From Australia to the Vatican, Pell a polarizing figure

SYDNEY (AP) — The photograph was striking: There was George Pell, then an auxiliary bishop in Australia, walking side by side into court with Gerald Ridsdale, Australia’s worst pedophile priest.

The decision by Pell, now a cardinal, to support his former housemate that day in 1993 led to an image that has lived on in infamy in Australia for more than two decades, cementing Pell’s reputation among many people as a man more focused on ambition than empathy, more concerned with protecting the church than its flock. And it made him something of a scapegoat for all that was wrong with how the Catholic Church handled the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Though Pell went on to ascend the ranks of the Catholic Church and become Pope Francis’ chief financial adviser, he would eventually find himself pulled back into the abuse crisis engulfing his homeland. On Thursday, Australian police charged him with multiple counts of sexual abuse that officials allege occurred years ago, making Pell the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church’s long-running abuse scandal.

Pell has vehemently denied the allegations and vowed to return to Australia to clear his name. But he is likely to face a cool reception in his homeland, where years of accusations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney, have tarnished his reputation.

The towering former rugby player’s abrasive nature has long been off-putting to many, with the father of one clergy abuse victim once accusing him of having a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”

Yet Pell’s defenders say the cardinal simply has an image problem, that he is a good man who struggles to convey what is in his heart. Pell himself acknowledged as much in 2013, saying of his decision to support Ridsdale that day 20 years earlier: “I intended no disrespect to the victims. I understand now that they perceived it — and probably rightly — as such, but I did not at the time.”

Pell’s supporters are also quick to note that he was one of the first bishops in the world to create a compensation program for church sex abuse victims, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell has said he set the program up out of compassion, though victims later criticized it as a way to keep them from suing the church.

“His style can be robust and direct; he does not wear his heart on his sleeve,” seven Australian archbishops and bishops wrote in a statement supporting Pell in 2015. “But underneath, he has a big heart for people.”

Pell was born in 1941 in Ballarat, a deeply Catholic city in the southern Australian state of Victoria that would eventually become the epicenter of the nation’s clergy abuse crisis. He was ordained a priest for the Ballarat diocese in 1966, and became an auxiliary bishop of the Melbourne Archdiocese in 1987. In 1996, he was appointed archbishop of Melbourne and was made Sydney archbishop five years later.

Impressive as his career trajectory was, he never managed to shake the Ridsdale controversy. In many ways, the photograph encapsulated the Catholic Church’s attitude toward sex abuse the world over: Church leaders regularly sided with the priests who raped and molested children, placing the reputation of the church above the safety of the young and the real needs of abuse victims.

And despite what supporters dubbed his pioneering efforts to compensate victims, he was dogged for years by allegations that he should have done more to stop clergy from abusing children in the first place, particularly in Ballarat. The city was devastated by disclosures of a huge number of church abuse victims, scores of whom killed themselves in an unprecedented cluster of abuse-related suicides.

In 2012, Australia’s government announced a royal commission — the country’s highest form of investigation — into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to child sex abuse. Pell testified repeatedly before the commission, and was peppered with questions about current Vatican efforts to address the scandal as well as how he dealt with abuse allegations against other clergy members during his time in Australia. The cardinal largely deflected any blame, though eventually conceded that he had erred by often believing the priests over victims.

Last year, Pell sparked a fresh wave of anger in Australia after saying he was too ill to travel back to his home country to testify — for a third time — before the commission, opting instead to testify via video link from Rome. A crowd-funding campaign was quickly set up to send abuse victims from Ballarat to Rome so they could watch the testimony in person. Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin released a blistering song entitled “Come Home (Cardinal Pell),” in which he called the cardinal an ethically hypocritical, arrogant coward.

In 2014, Pope Francis named Pell prefect of the new economy secretariat, tasked with getting the Vatican’s vast and complicated finances under control. Critics in Australia saw Pell’s move as an attempt to leave his troubles behind and avoid dealing with the abuse scandal.

His reception in Rome wasn’t much rosier; Pell has been a polarizing figure at the Vatican ever since his appointment. Soon after he was named, he drew swift scorn from the mostly Italian-headed Vatican bureaucracy for boasting that he had “found” some 1.4 billion euros “tucked away” in Vatican accounts that didn’t appear on balance sheets. In fact, the money was well known to the secretariat of state.

And over the years, he clashed with many other cardinals who resented his attitude suggesting that he was the main force for transparency and reform while others were resistant to change.

Pell’s initial mandate was huge, tasked with broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See. But the mandate was subsequently restricted to performing more of an oversight role.

In a statement Thursday, the Vatican said Francis greatly appreciated Pell’s “honesty” in working in the Curia and was grateful for his collaboration. Francis was particularly grateful “for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation” in the pope’s group of nine cardinal advisers, the statement said.

But it was well known that Pell and Francis had their differences in both style and substance.

It was Pell, for example, who handed Francis a letter signed by 12 fellow cardinals complaining about the procedures surrounding Francis’ landmark synod on the family in 2015. The letter warned that the Catholic Church was at risk of collapse if bishops went too far in accommodating the flock over the contentious issue of letting civilly remarried Catholics receive communion.

In the end, Francis went ahead with the accommodation, albeit obliquely.

In a statement Thursday, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher stood by Pell and said the archdiocese would support him with accommodation upon his return.

“The George Pell I know is a man of integrity in his dealings with others, a man of faith and high ideals, a thoroughly decent man,” Fisher said.

He added that the archdiocese wouldn’t be paying any of Pell’s legal bills.