Tony Abbott on Lateline in 2004. Picture: ABC
Tony Abbott on Lateline in 2004. Picture: ABC

Old Pell interview haunts Tony Abbott

As Australia absorbs the horrendous news that its most prominent church leader, Cardinal George Pell, is a child sex abuser, former prime minister Tony Abbott must come to terms with the years he spent praising the man.

When police announced they were laying criminal charges against Pell in 2017, Mr Abbott chose his words carefully.

"Obviously, the legal process must now take its course, but the George Pell I have known is a very fine man indeed," he said.

But his previous public comments about Pell were less cautious.

The most prominent example, which is sure to resurface today, was an interview with the ABC's Lateline program in 2004, when Mr Abbott was the Howard government's health minister.

The interview revolved around a meeting between Mr Abbott and Pell - one the future prime minister initially claimed not to remember.

"Have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?" host Tony Jones asked.

"Not that I can recall," Mr Abbott responded.

"Not that you can recall? Because we believe that you've had at least one meeting with him. Quite recently. You don't recall that?" Jones said.

"When? Where?" Mr Abbott asked.

"At the presbytery in Sydney," Jones replied.

Mr Abbott quickly shifted to praising Pell, saying the meeting was no big deal.

"Actually now that you mention it, I did meet with Cardinal Pell. So what? Why shouldn't I meet with Cardinal Pell?" Mr Abbott said.

"Cardinal Pell is a fine man. He made a very good statement the other day about the Labor Party's education policy. Why shouldn't I meet with him?"

Jones explained that Pell had released that statement, which was politically advantageous for the government, shortly after his meeting with Mr Abbott. He asked whether the pair had discussed education policy.

"Nup," was Mr Abbott's concise answer.

"So what issues were discussed?" Jones pressed.

"Tony, I may well have been going to confession to Cardinal Pell. I may well have been seeking pastoral counselling from Cardinal Pell. What's so sinister about that?" Mr Abbott responded.

"Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen. I am a very imperfect Catholic. Why shouldn't I go and seek counsel? Why shouldn't I go and trespass on the time, occasionally of someone like Cardinal Pell?

"Perhaps if you spent more time with Cardinal Pell, your life might be more interesting and more edifying."

Tony Abbott on Lateline in 2004. Picture: ABC
Tony Abbott on Lateline in 2004. Picture: ABC

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2013, Mr Abbott defended Pell from the conclusions of the Victorian parliament's inquiry into religious organisations' handling of child sex abuse, which were highly critical of Pell's attitude.

"As is pretty well known, I have a lot of time for George Pell. Does that mean that he's perfect? No. Does that mean he doesn't bear some responsibility for the errors of the church? Of course not," Mr Abbott told 3AW radio.

"The only thing I'd say is that my understanding is that the first senior cleric who took this issue very seriously was, in fact, Cardinal Pell.

"I didn't see his evidence before the committee and I haven't read the report. He is, in my judgment, a fine human being and a great churchman. Is he perfect, has he handled every issue perfectly? Of course not.

"All I know is he has by repute been the first senior clergyman in Australia to take this issue seriously." has approached Mr Abbott's office for comment.

Pell has been found guilty of raping one 13-year-old choirboy and molesting another in Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral 22 years ago.

A jury delivered the guilty verdict on December 11, but the result could not be reported until today due to a suppression order.

As he left court this morning, Pell was accosted by members of the public.

"You're a monster. May you rot in hell," one of them shouted.

Pell has appealed the verdict.