Cardinal Pell at a Melbourne court last year / via NYTimes
Cardinal George Pell, formerly the Pope’s right-hand man for Vatican finances and the face of the Catholic Church in Australia, has been convicted of abusing two choir boys when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s. He will almost certainly serve time in jail.
Pell has vehemently denied the allegations. His lawyers say that he is going to appeal the verdict.
This is a terrible blow to the prestige of the Catholic Church around the world. It strikes at the authority of Pope Francis, for whom Pell was a close adviser and prefect of the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy. It is bound to erode the confidence of ordinary Catholics in the holiness of their Faith and the integrity of their pastors.
But there are sound reasons to doubt the verdict. True, the forms of due process were observed. But this time they did not deliver justice.
First, are the allegations credible?
It is alleged that the Archbishop of Melbourne molested two boys inside the Cathedral sacristy in the second half of December 1996. After a Sunday solemn Mass Pell surprised two 13-year-old choirboys who had been swigging some of the altar wine and sexually assaulted them in a most brutal fashion.
The prosecution’s case is based on the testimony of only one of the boys, now aged 35. The other died of a heroin overdose in 2014. He had previously denied being abused by a priest. Neither of them mentioned anything about the incident at the time. The complainant also accused Pell of molesting him on another occasion.
Pell has been accused of many things, but never stupidity. He was actively involved in creating a response to the sexual abuse crisis in 1996 despite criticism from some Australian bishops that he should wait — precisely because he thought the issue was so important. He was also being targeted by gay protesters around this time. It defies belief that a man as self-controlled as Pell would be so impetuous as to do his dirty work where he could be so easily discovered. As his lawyer told the court, “Only a madman would attempt to rape two boys in the priests’ sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass.”
Nor is abuse this vile consistent with Pell’s character. It is easier to believe that this tall, burly, blunt man clobbered a recalcitrant priest than that he was so sly and sacrilegious as to molest boys inside a church.
Bear in mind that this was the second time that Pell has been tried for the same crime. The first trial ended with a hung jury, which was reportedly split 10 to 2 in favour of acquitting him. Anything is possible, including Pell’s alleged crime, but the previous jury wasn’t persuaded of his guilt.
Second, was Pell’s trial fair?
Pell’s profile in Australia is probably unmatched by any cleric, of any faith, other than the Pope himself. Apart from serving in the Vatican and as Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney, the two largest cities in Australia, he was a prolific newspaper columnist, a frequent guest on radio and TV, a delegate to the Australian Constitutional Convention, at which he was an ardent republican (ie, not a monarchist); a climate change sceptic, and a staunch defender of traditional Christian values.
Within the Church he unswervingly backed the Pope and orthodoxy. This made him many enemies amongst progressive Catholics. At the same time, he was an impressively effective and far-sighted manager who stepped on many toes.
In short, he is one of the most controversial Australians of his generation. Everyone, but everyone, has an opinion on George Pell. Putting him on trial in Melbourne, Pell-phobia Central, is like putting Hillary Clinton on trial in Texas where three-quarters of the population would be baying to lock her up.
For reasons which cannot be fathomed, the Victorian Police have pursued Pell with extraordinary – and disgraceful — vigour. In 2013 they set up a task force to search for complaints against Pell — before they had received any. No one came forward for a whole year. In 2016 a sexual abuse taskforce interviewed Pell in Rome. The police force leaked like a sieve.
The Victorian Police have been plagued with corruption scandals. In the latest, it was revealed that they had persuaded a criminal barrister to inform on her clients and as a result, the convictions of hundreds of criminals could be overturned. The High Court of Australia said in December that “Victoria Police were guilty of reprehensible conduct … in sanctioning atrocious breaches of the sworn duty of every police officer to discharge all duties imposed on them faithfully and according to law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will.”
This is not to say that all of them are corrupt. But more faith is required to believe in the incorruptibility of Victorian police than in the incorrupt body of Padre Pio.
On top of all this, early last year an implacable enemy of Pell, journalist Louise Milligan, published Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell. Widely read and publicised, it was the source of some of the lurid allegations in his trial.
So, for two years, at least, the air of Melbourne has been full of mischievous sniggering and venomous commentary about Pell and the Catholic Church. Empanelling an impartial jury must have been like finding twelve good men and true who had not breathed for the past two years. In the end the case set the word of the complainant against the word of the Cardinal. Given the hostile atmosphere of Melbourne, it’s easy to see why the jury found the former more credible.
The legal system must be respected. If His Eminence George Cardinal Pell has committed crimes, especially sexual abuse, he deserves no less than any other criminal. But there is more than enough reason to believe that he has not received a fair trial and that he has a blameless conscience before his God.
Show trials over preposterous crimes used to be the lot of religious figures under Communism, like Hungary’s József Mindszenty and Croatia’s Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, both now on a path to being declared saints. Pell’s trial shows how easy it is to succeed in an era of aggressive secularism. The late Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, once said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” His prediction seems to be coming true on the other side of the world.
The Vatican should not get spooked by the verdict. There will be calls for him to be stripped of his honours, even to be laicised. It should bat them aside, ignore the jeers and mockery, and wait for the outcome of appeals made by Pell’s legal team. Until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt after an appeal, Cardinal Pell must be considered an innocent man.