The sexual abuse charges against Cardinal George Pell by the Victoria police are a test for Australian criminal justice, the Australian Church and for the cardinal himself.

We already know the result of the first and the third tests. Australian criminal justice has already failed, and the cardinal, even if wrongfully convicted, will further demonstrate the character and virtue that have marked his years of dealing with public vilification. How the Church in Australia will fare is the great unknown.

I first met George Pell when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1998, interviewing him in the context of the Synod of Oceania then taking place in Rome. After that synod the Holy See convened all the bishops of Australia in an attempt to fashion some doctrinal and pastoral unity in a local Church that seemed unable to escape the 1970s. Pell welcomed it, many of his brother bishops did not.

It was then that I discovered what Aussie Catholics long knew, that George Pell was a singular force. The most outstanding Australian churchman of his generation, he has also been a force for good in the universal Church, long before his current posting in Rome, most notably in his chairmanship of the Vox Clara commission on liturgical translations.

More than his official assignments, his clarity and courage have been an indispensable inspiration to tens of thousands of priests and lay leaders. In a certain sense, he assumed the mantle of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York as the most prominent voice in the English-speaking Catholic world. Cardinal O’Connor had, in fact, been an inspiration for Pell himself, a model of the bishop in a hostile culture.

For almost 20 years, I have benefitted from Cardinal Pell’s guidance and friendship. He has hosted me in Sydney and, more remarkably, was my guest in Kingston and my rural parish. I have not a scintilla of doubt in his innocence of the odious charges brought against him.

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