Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Cardinal Pell, Dominic Perrottet and gambling reform

Pell appeared in fine form when Fisher saw him in Rome last week for Pope Benedict’s funeral, he said.


“He was witty and wise and quite funny and I had two meals with him. And then I come back to Australia and I get the news that he died shortly after his operation. It was a shock and something no one here was prepared for,” Fisher said. “He was by far the most prominent churchman Australia has ever had.”

Pell’s clear language and Aussie sense of humor sometimes went unnoticed, though some cardinals didn’t understand why he enjoyed being referred to as an “old bastard” term of endearment, Fisher said. “You say things about your mother?” one replied.

“George just said whatever was on his mind,” Fisher said. “It also meant that some people, especially from some other cultures, would probably have been surprised.”

Although he had no formal administrative or accounting qualifications, Pell helped clean up the Vatican’s finances. “He just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. People wouldn’t show him their books, and he showed up at their door day after day,” Fisher said.

While some have speculated Pell could have become pope, Fisher surmises that he was “probably as advanced as he probably was,” but there was more he could have done to look after the Vatican’s finances before his time in the pontiff reform prison. Pell was convicted of historic child sex offenses and jailed for 14 months before the Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction and acquitted him of all charges.

There was one piece of advice Pell didn’t take – show your emotions instead of appearing stern and unempathetic.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if someone saw a bishop cry,” Fisher said. “George was from the generation that thought male leaders should be very strict and decent and not show their feelings in public.”

Fisher’s voice was soft and nostalgic as he explained how complex and widely misunderstood Pell was as a man. He’d enjoyed Pell’s staunch support and warm hospitality, and seen quiet gestures of kindness from a man who hated being alone.

“Just last week enjoying his hospitality he was a great host. He loved having friends around. He didn’t like being alone except when he was in his chapel saying his prayers. He always wanted to be surrounded by people,” he said.

“Those sides of him make him a more complex and interesting and, I think, admirable man than probably what people saw when he made a public statement.”

Fisher does not expect to replace Pell as Australia’s next cardinal as Pope Francis seeks greater diversity in recent cardinal appointments in Tonga, Wellington, Port Moresby and East Timor.

Having dedicated his life to the Church, Fisher, who became bishop 20 years ago this year, is not urging spending more time in Rome, saying he has enough to do in Sydney. But at the end of the day, “I will do what is asked of me.”

The archbishop, who is of Jewish ancestry, also said he thinks Perrottet should be forgiven after apologizing for having died on his 21st birthday.

“I think a lot of people do stupid things when they’re young … but I felt sorry for him that it was,” Fisher said. “If you think he’s genuinely contrite and understands the pain caused and is doing his best to mend the damage, then I think he should be forgiven.”

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Callan Tansill

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