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Conservative prelate new head of Sydney archdiocese

NCR Staff

One of the most conservative prelates in the English-speaking world is the new archbishop of Sydney, Australia. The new archbishop, George Pell, will almost certainly enter the College of Cardinals next time Pope John Paul II holds a consistory.

The March 27 appointment of Pell, 59, to Sydney is expected to produce a sharp turn to the right in what is regarded as one of the more moderate and democratic Catholic cultures in the world.

Pell, currently head of the larger but less prestigious archdiocese of Melbourne, replaces Sydney’s Cardinal Edward Clancy, 77.

Australian Catholicism has come in for sharp criticism from Rome in recent years. In November 1998, heads of several Vatican offices organized a meeting for Australian bishops in Rome. The result was a public “statement of conclusions” by the Vatican warning of a “crisis of faith” in the country.

Bishops were warned to be more zealous in cracking down on errors “in matters of doctrine and morals,” in avoiding liturgical abuses such as the use of group confession, and in patrolling the boundaries between laity and ordained priests.

Pell, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1990, is seen as someone who will ensure that the Australian church adheres to those principles.

In a March 28 meeting with reporters in Sydney, Pell gave hints of this new hard line. He said homosexuality is more dangerous than smoking because it is possible to get AIDS from a single sexual encounter but impossible to get cancer from a single cigarette. He also said that the ordination of women would “contradict 2,000 years of Christian tradition” while insisting that the Catholic church gives more leadership opportunities to women than any other institution in the world.

Pell is known as a doctrinal “enforcer.” His most recent target was former Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, who announced his resignation from the priesthood in mid-March. Collins had been the target of a Vatican investigation for a book in which he questioned papal infallibility.

Pell began his career as a follower of the fiercely anti-communist Australian politician Bob Santamaria, and he later co-authored a religious education textbook with Santamaria’s daughter. The book became the basis for a controversial set of religious education guidelines for Catholic schools.

One of his first acts after taking over in Melbourne in 1996 was to impose a stricter program for future priests at the local seminary, prompting the departure of its rector and four senior teaching staff.

Pell has refused to administer Communion to openly gay Catholics, criticized a government program to provide “safe rooms” for heroin addicts in an effort to reduce deaths from tainted injections, and suggested that single women should not be allowed access to in vitro fertilization clinics.

Pell’s appointment drew praise from the Catholic right but skepticism in other quarters. Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti said the appointment would take the church back to medieval times.

Education official Tony Keenan said wryly: “Sidney’s gain is Melbourne’s gain.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001