Michael Cooney

David Marr on Cardinal Pell, like Lytton Strachey on Cardinal Manning – and surely Marr’s Eminent Australians for Black Inc. is not so very far in the future? – essays “the light which his career throws upon the spirit of his age, and the psychological problems suggested by his inner history.” Unlike David Marr, I’m qualified to consider only one of these.

As an adviser to Labor leaders Mark Latham, Kim Beazley and Prime Minister Julia Gillard – not Mr Rudd; file that for other correspondence – I have dealt with Cardinal Pell and his private staff from time to time over many years. (It’s a fact that until Prime Minister Gillard’s decision to establish the royal commission, these dealings never included any matter relating to child sexual abuse.)

In His Eminence’s dealings in politics, perhaps as distinct from those in the church, the cardinal acts as a person of influence, not of power. He speaks through intermediaries; he acts on understandings; he asks little of the government of the day. Leave school funding alone, leave Catholic health care alone, leave euthanasia alone … until the end, leave royal commissions alone. He is a conservative, after all. A bit of help for World Youth Day here, some support for the McKillop canonisation there. David Marr notes the cardinal’s political alienation from the big Catholic commissions and NGOs, which is certainly the case; he’s also operationally isolated from them, practically remote. I can’t recall, or even really imagine, his raising an issue to do with employment services contracts or hospital funding reform. 

This approach is almost the opposite of deal-making. Not so much you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, as don’t scratch my car and I won’t scratch yours. It’s not hard to say yes. 

Cardinal Pell is also not always wrong.

Of course, no politician I have worked with thinks that the cardinal speaks for or directs a voting bloc of millions. They all know that many bishops better represent the “median Catholic voter” and many Catholic organisations have more direct power in the land. But of course, no politician I know thinks the Cardinal doesn’t matter more than any other Catholic bishop, and of course, he’s treated differently. Any of the Catholic bishops could call on friends in the parliament and the cabinet, but for one thing, not many of them want to. I suppose they have confirmations to perform. In my own experience, and for what it’s worth, what gives this archbishop of Sydney his quintessential political influence is that unlike any other Catholic leader – unlike almost any other churchman in Australia – he can genuinely command a national audience

In this respect, his political influence comes, above all, from the work of journalists, including his critics; people like David Marr made him.

Cardinal Pell can get on TV.


For many years, my strongest impression of the cardinal has been of his age. Australian politics is no gerontocracy: in public affairs, a Catholic bishop often seems to be the oldest person in the room; the cardinal is always the oldest person in the room. And he doesn’t just seem old and slow when you introduce him to a bright, nervous young guest at a banquet in the evening; he seems old and slow when you are sitting next to him at the cricket in the early afternoon. I saw him manage to make a person as serene as Kim Beazley seem like a time-conscious chief executive.

The Hong Kong democrat Martin Lee was supposed to have said of Tung Chee Hwa, the first Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong: “Trying to change Tung’s mind is not like trying to change your father’s mind. It is like trying to change your grandfather’s mind.” This is not to say Cardinal Pell can’t be persuaded. But it does mean you can only persuade him on his own terms.

Take school funding. He declined John Howard’s offer of more money for many Catholic schools in 2001 because it went with direct funding of the schools, rather than bloc funding of his system. He attacked Labor’s 2004 schools policy, under Mark Latham, which promised billions of dollars in extra funding to thousands of Catholic schools in Australia but cut the funding of two (yes, two) Catholic high schools in Sydney. We got him over the line in 2006. We didn’t give him everything he wanted; we also didn’t take away anything he wanted.

He is a conservative Cardinal – and he is a political conservative.

David Marr reminds us that Cardinal Pell resisted calls for a royal commission for years. Following the then prime minister’s decision to hold one, she asked one of her ministers to inform Pell that an announcement would happen within an hour or so. The cardinal asked for a little more time to inform the Catholic bishops before the announcement – just another hour or two – and this was agreed. A short time later, the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, issued a statement, for the first time supporting a royal commission. David Marr is probably correct that on this occasion Abbott showed he was not “Pell’s puppet.” The connection is surely a more equal one than that.


Professor Greg Craven, now vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, once told Julia Gillard that, with her passion for rigour in education and her confidence that rigorous education could provide opportunities to rise, she might be the first Christian Brother to serve as prime minister. He later related this to me, hoping, I presume, that I would advise a baffled PM that it was a flattering observation. He knew his audience in me, at least.

I am a Christian Brothers boy. So is my father, so are my sons. We are mocked by the Jesuit characters in James Joyce as “Paddy Stink and Mickey Muck.” My schoolmates who got jobs through old-boy networks got them in the building trade.

There’s a moment I find very moving in Ron Blair’s play The Christian Brothers. This is an Australian one-hander first performed in 1975 in which the actor who plays a Christian Brother addresses the audience as his class. It’s not sentimental about the order. Early in the play, Brother offers this advice:

Next year of course is an external exam, probably the most important you’ll ever sit. One tip. Don’t put AMDG or JMJ at the top of your page – anything that will give you away as a Catholic. And if you do a history question and you have to mention the pope, don’t on any account refer to him as the Holy Father …

I hear this line in the voice of the man who taught me the words to “The Minstrel Boy,” Brother “Bob” Owens. (“Bob” for his resemblance to Bob Hope; but we were ten and it was 1982 and none of us had heard of Bob Hope; how did we know to call him that? Did our uncles tell us?)

In performance it’s a joke, of course. But it plays on my heartstrings, not only with the personal pathos of the situation but also with its evocation of the great paradox of Catholic education in Australia; precisely this mixed feeling about “the world,” about the whole human society beyond the school and the order and the church. Brother is trying to give his boys a fair go in the world through education – he sees “boys and girls pouring out of the colleges and the convents, and taking positions of responsibility in the professions and the public service” – but it’s a world he has also tried to teach them to despise. What’s more, he knows that the world will despise those girls and boys – “nothing frightens them more” – and can foresee that they will betray themselves into defeat with some shibboleth he has taught them. Does he hope for this? Or fear it? God knows.

I have a Protestant-educated Catholic friend who says, melodramatically: “they can smell the Blood of Christ on us.” Anyway, the world will hate us. But I do feel I would have Brother Owens’ permission to refer to His Eminence as Pell.


James McAuley wrote of his parents, “How can I judge without ingratitude?/Judgment is simply trying to reject/A part of what we are because it hurts.” How can we judge our spotless Mother, the Church?

Ask a person steeped in the life and culture of science to judge and assign responsibility and learn the lesson of the history of scientific racism and social Darwinism and Tuskegee. Ask a person steeped in the life and culture of the German-speaking peoples to comprehend the horrific reality of the whole journey from the Beer Hall Putsch to Auschwitz. What does this evil say about everything that came before it and within which it was formed? What does it mean for what we do next? God knows.

After all that has happened, all I can humanly do is two things.

First? Try to grasp the horror, in its scale and detail. Here Marr is almost perfect and his essay is almost ideal. Marr doesn’t know the church. Indeed, he’s surprised by it: surprised that it excommunicates Marxists, surprised that it runs public universities, surprised that its leaders prepare for office with their “head[s] in the turmoil of the third-century church,” not in newspaper debates about contraception. Precisely because he doesn’t know the church, he is able to show us things we couldn’t see ourselves. I’ve often learned from reading him; I learned from reading The Prince.

Second? Try to form a judgment about what should be done. Here, Marr can’t help us much. He chooses not to understand the church – fair enough – but that means we have to decide for ourselves what we can learn from his essay and what we can’t.

And facts matter. When Marr says, “most priests are part of the sexual underworld; gay, straight and at times criminal,” that’s an important claim. It’s not supported by any of the facts offered. David Marr doesn’t know this. I don’t know this. No one does. Sometimes the facts are convenient; just because a claim suits David Marr’s argument doesn’t mean it’s false. But in the absence of any evidence, it’s hard not to read this as a part of the text of David Marr’s life and work, rather than as a part of the empirically discoverable world; hard not to hear in his attitude to celibacy an echo of the myth of Queen Victoria’s attitude to lesbianism. He really can’t believe there’s any such thing.


Child sexual abuse in the church is the true subject of this correspondence – not David Marr. It’s child sexual abuse in the church that should make us angry, and it’s child sexual abuse in the church that we’re called to do something about.

One of the things that makes me angriest, one of the things that must change, is the cult of mutual respect among the bishops. My personal view is that they’ve nearly killed the church in Australia with their pretences to “reform” things they don’t care about, like the Mass – bishops took the Traditional Mass and smashed the traditional way of life, not the laity – and then they have dug in like bastards to stop change on things they do care about, to preserve their own privileges and control. I hate their bitter brew of carelessness about our children, destruction of our traditions and authority over our purse – I hate their determination to preserve all the things that license them but none of those that limit them.

Pell is as guilty of this as any. Take these sentences of his, very typical ones: “Back in those days, they were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of. They didn’t realise that in the worst cases it was an addiction, a raging addiction.” If you could make one change to that, it could serve a useful purpose. Back in those days, the 1970s, they – or many of them – did think of paedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of. They didn’t realise that in the worst cases it was an addiction, a raging addiction. That’s part of why the abuse happened – and knowing that it’s false, and correcting it, is part of how we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. What makes a parent, a Catholic, a person of reason, want to cry and scream and throw their shoes around the room is that mad phrase, “they were entitled to think.” I just don’t want to hear any more excuses or politics, Eminence.

And this has nothing to do with conservatives and liberals, white hats and black hats. They are almost all as bad as the others. So I don’t want to hear more excuses or politics from you either, “Father Pat.” First put aside the incredible infelicity of the retired bishop Pat Power’s outburst about Pell – that “he was going his own way and bugger the rest of Australia” – and think about what he said and what it meant. “Bugger the rest of Australia” meant bugger the rest of Australia’s bishops. “The bishops did not like him,” reports Marr. “He’s not a team player,” bleats Power.

Who cares?

They’re talking about the Melbourne Response – about a plan that was supposed to bring justice for the survivors. Whatever else was wrong with it, and evidently there was plenty, I couldn’t care less whether it was developed by a team player or a maverick, whether it pleased or embarrassed Pat Power or anyone else. Yes, Pat, bugger the rest of Australia’s bishops. What matters is the children who were raped.

There are good men on the seats of some of our cathedrals. In the end, though, Power, the liberal majorities in the bishops’ conference, the whole lot, turn out to be just as concerned with the privileges of bishops, and just as ignorant of the important thing, as Cardinal Pell. Power was auxiliary bishop of a diocese where abuse took place, where criminal trials have occurred. Power has stood alongside clerics accused of sexual wrongdoing. Power says the facts vindicate his prior, private theological opinions. That’s what bishops do – not because they’re conservative, liberal, neutral, but because they’re bishops. Ask St John Chrysostom.

Marr is no fool. He knows, he tells us, that Australia’s bishops mostly aren’t conservatives in the politics of the Catholic Church. But the corollary is lost on him, or at least it’s lost in the tale.

When Marr fumes that “here, as elsewhere in the Catholic world, to denounce paedophile priests to the police was not considered pastoral,” he fumes rightly. A Catholic reader almost expects sarcastic scare quotes around that word pastoral; we’d be entitled to them. What we don’t know is if Marr recognises that he’s using a buzzword of Catholic liberalism. We also don’t know if it was any better in the liberal dioceses – though if it was, you get the feeling Marr would tell us. If only.

In Australia, in the church, children were raped. Raped by creepy priests who carried guns and raped by big friendly bears of priests who said, “Give me a hug” – raped during their first confessions, raped in their family homes. 

They weren’t raped by liberalism or conservatism. They weren’t raped by Humanae Vitae or Gaudium et Spes. They were raped by men, they were raped by priests – and their prince-bishops were pastoral, alright. They were good shepherds. They protected their flock. They took care of their own.

There’s no moral to the story and there’s no solution. God only knows what we do now. At least let’s not mislead ourselves again.

Five words in this essay will stay with me – five words describing one of the Cardinal’s many opinions: “Universal innocence? ‘A dangerous myth.’” Honestly, it is hard to argue with His Eminence or his church on this.


Michael Cooney has worked as a senior adviser to Labor leaders Mark Latham and Kim Beazley, and former prime minister Julia Gillard. He is a fellow of the Per Capita think-tank.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 51, The Prince. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics