On Wednesday, following the unexpected death of Australian Cardinal George Pell, Vatican journalist Sandro Magister revealed that Pell was “Demos,” the author of an anti-papal memo that Magister published back in March 2022, claiming at the time that it was circulating around a group of cardinals. Also on Wednesday, the UK magazine The Spectator posthumously published what appears to have been Pell’s final written work, a strongly worded op-ed entitled “The Catholic Church must free itself from this ‘toxic nightmare,’” in which the late Cardinal condemns the Church’s global synodal process. Praising this article, Spectator editor Damian Thompson tweeted, “The late, great Cardinal Pell – he didn’t go quietly! This magisterial demolition of [the synod] will overshadow the whole wretched proceedings, as it should.”
It’s unclear to me why these two veteran journalists deemed it appropriate to publicly expose the already-controversial cardinal’s contempt and anger towards Pope Francis before his body was even in the ground. The “Demos” (meaning “the people”) memo begins with a condemnation of Francis’s papacy: “this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe,” and proceeds to air out a list of boilerplate grievances against Pope Francis, with references to the usual complaints, such as the German synod, Cardinal Hollerich, “Pachamama,” and the China-Vatican deal. Within hours, most people in and around Rome concluded Pell was the author, given its disproportionate emphasis on Vatican finances and the fact that the very same week, journalists reported that Pell had written a complaint about the German synod and Cardinal Hollerich to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
His article in the Spectator was yet another attempt by a prominent conservative to sink the global Synod. He asks of the working document for the continental stage, “What is one to make of this potpourri, this outpouring of New Age good will? It is not a summary of Catholic faith or New Testament teaching. It is incomplete, hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition and nowhere acknowledges the New Testament as the Word of God, normative for all teaching on faith and morals.” The rest is similar in tone.
Remarkably, Pell’s words make Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s inappropriate and ill-timed revelations about the relationship between Popes Francis and Benedict seem harmless by comparison. Those who promote and champion these writings by Pell seem to lack awareness of the poor taste and tone-deafness of their approach. Nor do they seem much to care about showing respect to survivors of sexual abuse. Pell is a much-reviled figure in Australia due to his reported mishandling of many abuse cases, and even though — after spending 13 months in solitary confinement — his conviction for sexual abuse was eventually overturned, he has never been tried or held to account for allegations that his actions shielded and protected clerical abuses or that he turned a blind eye to survivors.
I, like many others, agree that Pell was likely innocent in the case for which he was convicted, imprisoned, and eventually released. But we can’t lose sight of the questions about how he handled abuse in his role as a priest, bishop, and cardinal. These continue to loom large and will remain a part of his public legacy, as much as his boosters might wish them away. In his hometown of Ballarat — where he was ordained a priest and served 20 years — it is reported that over 50 victims of clerical abuse died by suicide. And we can’t ever forget the pain and loss that survivors carry with them every day.
In light of these grave concerns, why do some think it opportune to unreservedly praise him? Those of us who are still trying to sort out our thoughts about Pell certainly don’t think more highly of him after this brash and shameless celebration of Cardinal Pell’s antipathy towards the pope. Have these people lost their minds? And holding up his prison diaries as a great spiritual testimony is in dramatically poor taste at best.
Cardinal Pell has died. Cardinal Pell is in need of prayers. May God have mercy on his soul.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.