Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan

An unflinching examination of the career of George Pell. 

Louise Milligan is an investigative journalist with the ABC, working for the 7.30 program. In Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, Milligan examines not only George Pell's career, but also the culture of the Catholic Church and how it has dealt with the sex abuse scandals involving paedophile priests.

Of course, in many ways, Pell and the Catholic Church are one. Pell has risen in the church's hierarchy (as Cardinal he could even be chosen as the next pope) and advocated for a return to more rigidly conservative values. Many of his speeches and writings have criticised what he considers to be a too permissive attitude towards sex. His is not a progressive voice.

There are two main issues that Cardinal deals with. The first is how much Pell knew was going on in the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. Whilst some of the worst abuse was happening, he was attending meetings and was in discussions with other priests. He was an integral part of this culture. Did he have an inkling of why some priests were being moved about so much? Did he ask enough questions, if any?

The second issue that the book examines are the accusations laid against Pell himself of abuse. Are his accusers reliable? Many have criminal pasts, does this disqualify their testimony? Do the accusations, from several different people, start to paint a coherent picture of abuse?

All of these are questions that the reader has to decide for themself. One criticism that can perhaps be levelled at Milligan's book is the tone. The author sometimes uses a mocking and cynical language towards Pell. You wonder if a line of impartiality has been crossed. Having said that, the research in Cardinal is thorough and tenacious. Milligan is a dogged journalist who will leave no stone unturned and has interviewed a wide range of people – victims, police, clergy and lawyers.

Reading Cardinal is an emotional roller coaster of a book. It is deeply, deeply harrowing. So many suicides, so many lives utterly destroyed. A church that didn't seem to think much of the sexual abuse of children. The attitude was simply that the abused children would quickly “get over it” and get on with their lives. The book is also an indictment of social and cultural power imbalances: Catholic priests, and the church they represented, were not to be doubted. Several children, when they did come forward and tell their parents of their abuse, were actually beaten or verbally abused by their parents. It was unthinkable to accuse a priest of sexual abuse. No wonder on average it takes thirty-three years for a victim of abuse to come forward.

At least now, with books such as Cardinal, the victims of abuse are getting a voice.

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522871340 RRP: $34.99

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