As a young man he chose the priesthood instead of a professional contract to play Australian Rules Football. Since then Cardinal George Pell has been on a meteoric rise from the small city of Ballarat to one of the top jobs in the Vatican overseeing the Holy See’s finances.
For the next four days, however, he faces the most gruelling test of his career giving evidence to Australia’s Royal Commission into institutional responses to the abuse of children.
Taking place in the dead of night, Cardinal Pell is being asked take himself back to his time in Ballarat by Australia’s Royal Commission investigating institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children. This was the time in his life after he had studied at Oxford University and when a promising future at the top of the Church beckoned.
Last night the cardinal, who is the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, completed his first session of cross examining into what he knew about the abusive priests in his hometown diocese whom the Church failed to protect children from.
To the anger of abuse victims, the 74-year-old cardinal is not giving his evidence back home but instead via video link at the Albergo Nazionale in Rome. His decision not to fly back has even inspired a song by Tim Minchin titled “Come Home”.
But Cardinal Pell is not returning as he says he is following doctor’s orders not to travel due to a heart condition (he has appeared in front of the commission in person before).
This week, from 10pm to 2am, he is being cross examined in a room attended by journalists, abuse survivors and priests. And as his testimony was prepared to be heard, there was a strange scene in the hotel lobby as a large gathering of media mingled with some bemused looking guests from a wedding party.
He is being assisted by one of the best legal teams money can buy and wanted to make sure he was as well prepared as possible, holing himself up in a room in the hotel several hours before the commission's proceedings were about to start.
The cardinal also wanted moral support. His private secretary, Fr Mark Withoos, had sent an email to priests, seminarians and other friends asking them to attend the evidence sessions as a sign of support. Last night there were a smattering of them including a senior cleric from Opus Dei and someone from the conservative Acton Institute think tank.
Tension was running high at the hotel. A number of survivors of abuse had travelled to Rome to witness the cardinal give evidence. There was a reported scuffle where some Australian journalists were allegedly “pushed, punched” by some of the cardinal’s security. Cardinal Pell’s office swiftly denied this.
After survivors and media personnel found their seats the cardinal swept through the hotel accompanied by security personnel and his secretary. He walks fairly slowly and is somewhat stooped: it is a rather different image from the public persona of the tough, no-nonsense defender of orthodoxy.
Looking slightly pale and dressed in a simple black clerical suit with his Companion of the Order of Australia medal pinned to his left lapel, Cardinal Pell gave his testimony sitting in front of a grey curtain and after swearing an oath on the bible.
He answered the questions slowly, carefully. There were mountains of paper with different folders being put in front of him. He almost barked out his “no” to some questions but other times admitted his memory was imperfect.
He wanted to accept the Church’s mistakes. He said: “I’m not here to defend the indefensible, the Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the Church has in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down. I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”