultimately been found to be insufficient, would not serve me any profitable purpose of my time.
What I will say is that whilst I did not really know George Pell, we did have some close friends in common, people who I consider to be amongst the finest and most decent people that I have ever had the privilege to know and to count as my friends. I trust those friends, and I believe in them. As their belief in the innocence of George Pell never wavered, I too believe in his innocence of charges.
May we meet again for lunch one day, in the next world. And next time, let’s drink more than just one bottle of red.