Why Pell is not the tree to bark up

I’m getting frustrated with much of the media commentary on Cardinal Pell and the Royal Commission. This isn’t about whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, whatever that would mean. It’s about everyone’s failure to exegete the Catholic Church’s leadership structure. It’s understandable in the case of victims and the general populace; but media organisations really should do some half-decent research. Is that out of fashion nowadays?

My beef is that we’re all being misled about what Pell can do for us, for anyone. Yes, he can and darn well should answer for what happened in the past, including within his own spheres of knowledge, authority and influence. But he can do precisely nothing about the present and future, and I’m troubled that the victims are pinning hopes on him as a change agent.

The central question is who Pell now is as far as the Catholic church in Australia goes. The answer is … wait for it … NOTHING. Yes that’s right, Cardinal George Pell can now do nothing about anything that happens in the Australian Catholic world. What’s singularly unhelpful is the bandying about of phrases like “Australia’s most senior catholic” and “the third highest ranking” at the Vatican, and even in one case something like “CEO of the Catholic Church in Australia”. Many things are wrong with those pictures. In what follows I’ll elaborate what I understand to be the case. My Catholic friends might correct me on any nuances.

To begin with – even when he was still in Australia, most recently as Archbishop of Sydney, Pell’s authority over any other bishop in Australia was nil. The dioceses and archdioceses are each their own domain. At the episcopal (bishop / archbishop) level, it’s a flat structure. The (arch)/bishops are equals. “But hang on,” you say, “he was a cardinal, and the only one, right?” Yes indeed. But here’s where things are not as they appear to the typical observer. Cardinals don’t ‘outrank’ bishops as such. A cardinal is a Vatican official. In modern times, most of them are also bishops, and usually senior ones. But their authority as cardinals is related specifically to their Vatican responsibility. Some of them are physically based at the Vatican; others are scattered around the world. In the case of the latter, their local and Vatican responsibilities are distinct entities. They have no jurisdiction in any other bishop’s diocese, or any authority over any other bishop at the pastoral level. So even when he was still in an Australian role, Pell was no more and no less than the senior bishop of the Sydney archdiocese.

But further, he’s no longer in an Australian post. Yes he’s an Australian (presuming that moving to the Vatican, a separate nation state, doesn’t change his citizenship). But his entire role is within the Vatican, where his portfolio is entirely disconnected with his national origin. He has authority specific to his brief within the Vatican structure, in the Secretariat for the Economy. He may be a senior figure in the Vatican bureaucracy, but he doesn’t even have a key to a toilet block in Australia (so far as I know).

By all means grill the guy about what happened in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. And please God, he may now repent of and even apologise for some things in the past. And may there be some healing for someone somewhere as a result. But please dear Australian commentariat, do some basic research (if Wikipedia’s good enough for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, it’s good enough for you), and save abuse victims from any more false expectations and dashed hopes for change than they already suffer.

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