The Australian cardinal who was convicted but later cleared of child sexual abuse charges has urged young British Catholics to defend traditional Church teachings.
Cardinal George Pell also blamed paedophilia scandals on moral and religious failures, rather than on structural faults.
“When I was in the clink, I came away with a deeper conviction that the Christian mix works in so many ways by combining God's love with redemptive suffering and loyalty to the truth,” said Cardinal Pell.
“Some feel that, with paedophilia scandals affecting so many countries, a new sort of Catholic Church is required. But while the figures on abusers and abused are scandalous, representing a cancer and bitter blow, sex abuse come from sinning, not from following the principles of Christian morality”.
The 80-year-old cardinal was presenting the annual St Thomas More Lecture on Saturday for Oxford University's Catholic Newman Society, titled: “The suffering Church in a post-Christian society”.
He said Matthew Arnold had predicted how the decline of religious faith would endanger peace and order in his 1860s lyric poem Dover Beach, but added that Catholics were still “here to stay” a century and a half later, and should assert their presence.
Pope Francis had helped “demythologise the papacy”, using his gifts and “compassion and empathy”, Cardinal Pell added.
However, a “doctrine of radical liberalism” in faith, morals and liturgy had destroyed Church life in some Western countries, and should be resisted by reaffirming “the life-giving truths of Christian teaching on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, monogamous marriage and hetero-normativity”.
“The scandal of sex abuse, a profound contradiction of Christian witness, is an expression of weakening faith and also reflects the moral confusion of priests since the 1960s”, said the Australian cardinal.
“But the Church has checks and balances, and it isn't helpful to have the bishops emasculated as people try to take away their power. Although transparency is needed, I don't think here's any advantage in having the Church subjected to government, and more to be gained through the discipline done by Church leaders”.
Pell was Archbishop of Sydney in 2001-2014, later serving for five years as inaugural prefect of the Vatican's new Secretariat for the Economy. Charged with sexual offences against children in his native Victoria, he was jailed for six years in 2019, but had a final appeal upheld in April 2020 by Australia's High Court, which ruled the five counts had not been proved.
The sell-out lecture, attended by Bishop Keith Newton, who heads the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and local Catholic clergy, was accompanied by a Pontifical High Mass and black-tie dinner in Oxford's Catholic Chaplaincy in honour of the cardinal, who obtained an Oxford DPhil in 1971 and is a Newman Society patron.
The Newman Society said in a statement that Cardinal Pell'’s reception by the Pope in October 2020 indicated he remained “in good standing” within the Church, adding that society members shared the pain of abuse victims and deplored “the scourge of sexual abuse which has afflicted Holy Church”.
“As important as recognising past failings and ensuring they cannot happen again, however, is recognition of the centrality of justice to our society. This virtue works two ways: ensuring punishment for the wicked, but also sparing the innocent,” the Newman Society said.
However, the leader of a group protesting Cardinal Pell's presence told The Tablet that an Australian royal commission had confirmed the cardinal was aware of abuse while heading the Sydney archdiocese, and accused Oxford University of being “really insensitive and deliberately provocative” by allowing a divisive figure to “stir painful feelings for Catholics throughout the world”.
“Child abuse by anyone is a disgusting crime. For it to come from an institution trying to be a moral authority in the world is deeply hypocritical,” the protest leader, who declined to be named, told The Tablet outside the lecture.
“The Church's reaction has been slow, and the fact that the Newman Society still invited Cardinal Pell shows there’s a really long way to go for the Church to become committed to fighting and combating this. That Cardinal Pell’s talk is on the suffering of the Church again shows how callous he is. We shouldn't be talking about how the Church is suffering, but about the suffering inflicted by the Church on some of society's most vulnerable members.”
In his lecture, Cardinal Pell said he believed the “most significant progress in the pro-life cause” against militant secularism was being made in the United States, where Catholic writers such as George Weigel and Mary Eberstadt were helping resist the “pornification of culture” and other forms of “psychic, political, anthropological and intellectual chaos” inflicted by the “systematic demolition” of society's Judaeo-Christian foundations.
He added that the “destructive consequences of liberalism” were visible in declining church membership across the Western world, and said the “spirit of evil” sought to work through the Church's nerve-centres, including the Vatican.
“Today's generation of young Christian intellectuals have an unusual opportunity to speak truth to this void, give voice to the voiceless, and present facts, figures and arguments about the human costs of secularisation,” said Cardinal Pell, who served on the Pope’s Council of Advisers from 2013 to 2018.
“Though I think I understood the basics when I went to jail, I'm more convinced of them than ever now. I desperately wanted to win my case, but I knew that, if I didn't, the most important case would face me when I met the Lord.”
In a Tablet interview after the lecture, Cardinal Pell said he had spoken to the protesters on Oxford’s High Street and “thoroughly agreed” with their appeal for solidarity with abuse victims.
“Things have turned out well, and I'm very happy with my life in Australia and Rome,” the cardinal said. “I'm interested in society and in the Church, and quite happy with my lot. As for the people who are still pursuing me and trying to bring me down, there aren’t many of them now.”
The Jesuit-run Catholic Chaplaincy said in a weekend statement it was confident the cardinal’s presence in Oxford would “do nothing to obscure the scandal of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy and others”, but “heighten awareness of the continuing need to safeguard children and the vulnerable”.