For years, Cardinal George Pell was dogged by questions of what he knew about the child sexual abuse that happened under his watch in his home state of Victoria. Only his alleged victims knew that he might one day be charged with sexual assault offences himself – allegations Pell denies.
Born to a father, also called George, of English Anglican heritage, and a mother, Margaret (nee Burke), of devout Irish Catholic descent, Pell was always marked for success. Academically bright (he has a PhD from Oxford) and athletically gifted (he is 6’4” and to this day looks more like the retired Australian rules footballer he could have been than what you might expect a 76-year-old cardinal to look like), he was drawn inexorably to the church.
A portrait of the Cork-born Melbourne archbishop Daniel Mannix hung in the family home in Ballarat when Pell was growing up. Mannix was by far Australia's most famous Catholic of his time (he died in 1963), and Pell is by any measure the most well known now.
From his refusal to give communion to gay people (in May 2002 he told the congregation at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow from this”), to his climate change scepticism (in July 2015 he publicly criticised Pope Francis’s decision to speak out on environmental matters: “The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters,” he said), Pell has always been contentious.
He is not without defenders though. When charges against him were announced on Thursday, Miranda Devine, a columnist with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph tabloid, took to social media to blame the messenger. "Victoria police chief Graham Ashton desperate for a distraction from the crime epidemic he's incapable of stopping #HuntingCatholics," Devine wrote.
Others pursuing the Pell story have also been accused of anti-Catholicism, but it is a charge Louise Milligan, author of The Rise and Fall of George Pell, firmly rejects.
"The same church my father loves and remains committed to, that I grew up in? The same church inhabited by the very good men of the cloth to whom I spoke for this book, who care about their parishioners so deeply? The same church that inspired my Irish Catholic nana to send my mum down the street to give money to the poor people on Christmas Day even though she had barely enough to keep her 11 children? No," she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
When Pell moved from Sydney to the Vatican in 2014 to become economics secretary and the third most senior person in the Catholic Church, many breathed a sigh of relief that such a divisive man would now be on the other side of the world.
But some thought it would allow Pell to avoid being questioned by Australia's royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. "There will be nothing compelling him to return to Australia to answer questions about anything raised at the royal commission in future," victims' spokesman Peter Gogarty said at the time.
Gogarty was partly right. Pell did, in fact, give evidence to the royal commission but did so by video link from Rome. He told the commission he saw little or nothing of alleged sexual abuse by priests. “It was a sad story and of not much interest to me,” he said.
But on July 26th Pell will be back in Australia, having his day in court and this time the person facing sexual assault charges is himself.