Melbourne (AFP) – From country priest to trusted top Vatican aide, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric George Pell has seen his reputation plagued in the twilight of his career by controversy swirling around a 1970s paedophile scandal in the former gold rush town of Ballarat.
To his admirers, the 76-year-old cardinal embodies the orthodox traditions of Australian Catholicism, but to his critics he represents an institution that has failed to properly deal with sex abuse allegations.
Pell, who was ordered Tuesday to stand trial over “multiple” historical sex abuse offences, becoming the highest-ranked Catholic to face such serious charges, strongly denies the claims.
He also says he has no knowledge of widespread paedophilia in the church in Australia.
Born in 1941, he grew up in Ballarat, a rural Australian town, where 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, whereas his father, an Anglican, was bewildered that he turned down a contract from one of the country’s top football teams.
Having chosen a religious path, Pell completed part of his studies in Rome before being ordained a 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 and in 2003 was named to the Vatican’s powerful College of Cardinals, a position that allowed him to vote for the next Pope of the day.
Then in 2014 he was handpicked by Pope Francis to make the church’s finances more transparent.
“Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen,” former conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said.
From the pulpit, and publicly, Pell has espoused traditional Catholic values and been sceptical on some political issues, from a tough stance on euthanasia and gay marriage to his rejection of climate science and criticism of harsh treatment of asylum-seekers.
– No memory –
But his reputation has been tarnished in recent years and on Tuesday was sent to trial, although half of the allegations against him, including some of the most serious, were thrown out.
He has also denied previous claims that he covered-up abuse by priests in Victoria state where he worked.
A national inquiry into the institutional responses to child sex abuse in Australia between 1950 and 2010 found that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused, but that the allegations were never investigated.
The inquiry, ordered in 2012, 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 that inquiry 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”.
Plagued in recent years by ill health and with a potentially lengthy trial pending, there are now big question marks over whether he will ever return to a Vatican haunted by scandals from the past.