When I was 12 the parish priest at my primary school made the announcement, we will all to be confirmed by the Archbishop of Melbourne. His name was George Pell, and he was an icon in the Australian Catholic church. A quintessential Aussie boy who played footie, grew up in a rural country town, educated at Oxford, and was now rising through the ranks of the Catholic church. I remember being so excited about this opportunity to be confirmed by such an important member, of not just the Catholic community, but the greater Melbourne community. I remember waiting at the back of the church with all the other kids, nervously giggling before it was my turn to walk down the aisle to receive the sacrament of confirmation.
But when Archbishop pal placed his hands on my head to instill in me, the Holy spirit, a chill, traveled through my entire body. Afterwards, as we were waiting to have our photo taken with the Archbishop, I watched my friends standing next to Pell, smiling at the camera, surrounded by their proud families. When George Pell put his arm around my shoulders and smiled at my dad's camera, the resulting photo shows me looking away off into the distance, like I don't want to be there. My lips slightly apart as if I'm holding in a short tense breath.
It's tradition in Australia that when you turn 21 you make a picture collage of all the important events in your childhood and everyone signs the frame. Mine still hangs in my bedroom at my parents' house. Pictures of birthdays, ballet concerts and sacraments like the first communion and confirmation. In all my friends' picture collages, their confirmation photos are proudly displayed. Them standing with the esteemed George Pell, but not in mine. That photo always made me uncomfortable. In the years that followed, we all watched Archbishop Pell rise through the ranks of the Catholic church. A tall and intimidating man, he was known for his staunched Catholic conservatism, often referred to as "Defender of the Faith Down Under." The whole nation watched as this educated, intimidating, conservative man continued to rise through the ranks. First he became Archbishop of Sydney. Then appointed a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. And most recently as Treasurer for the Vatican and close advisor to Pope Francis. The majority of Australian Catholics couldn't be more proud.
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This all happened despite knowledge that his home parish of Ballarat was embroiled in Australia's worst account of child sexual abuse. The abuse of boys at St. Alipius school was so prolific that victims describe acts of molestation occurring in almost every room on campus, including the principals office. And that each boy knew that eventually his turn would come. In one fourth grade class, more than a third of boys later took their own lives. During this time, George Pell had lived in the Presbytery where boys were raped by a priest who pled guilty to 27 counts of child abuse. Pell walked that priest to his day in court, a photo that many Australians will never forget. He later commented that he didn't know if it was common news or not, that this priest had abused so frequently and that it was a sad story, but not of much interest to him. In response though, Pell set up a program where the church made small deals with victims, compensating them on the order of about $30,000 as long as they didn't sue the Catholic church, potentially saving the church millions of dollars. He promoted himself as an advocate for child sexual abuse victims, someone who would not tolerate sexual abuse in the church.
Fast forward 30 years from the year of my confirmation, I just gave away my age. It's last December and I'm home for Christmas when the news breaks. Cardinal Pell has been convicted of sexual abuse, and sentenced to six years in jail. He molested two altar boys after giving mass when he was just an Archbishop. One of the boys has since taken his own life. Further victims have come forward. Boys, now men, alleging that Pell abused them in changing rooms at swimming pools, at school camps when Pell was as young as 20. Iconic Australian activities tarnished by a man, a priest, a Cardinal supposedly representing the utmost faith and moral values. The people of Australia are angry. In some ways we all wanted to see this football playing young priest go from a small town parish to what many consider the third highest position in the Vatican. He didn't just represent the Catholic faith, he represented our country. Now, when I think back to that feeling of nothingness, dread, fear, it's difficult to describe, when he placed his hand on my head during my confirmation for years, I wondered if his Holy Spirit just wasn't working well that day. What else could have given me such a negative feeling on the day I'm supposed to be confirming my faith? But now that I'm older, this story, my story has confirmed in me that the only faith worth following is your own intuition.