I love Rome. I love how the old is woven into the new, so the ruins of some dead medieval building now form a wall of a living apartment block. I love how you can walk from where St Peter was buried, having been crucified upside down, to the hotel on the Via Nazionale where Cardinal George Pell was crucified last week. Such continuities help put things into context.
I check into the hotel next door, and my heart sinks. The place crawls with other journalists, here to celebrate Pell getting grilled by the royal commission into child sex abuse about what he knew about pedophile priests. I’m outnumbered. The journalists are taking turns to interview victims staying at the same hotel, and they’re on first-name terms. Pell’s name, though, produces frowns.
Pell’s appearance by video link to Australia is scheduled for 10pm, Rome time, so I duck out to see Fernando Botero’s cycle of works, Via Crucis: The Passion of Christ at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The Colombian master likes to paint his subjects charmingly chubby and his Christ is so blubberful on the cross that you wonder how those tiny nails keep him up. Besides, would anyone have followed a Christ so contentedly fat? Yet one image sticks: of a firmer-fleshed Christ dejected among a modern crowd of people, none looking at him and all frantically angry. How ghastly to be a martyr when no one is paying attention.
I am astonished by the aggressive and almost derisory questioning of Pell by the counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness QC. Pell has said he knew nothing of the crimes of the pedophile priests around him when he was working in Ballarat and that his boss, Bishop Mulkearns, had lied to him. Furness tells Pell his claims are ‘implausible’. She virtually calls the Vatican’s third most senior leader a liar to his face. Her boss Peter McClellan also gives the impression that he considers Pell a liar, and the media coverage reflects this. Is this how royal commissions are meant to treat witnesses?
I cross town to broadcast my 2GB and 3AW evening show from Vatican Radio. It’s across the road from the Castel Sant’Angelo, the tomb of Emperor Hadrian which popes turned into a palace with fine views of Rome. What a blast: I have been given the studio used by John Paul II. I mellow my on-air opining accordingly.
Pell has put his foot in it. He’s mangled an answer to give the impression he had no interest in children who’d been raped. It is awful. Afterwards, a journalist comes over, ostensibly to commiserate and say how disappointed he was, having wished so much to believe Pell innocent. After minutes of this sanctimony I crack, and point out that nothing this journalist had written to date reflected any such hopes. My eldest son, who has taken time off work to help me out, wanders to the bar before things get ugly. Unfortunately, they do: embarrassed at having defended Pell, I overnight write an excoriating column attacking him for his apparent heartlessness. Only the next afternoon do I recheck the transcript and come to my senses. Pell had merely misspoken. I’d given in to the mob and feel ashamed. I spend the next 24 hours taking back my words and the Twitter trend abruptly reverses: I go from hero to zero. Situation normal, thus.
I meet Pell for lunch at the Vatican apartment of his management guru, Danny Casey. Danny’s wife Annie takes me to the window to show me the street outside, where part of the car chase in the latest James Bond film was shot. Pell comes in late, almost floating with happiness even though he was up ‘til 3am that night, giving the last of his evidence. ‘It’s a great day,’ he booms. I assume it’s because his 19 hours of interrogation is over, but he corrects me. No, he’d just met victims from Ballarat and it had gone well. One had even put his arm around Pell’s huge shoulders, and the ex-ruckman had been unable to speak for the tears. Over lunch we talk of many things, including corruption in the Vatican involving even Cardinals, one caught with a suitcase of cash. The mafia could be involved, too, and Pell and his team have protected their evidence by hiding copies in Europe and Australia. I’d say more, but one of Italy’s many continuities is omerta. I promised not to tell.
The next day I interview Pell for an hour on Sky News. It goes even better than I’d dreamed. No one can accuse me of asking soft questions, yet the trust I’ve built with Pell makes him less defensive and wooden. He even chokes up as he mentions how he found some reconciliation with one victim, David Ridsdale. The real George comes out, and I’m elated. I saw the man I had trusted when so many others would not. I saw I was not wrong to put my faith in him, after all.
Later on I visit the tomb of St Peter, excavated from under the basilica. A guide points to what she says are fragments of Peter’s bones. The Vatican is less sure, but our guide has faith, too.
Outside the crypt I am picked up by Pell’s driver, who floors it on the short drive through tiny passages, past Swiss Guards, through a tunnel and around the back of the Sistine Chapel to Pell’s offices. James Bond, ha! I am ushered into a huge room, in one corner of which are ancient papyrus pages from the Gospels presents to Pell from the previous two popes. Around 30 priests from the US and Australia join me, and all stand when Pell enters. He then tells them about the Vatican corruption he had been battling, and how various popes reacted to it. The frankness is astonishing, and after a week in which even I’d wondered whether Pell once covered up corruption, I find peace.
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