Cardinal – The Rise and Fall of George Pell by Louise Milligan


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Every person interested in writing, every reader searching for a primer in analysis, every lawyer wanting to find a way through a morass of conflicting ideas, opinions and judgments would do well to read Cardinal several times, not because of the subject matter, but for the absolute pleasure of watching a dispassionate observer go about the task of extracting truth from a complex body of information and then assembling the points of relevance into a consistent narrative that supports a specific point of view.

Louise Milligan is a name that is, to borrow a metaphor from a less interesting discipline, screaming up the charts. Irish-born and raised a committed Roman Catholic, Milligan has written exclusive stories for the ABC TV 7.30 program on the subject George Pell. She has been a reporter for the Four Corners program. Her focus on detailed research with an incisive writing style, her instinct for, and insistence upon, accuracy have won her the highest of honours. These include a Gold Quill, the 2017 Walkley Book Award, the Sir Owen Dixon Chambers Law Reporter of the Year Award, and two Quill Awards from the Melbourne Press Club.

Melbourne University Press has gone all-out to impress potential readers with their promotion of this book, if the introductory material is anything to go by. Readers can make judgments themselves. Personally I found it over-congratulatory. However, the Foreword offers one useful gem, “Very few journalists have devoted the kind of time Louise has, in such a supremely difficult field, with such dark forces arrayed against her, and still managed to shine a light so brilliantly with such powerful effect” (Fitzsimons, 2018). Mention should be made of the cover. The selection of red on black picked out in white to convey information is an excellent rendition without words of the eminent rank of cardinal and of the level from which Pell has fallen.

Most commentators agree that Louise Milligan has constructed an honest appraisal of George Pell’s youth and religious life in the Roman Catholic Church and of his involvement in paedophilia and the covering up or non-recognition of shameful acts. The story is told without bias, much of it information stitched together from face-to-face accounts. The appraisal is strengthened by Milligan’s capture of a sample that required, out of outraged decency, to be pursued in the Courts. The purity of the sample is beyond question. Some incidents involving Pell directly as a paedophile or observed by Pell while someone else was committing the offence, or of occasions when reports of paedophilia involving priest and bishops were ignored or covered up, had to be discarded since in one form or another they were not sufficiently pure. Recounts that might have alternative explanations, or were clearly biased in one direction or another, were examples typically rejected.

The book is so well constructed that it and the author are one – we note her doggedness, her building of trust, and her deep silence regarding her sources combined with a non-judgmental acceptance of some of the most harrowing stories whose multiplicity formed a mental log-jam that could have destroyed a less tough researcher. A woman with a gentle understanding of damaged souls who offered comfort and the hope of redress for the crimes that were inflicted on them. But also a researcher who did not flinch from telling survivors that their pain was insufficiently specific to be included in the case she was building. Her database had to remain pure.

However, in terms of knowable information, the book contains nothing new. Of course, the children knew, the Roman Catholic Church knew, and many of us knew that wickedness had become endemic, if not spoken about. By default we have accepted child abuse. This failure of a community is what Louise Milligan has exposed. She has lifted a scar and found an abscess underneath. She has prompted dialogue that will lance this abscess and render it powerless. Uncomfortable truths about a culture of sexual entitlement, abuse of trust, and the permitting of ambition to silence evil have been uncovered – the first significant counter-attack has occurred.

While Pell has been found guilty and has appealed, he is but one. What of the others? What will follow now? Surely not inaction.

Cardinal – The Rise and Fall of George Pell


By Louise Milligan

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 978-0-522-87460-0

$34.99; 400pp


🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top