Cardinal George Pell at the Royal Commission

Cardinal George Pell – Does his leadership pass the wisdom test?

The testimony of Cardinal George Pell to Australia’s Royal Commission into child sexual abuse confirms the crisis in leadership in the Catholic Church – not just in his leadership but also of bishops, cardinals and even the Pope.

Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.
– Proverbs 11:14


George Pell is intelligent – after all he was awarded a doctorate from the University of Oxford based on his study of “The exercise of authority in early Christianity from about 170 to about 270.” In his thesis he wrote, “A monarchical bishop [has] a greater control over the local congregation, a universal acceptance within his community of his position as chief teacher, having the last word on questions of orthodoxy, and the ability to act without the approval of his clergy and laity.”[1] This seems to have been the guidebook for his career.

He also knows his ‘stuff’ – canon law, church history, theology – better than most people. And with this extensive knowledge base he can argue the existence of God with anyone – even with an outspoken atheist like Richard Dawkins.

But, as has been shown countless times, an intelligent and knowledgeable person is not necessarily a wise person. The Greek playright, Euripides, summed it up succinctly over 2,000 years ago when he wrote, “Cleverness is not wisdom.” Intelligence may help but there’s much more to wisdom.


The core of the Can-Do Wisdom Framework shows individual wisdom as a function of the integration of learning, living and leading for the purpose of changing a situation for the better. Gugerell and Riffert from the University of Salzburg in discussing the wisdom of an individual suggest “a person would be wise, if and only if (a) this person understands life and has a desire to know the truth, (b) perceives phenomena from multiple perspectives and, (c) loves others sympathetically and compassionately.” [2]

Taking these three aspects in turn in relation to George Pell:

(a) In the Commission hearing it was clear Cardinal Pell did not want to know the truth about sexual abuse by priests or brothers. He said he did not want to learn more because it was of no interest to him. He then blamed others for deceiving him. He admitted he wasn’t in any way curious about the odd things that were occurring around him and he obviously didn’t reflect on these matters.
His relationships were mostly isolated from the real world. He was used to meeting with heads of state and other cardinals than with victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

(b) Cardinal Pell didn’t want multiple perspectives. He was dismissive of any suggestion of improper conduct of brothers or priests. He said he didn’t listen to “gossip”. And he definitely didn’t want a Royal Commission prying into the Church’s business.

(c) Cardinal Pell has shown little or no empathy for the victims of sexual abuse. He preferred to support a priest being sent to jail rather than come out and support victims.
The Royal Commission has already heard the way Pell used the ‘Melbourne Response’, ‘Towards Healing’ and the so-called ‘Ellis Defence’ in minimising financial claims from the Church.

Is there hope for George Pell, after all he is 74? Could there be a change of heart? Is there a heart, one might ask?

Church leadership has to change. It needs to embrace wisdom. Saul had his moment on the road to Damascus, so we’re told, and he changed from being a tormentor of Christians to becoming, as Paul, an effective leader of the early Church.

It happened in more recent times with Michael Malone, now the retired Bishop of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. In 2008 he changed from being a hard-line defender of the Church’s approach to being the one calling for the Pope to apologise for the hurt caused to victims of sexual abuse. The silence from his fellow bishops was deafening. Malone then went to do many positive things to support victims and their families. Most of the other bishops did nothing.

It’s probably too late and his credibility is too damaged for Cardinal Pell to recover from the current situation. In any case he has to resign from his current position as it will be untenable to continue once the damning findings are presented by the Royal Commission.

Wisdom is sorely needed in all organisations for their survival – not just the Church. And it’s not just the leaders – we all have a role to play. For example, if more parents had taken notice of what was happening in homes, schools and other places (and many did know something was going on), and being resolute to do something about it, then we could have averted more tragedies. That takes wisdom. So the question is, how wise are you?

3DWS Wisdom Test
The 3DWS (three-dimension wisdom score) was developed by Dr Monika Ardelt from the University of Florida, one of the leaders in the field of wisdom research. By answering 39 questions you can find out your wisdom score. It probes three areas: (a) the ability to take multiple perspectives, (b) the motivation and ability to attain thorough and accurate knowledge, and (c) one’s degree of sympathy and compassion.

Try it here: The Wisdom Scorecard

1. Pell, George. “The exercise of authority in early Christianity from about 170 to about 270.” Dphil Thesis Abstract. University of Oxford. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

2. Gugerell, S.H. and F. Riffert. “On Defining ‘Wisdom”’: Baltes, Ardelt, Ryan, and Whitehead.” Interchange 42.3 (2011): 225-259. Web. 24 Jul. 2015.

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