Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, my pastor when I was growing up in Baltimore, was a striking character: Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; former Wall Street broker; high-ranking Army chaplain in World War II; world traveler; founding rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The latter two roles led to some creative thinking about arranging “coverage” at the cathedral during the summer, when he could be found abroad: One by one and year by year, Msgr. Whelan brought to Baltimore newly ordained Australian priests who had studied in Rome, wanted to visit the U.S., and could use some money.
And so, precisely fifty years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967, he had become a fast friend of my family. Little did we know that the next half-century would lead us into the same foxholes in various ecclesiastical battles; or to a shared friendship with a Polish priest, pope, and saint; or into synods, consistories, papal elections, and other adventures. We’re both a little slower and a little heavier than we were in the summer of ’67, when, if memory serves, I helped introduce the future cardinal to frisbee at the beach. But the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.
That summer, Father Pell was heading for doctoral studies in history at Oxford after ordination in Rome from the Pontifical Urban University (horsemeat was a staple on the menu in his day). His intellectual gifts might have marked him out for a scholarly career. But providence (and John Paul II) had other plans, and rather than teaching history full-time, George Pell made history, becoming the defining figure of twenty-first-century Catholicism in Australia.
Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization. Thanks to Pell’s courage in facing down the Australian forces of Catholic Lite, the Church in Oz today has a fighting chance.
Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has not been cost-free. Australia is a contact-sport country, and that national tendency to hit hard extends to both the Aussie media and to intra-ecclesiastical life. George Pell’s enemies, and their media lapdogs, have not scrupled to lie about him for decades. Perhaps the most absurd charge was that this man, whose sartorial style rings up “Salvation Army Thrift Shop,” kept a house full of Church finery to satisfy his vanity. As it happens (and as I wrote at the time), I had just stayed in the cardinal’s house when this nonsense appeared; I hadn’t seen a vestment anywhere, but had noted thousands of books and the current issues of every major opinion journal in the English-speaking world.
More recently, the calumnies have become much darker, as the man who designed and implemented the Australian Church’s first vigorous response to the sexual abuse of the young has been charged with being an abuser. His friends are confident that the charges, like other fanciful allegations the cardinal has consistently denied and of which he has been exonerated, will be shown to be gross falsehoods—not least because we believe Pell is telling the truth when he flatly and forcefully denies the current accusations.
There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions that had become epidemic, ingrained, and virtually institutionalized. Given the stakes and the sleaziness involved, it would not be surprising to learn that some who would be most adversely effected by Pell’s success in Vatican financial reform may have been generating false accusations now in play in the Australian judicial system. Australia, it seems, is not the only place where hardball is played, and in very unsavory forms.
Cardinal George Pell is a big man in every sense of the word and his stamina under assault is entirely admirable. Its deepest root, however, is not his native combativeness but Pell’s faith. Its solidity, and the courage to which that rock-solid faith gives rise, may be what aggravates his foes the most.
It’s also what inspires his legion of friends, among whom I am honored to number myself—for fifty years and counting.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference