PAUL Collins, the author and former Catholic priest, is a “go to” contact whenever the ABC is seeking comment on the Catholic Church. The taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is replete with both former and disillusioned Catholics along with abundant atheists to whom a left-of-centre commentator like Collins has a certain appeal.
So it came as no surprise that ABC television and radio went to Collins for comment soon after Tess Livingstone broke the story in The Australian last Tuesday that Cardinal George Pell has been appointed by Pope Francis to the new Vatican position of Prefect for the Economy.
This makes Pell equal second in the Vatican hierarchy along with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State.
Collins appeared on ABC radio programs The World Today and PM on Tuesday as well as on ABC1’s 7.30. On 7.30 he indicated that Pell might be just the man to carry out the Pope’s will to reform the Vatican’s finances and administration but pointed out that this was “going to be a difficult business”.
That was Tuesday. Earlier in the month, Collins wrote the “feedback” piece in the February edition of Anne Summers Reports. Here Collins praised Pope Francis’s “style of Catholicism” and said that he “promotes a very different approach to church government from that of many of the bishops”.
Collins concluded that “it will be the test” of Pell’s “ability to see if he can adapt to Pope Francis’ approach”.
So, in early February Collins was querying whether Pell could fit in with the Pope’s approach to faith and governance. But by late February Collins was suggesting that Pell might be “the type of person who can pull this whole (Vatican administration) business into line”.
On March 11, 2012, Barney Zwartz, The Age’s then religion editor and a constant Pell critic, reflected on possible replacements for Benedict XVI. Zwartz quoted Collins as ruling out Pell. Collins was quoted as saying that Pell was “never cleared” of an allegation that he molested a 12 year old boy in 1961.
This was a false statement. Apparently The Age forgot that in 2002 it had described the independent inquiry, presided over by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge AJ Southwell (a non-Catholic), that cleared Pell as “a just result”.
And apparently Zwartz forgot that in 2010 he himself had acknowledged that the Southwell report had “cleared” Pell.
On March 15 last year, Collins apologised to Pell. Collins acknowledged his comments were “false and grossly unfair” and “should never have been made”. On March 29, Fairfax Media published a grovelling apology to Pell and acknowledged that it had accepted Southwell’s findings more than a decade earlier.
Fairfax Media has been an unrelenting critic of Pell. So has the ABC. A few examples illustrate the point. On May 27 last year, the ABC News website carried the story that Pell had been “forced to answer questions about the church’s systemic cover-up of cases of rape of children as young as five years old”.
The reference was to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations, which reported last November. In fact, Pell appeared willingly at the inquiry and voluntarily answered all questions directed at him by sometimes hostile Coalition and Labor politicians.
As Peter Craven acknowledged in his review in The Weekend Australian, David Marr’s Quarterly Essay The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell was “partial and unflattering”. Craven added that “Marr doesn’t allow Pell credit for the fact that he did try to do something to stop the problem (of child abuse) and he did offer the possibility of some redress”. Marr’s title, with the reference to “abuse”, revealed his essential aim, namely to link Pell’s entire career with the criminal assault of children.
Yet, on the ABC, Marr received a number of soft interviews and was not required to defend his position against anyone with knowledge about the Catholic Church in general or the Archbishop of Sydney in particular.
This was the case on ABC1’s News Breakfast (interviewer Virginia Trioli) and Radio National Breakfast (interviewer Phil Clark). But the softest of all interviews occurred when RN Late Night Live presenter Phillip Adams interviewed Marr for an hour before an adoring audience at the taxpayer-funded Adelaide Festival of Ideas last October.
Perhaps the most perceptive review was that of Andrew Hamilton in the Jesuit publication Eureka Street, which is generally critical of Pell’s type of conservative Catholicism. Hamilton described Marr’s essay as “unfair” and “a prosecution brief”. He also referred to Marr’s apparent obsession with Pell’s celibacy as both “gratuitous” and reflecting “Marr’s own concerns more than Pell’s”.
Pell was subjected to hostile grilling by 7.30’s Leigh Sales and Lateline’s Emma Alberici when he gave a media conference on November 13, 2012, following (then) prime minister Julia Gillard’s announcement on the establishment of a royal commission into child sexual abuse.
The cardinal did not oppose Gillard’s decision. But he made the point that the Catholic Church objected “to being described as the only cab on the rank” with respect to such criminality. Pell’s position, unfashionable at the time to the likes of Sales and Alberici, has been vindicated by the evidence provided to the royal commission with respect to other Christian churches and religions, the Salvation Army and state government departments and institutions.
Pell has been underestimated by his many critics, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. On Thursday, Kristina Keneally, the former Labor premier of NSW and a Catholic, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that there was “reason to breathe a sigh of relief” as the cardinal “now heads off to Rome”. She also criticised Pell’s conservatism and his “authority-based” attitude to doctrine.
Like Collins, Keneally overlooked Pell’s very real success in Melbourne and Sydney and the fact his conservatism reflects the church’s teaching.
That’s why Pell is now second only to the successor of St Peter in the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church.