, Sydney, Australia, Feb 26 – From country priest to trusted top Vatican insider, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric George Pell’s reputation lies in tatters after his conviction on child sex offences.
Tall and physically imposing even in his seventies, eloquent yet plain spoken, 77-year-old Pell was the charismatic embodiment of orthodox Australian Catholicism.
He was in December found guilty of sexually assaulting two choir boys in Melbourne in the 1990s, but only on Tuesday was a wide-ranging suppression order thrown out, allowing media to report on the case.
Born in 1941, Pell grew up in Ballarat, a rural Australian gold rush town of lore about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Melbourne.
He was a keen member of his college debating team, a lead actor in school productions and a champion Australian rules footballer.
His devout Catholic mother was reportedly pleased that her son decided to pursue a career in the Church. His father, an Anglican, was bewildered that he turned down a contract from one of the country’s top Australian rules football teams.
Having chosen a religious path, Pell completed part of his studies in Rome before being ordained as priest for the Ballarat diocese in 1966.
As his star rose, he went on to become Archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney at the behest of Pope John Paul II.
In 2003, was named to the Vatican’s powerful College of Cardinals, a position that allowed him to vote in the conclaves that elected popes Benedict and Francis.
In 2014, he was handpicked by Pope Francis to make the church’s finances more transparent.
At home he was considered a religious and conservative hero with a tough stance on euthanasia and gay marriage, while rejecting climate science.
Former conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was effusive in his praise: “Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen.”
From the pulpit, and publicly, Pell espoused traditional Catholic values.
– No memory –
But over the years he was the subject of multiple rumours and accusations of serious wrongdoing.
He fervently denied claims that he covered-up abuse by priests in Victoria state where he worked.
A national inquiry into child sex abuse in Australia between 1950 and 2010 found that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abuse, but that the allegations were never investigated.
The inquiry heard that 4,444 alleged incidents of paedophilia were reported to church authorities and that in some dioceses more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators.
Repeatedly questioned during hearings about paedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s and 80s, Pell apologised on behalf of the church, but insisted he had no memory of claims of sustained mistreatment.
He did, however, admit he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in the 1970s, but said he was deceived by senior clergy about what was happening during a time of “crimes and cover-ups”.
In a 2016 interview he described dealing with the allegations and questions about his character as “very, very difficult and very upsetting” but maintained his innocence.
Then the finger of blame turned squarely on him.
He was accused and ultimately sentenced in December 2018 on a series of charges linked to the assault of two boys in Melbourne, who were aged 12 and 13 at the time.
All the while he was gradually edged out of Vatican life — with the church taking advantage of a court-ordered veil of secrecy to remove him from top bodies with little explanation.
He was put on leave and removed from the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals that are effectively the Pope’s cabinet and inner circle of advisors.
Facing a lengthy prison sentence, his future in the church is unclear.
For now he technically remains in charge of Vatican finances — the third most powerful position in the Roman Catholic Church — and it is unclear if he will retain the post while he appeals his conviction.
In Australia he may retain some diehard support, but for his critics he remains the embodiment of an Australian institution that has failed its congregation and the country.