The Italian job: George Pell to tackle Vatican's old guard

Some Catholics take an uncharitable view of George Pell. There are the faithful, clerics among them, who call him Pell Pot or Pontius Pell. There is the droll Herald letter writer who claimed the Pope's big announcement this week - removing Pell from Sydney to a big new job in Rome - was confirmation of the power of prayer.

And yet even Pell's detractors were quick to respond that Pope Francis had made a shrewd move in appointing the tough-talking Archbishop of Sydney to perhaps the toughest job in the Holy Roman Catholic Church. They say 72-year-old Pell, the Pope's new hand-picked finance tsar, has the kind of of backbone it will take to break a culture of corruption, feather-bedding and nepotism that has beset the Vatican. That, with the Pope's blessing, he is a fearless outsider with enough experience and clout with the locals to expose the byzantine money trails, centralise financial auditing and excise the fat from unwieldy bureaucracies.

John L. Allen jnr, an associate editor at The Boston Globe and respected Vatican watcher, tells Fairfax Media: ''The people invested in older ways of doing things, and by that I mean a good chunk of the population, are going to be scared to death of George Pell.''

In late March, Pell will start work as Prefect for the new Secretariat for the Economy at the Holy See and the Vatican State. It makes him the pontiff's supreme bean counter or, as Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven puts it, his reformer-in-chief.

''It's a sign the Pope means it when he says he wants transparency and accountability,'' says Allen. ''He's a guy who's got some spine.''

Pell may need some of that spine before he leaves for Rome, particularly for his March appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. How accountable and transparent Pell and the church have been - not with its finances but with its treatment of abuse victims - are central questions for that inquiry.

Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, will be asked about the so-called ''Ellis defence'', a term coined after the NSW Court of Appeal found that he, as Archbishop, and the ''body corporate'' could not be held liable for the abuses committed by a priest in the 1970s.

Victims' lawyers argue it effectively meant the church did not exist as a legal entity and so could not be sued for the crimes of its priests. The church denies the case set any such legal precedent or that it uses it as a shield against victims' claims. Church officials and entities can be and are sued, it says.

Pell's past missteps in his feisty answers to questions about abuse - that his church is far from the only culprit and ''we object to being described as the only cab on the rank'' - have led to perceptions, fair or not, of a company man who will defend the institution to the death. How much of this baggage he carries to Rome is yet to be seen.

Chris Geraghty, a former priest and retired NSW District Court judge, regards Pell as a good administrator but not a gifted religious leader. ''He's a strong, determined, fairly ruthless and pretty unpleasant person,'' he says. ''He might be a good clerical policeman.''

But what of Pell's own record as a financial manager? ''Accountability and transparency are not part of the tradition from which George comes,'' says Eric Hodgens, another retired priest, from Melbourne. ''He was a good spender, in Sydney and Melbourne.''

But Hodgens, too, believes Pope Francis may have chosen wisely, not for any economic credentials Pell possesses but for his determination.

In 2011, Hodgens savaged the extravagance of Pell's Domus Australia, the ''pilgrim centre'' built in Rome with 33 hotel rooms, a 150-seat auditorium and an apartment for the Archbishop, largely with Sydney archdiocese funds. Pell has dismissed a report it cost $85 million. It was more like the price for a new school and church; roughly $30 million is the suggestion, also paid for with help from the archdiocese of Melbourne and Perth and the diocese of Lismore.

No parish collection money went to the project, Pell's media office says, and while it carries an undisclosed debt on the centre, the Archbishop is betting the ''investment'' will pay its own way.

Indeed, Domus Australia is among the items listed among Pell's legacies in a press release from his Sydney headquarters this week. Pell and his financial advisers were unavailable for interviews but his office pointed to his extensive experience in business and economic management: his oversight of CatholicCare and other archdiocesan entities with 9000 staff; the 150 schools with about 70,000 students; the 140 programs for the disadvantaged.

As chairman of the archdiocese finance committee - whose members include a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, John Phillips, Harris Farm Markets chairwoman Cathy Harris and Commonwealth Managed Investments chairman Richard Haddock - Pell had introduced

governance standards comparable with those of large corporate entities.

Caritas Australia, the church's agency for overseas development and relief, was raising about $1 million a year when he started as chairman in 1988 and regularly $15 million by the time he left in 1997. Haddock says Pell has a good grasp of finance and, while he is not an accountant, ''he understands all those things enough to ask the right questions''.

Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, a practising Catholic, gives credit to Pell and his ''single-minded determination'' for bringing World Youth Day and Pope Benedict to Sydney in 2008 but that credit stretches only so far.

Asked if it demonstrated the kind of financial nous that would serve him well in Rome, Keneally says: ''George Pell and the Catholic Church may well have put on a financially successful World Youth Day but that certainly didn't happen without significant contributions by the NSW government.''

Keneally says the cardinal's leadership ''hasn't suited all Catholics and, arguably, hasn't suited all clerics''.

Despite their differences, his rise through the church's ranks demonstrated he was ''a capable administrator''.

Another Catholic, Paul Grogan, sighs at the ''irony'' of Pell going to Rome to guarantee transparency. Grogan runs MDO Consulting for non-profit, mission-driven organisations. Pell's office lobbied - with success - for the impending abolition of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which was established in 2012, after recommendations from the Productivity Commission for an independent body to ensure scrutiny of the nation's 60,000 or more charities.

Pell's business manager, Danny Casey, has insisted the church wants to avoid red tape, not scrutiny. Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, a Catholic, concurs and is persisting with his plan to wind up the ACNC despite other charities' outspoken support for the body. Pell's ''cohorts'' will be absolved of accountability and granted immunity from public scrutiny, Grogan writes in a letter to the minister.

As a registered charity, the Sydney archdiocese would be obliged to file its 2013 calendar-year financial statement to the ACNC by the end of this year. With the backing of the new Senate from July, if not sooner, the ACNC will be long gone. The Sydney archdiocese does not release an annual report for broader public consumption. Its many service arms, however, do report publicly and account for all the taxpayer dollars that support their education, welfare and health services.

Retired bishop Geoffrey Robinson is the author of For Christ's Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church … for Good. He has had his differences with Pell but he believes ''just possibly he is the right man'' for the new job in Rome. Pell will have top-class advisers to change the financial structure, Robinson says.

''But then there is the question of a change in the culture inside the Vatican, and that will be the far more difficult problem,'' he says.

Allen describes Pell's challenge: ''You are taking on the ingrained culture of the Vatican, heavily conditioned by the surrounding Italian culture, which is less than transparent or accountable.

''There are lots of behaviours that are not even seen as corrupt. For instance, up until very recently, if you were a senior churchman and you walked into the Vatican Bank and went to make a large deposit, it would never occur to anyone to ask where you got it. You don't ask family members where money comes from. But this is against money-laundering protocols.

''It's very natural and supposedly completely ordinary to steer contracts to relatives or friends.''

Ed Pentin, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register, says of Pell: ''He has an Anglo-Saxon attitude to transparency and accountability. Italians aren't quite the same.''

This assessment will undoubtedly be controversial among Italians but it was echoed this week by Brisbane's Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, who is among likely candidates to replace Pell in Sydney, and Hodgens. Former priest and church commentator Paul Collins agrees it should be an outsider, as does Robinson, although he argues: ''I don't think the man needs to be Anglo-Saxon. That would be a racial slur … But I do think it's good that it's not an Italian because we are talking about the need to change a culture and that culture is overwhelmingly Italian.''

The motto on Pell's personal coat of arms quotes Jesus: ''Be not afraid.''

There has been some quibbling this week about where in the church hierarchy this appointment places him. Brian Lucas, general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, says retired cardinal Edward Cassidy remains the Australian to reach the highest rank in Rome, two down from the Pope, when he served as the sostituto, or substitute secretary of state, in 1988.

But Allen says Pope Francis is redefining the No.2 spot, secretary of state, and, for Pell, ''there's an implied equality''. Pell will have the power to audit that secretariat. The Australian's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote that if Francis ''should fall under a bus in a year or so, Pell would instantly be a papal possibility''.

That would not please the likes of Geraghty, who has this experience of Pell: ''He doesn't empathise, he doesn't sympathise, he doesn't project himself in some kind of humane, understanding manner. I've always thought that he's a bit autistic … cold and plastic.''

Harsh, but not necessarily bad qualities for a bean counter. Allen says: ''If you had asked me if any member of the College of Cardinals had the steel in his spine to get this done, I would probably have come up with the name George Pell.''

He notes that Pell has been clamouring for greater transparency in the Vatican for a long time and he is among cardinals who have been complaining they can never get a clear answer on how much money the Vatican has and what it is doing with it.

''If he pulls it off, this will be George Pell's legacy,'' Allen says.

"If he is able to bring the Vatican into the 21st century, it will be the lead item on his obituary.’’

The story The Italian job: George Pell to tackle Vatican's old guard first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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