According to David Marr, the influence of the Catholic activist B. A. Santamaria (1915-1998) lives on. In Marr’s view, one of Santamaria’s disciples is George Pell, the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, and another is Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister.

Following the publication of his Quarterly Essay last week, titled The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell, Marr received numerous – and overwhelmingly soft – interviews on the ABC. On September 23 he told Philip Clark on Radio National Breakfast that ”these two old followers of Bob Santamaria, now a cardinal and a prime minister” are part of a political movement which ”is running the country in 2013”.

Earlier in the interview, responding to Clark’s claim that Pell is ”the prince or spiritual adviser to the leader of our country Tony Abbott”, Marr commented: ”It’s a dream. It’s a Medieval dream.” Not really. It’s a journalistic beat-up.

No doubt, Abbott’s swearing-in as prime minister has re-focused attention on Pell who has been a national figure since his appointment as Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He moved to Sydney in 2001.

Extracts from The Prince were published in the Herald on September 21-22 but there was no news flash. This gives veracity to Pell’s response to Marr’s essay. He described it as ”a predictable and selective rehash of old material” and quoted from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics: ”A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about the author.” Sensibly, Pell declined to be interviewed by Marr.

Pell is the most significant Catholic figure in Australia since the Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix (1864-1963). Moreover, unlike Mannix who distrusted the Vatican, Pell has real influence in Rome. Yet Marr has chosen to depict Pell almost solely with reference to the sex abuse scandal.

However, the evidence suggests that Pell did more than most members of the Catholic hierarchy in identifying and addressing this issue. He set up the Melbourne Response three months after becoming an archbishop. He was among the first bishops to apologise to victims. When leading the Catholic Church in Melbourne, Pell sacked about 20 men from the priesthood.

On May 27, Pell gave evidence to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child  abuse by religious and other organisations. He took numerous highly critical, rigorous, sometimes unfair and occasionally mocking questions from a bipartisan collection of Victorian MPs – including Georgie Crozier (Liberal), Andrea Coote (Liberal), Frank McGuire (Labor) and David O’Brien (Nationals). Pell did not falter. Nor has Marr been able to find faults in his testimony.

Certainly Pell admitted to a degree of naivety as a young priest and conceded he might have handled some cases differently. But no one has found a ”smoking gun” with reference to Pell’s involvement with clerical crimes, most of which date to the 1990s and earlier.

Andrew West in the Religion and Ethics Report was one of the few ABC journalists to challenge Marr’s thesis. West suggested to Marr that his criticism of the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse stems from a small l-liberal point of view and a rejection of mainstream Catholicism.

West has a point. In The Prince, Marr concentrates on Pell’s celibacy. Marr told West that ”it was the celibate Church that gave paedophiles safe haven”. This does not explain why paedophilia is widespread outside the Catholic Church. What’s missing from The Prince is that the overwhelming majority of sexual child abuse cases in the Catholic Church have involved attacks by men on young boys.

Santamaria’s influence was exaggerated by his supporters and opponents alike. Abbott is not the Catholic that the secularist Marr believes him to be. Nor is Pell. As the Cardinal said last week: ”Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.”

Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute.