I’m not even going to attempt to present this one as a straight news piece. The inescapable feeling one gets when looking at the story is that it’s a farce.
After months under an Australian court’s gag order, the December conviction of Cardinal George Pell on decades-old sex abuse allegations has just been announced. The news comes after another trial scheduled to happen this month has fallen apart. The question of whether the cardinal is guilty or innocent remains.
It’s currently breaking news pretty much everywhere.
Cardinal George Pell isn’t a man I have a particular affinity for. He’s known as a “conservative,” which means only so much to a traditionalist like me. He’s a politician, like most bishops of note, if a little more rough around the edges. But he was brought into the Vatican to do a job — audit and reform the Vatican bank — and when he found over a billion Euros in the Vatican mattresses, he was suddenly called back to Australia on decades-old sexual abuse allegations as papal hatchet man Archbishop Becciu swooped in to put a stop to any momentum the financial reforms might have.
In July of 2017, I wrote a piece entitled “The Destruction of Cardinal Pell.” In it, I noted that he had fallen from the good graces of Francis when he signed the 13 Cardinals Letter, and that as soon as the years-old allegations of decades-old sexual abuse against him became formal, there were signs of it being a witch hunt. As I wrote at the time:
One can’t help but wonder whether decades-old allegations — usually impossible to prove — will do anything but leave Pell a man with a ruined reputation. Certainly, a guilty verdict under such circumstances seems unlikely. But with headlines like “The Pope’s Pedophile?” now circulating in the mainstream press, even an complete acquittal will never restore his good name.
Apparently, I underestimated the Australian courts.
Despite the Australian media gag order, the Catholic News Agency under the helm of J.D. Flynn went ahead with stories last December about Pell’s conviction — even after they received a cease and desist order from an Australian judge. In a piece by Ed Condon, the verdict was described in terms that very much called into question whether justice was even attempted. Allow me to quote from it at some length:
CNA has spoken to several sources familiar with the Pell case, all of whom expressed disbelief at the verdict. The sources spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the legal gag order imposed by the court.
“They have convicted an innocent man,” one source directly familiar with the evidence told CNA. “What’s worse is that they know they have.”
An individual who attended the entire trial in person but is unconnected with Pell’s legal team, told CNA that Pell’s lawyers had made an “unanswerable defense.”
“It was absolutely clear to everyone in that court that the accusations were baseless. It wasn’t that Pell didn’t do what he’s accused of – he clearly couldn’t have done it.”
The allegations are understood to concern Pell assaulting the two choristers in the sacristy of Melbourne cathedral on several occasions immediately following Sunday Mass.
The defense presented a range of witnesses who testified that the cardinal was never alone in the sacristy with altar servers or members of the choir, and that in all the circumstances under which the allegations are alleged to have taken place, several people would have been present in the room.
The sacristy in Melbourne’s Cathedral has large open-plan rooms, each with open arches and halls, and multiple entrances and exits, the defense noted.
Defense attorneys also produced a range of witnesses who testified that Pell was constantly surrounded by priests, other clergy, and guests following Sunday Masses in the cathedral, and that choristers had a room entirely separate from the sacristy in which they changed as a group, before and after Mass.
Observers also questioned whether some courtroom tactics used by state prosecutors were intended to stoke anti-clerical feelings in jury members.
One priest, a Jesuit, was called as an expert witness by the defense, but was consistently referred to as a “Christian Brother” by prosecutors – a move, the court observer told CNA, that seemed calculated to invoke the religious order at the center of a widely known clerical sexual abuse scandal in the country.
“It was a blatant move, but it sums up the sort of anti-Catholic, anti-clerical drift of the whole trial,” CNA’s courtroom source said. “The jury were being winked at.”
Full discussion of the charges and the evidence laid against Pell remains impossible because of the media blackout. The gag order was imposed at the request of prosecutors in June, who argued that media attention could bias the case.
“It’s absurd,” another source directly familiar with the trial told CNA. “Any Catholic in Victoria can tell you that our media has been steeped in anti-Catholic, anti-clerical and especially anti-Pell coverage for more than two decades. The prosecutors were perfectly happy with all of that leading up to the trial, and for it to carry on now.”
“The only thing you can’t talk about are the facts of the case,” the source said.
Of course, we will never know for certain the truth of Pell’s innocence or guilt. It’s my understanding that this is why the 8th Commandment is meant to be taken seriously. But despite the Church revisiting the clerical sex abuse crisis in all its debauchery these days, there are reasons to question Pell’s guilt.
He was seen as an enemy by the Australian media, who disliked his conservatism.
He was seen as an enemy by the entrenched powers within the Vatican, who resisted and resented his financial reforms.
He makes a convenient scapegoat for media and anti-Catholics of all kinds in the kind of trial that, by nature, can provide zero physical evidence, and only testimony against testimony — testimony from a single accuser — in a moment where public sentiment against the Catholic Church and its abusers is at an all-time-low.
To the last point, a quote from The New York Times’ piece on the conviction says a great deal:
“There are no winners,” said Andrew Collins, a clergy sexual abuse survivor from Ballarat. But, he said, “It’s part of the bloodletting that’s needed to happen for the Catholic church.”
Part of the bloodletting that’s needed to happen.
I suppose it doesn’t matter if it’s symbolic, then.
Pope Francis expelled Pell from his C9 in December, at the same time as he dispensed with Cardinal Errazuriz of Chile — himself accused of covering up the abuse of Fr. Fernando Karadima. Two other cardinals said to have failed to deal appropriately with clerical abuse in their dioceses — Marx and Maradiaga — remain in the pope’s council of advisors.
As for Pell, he is expected to be sentenced despite concerns over the injustice of his treatment and an appeal against the verdict. He faces a maximum 50-year prison sentence. The cardinal is 77 years old.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.