Last week, it was announced by the Australian court system that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted in December of child sex abuse. The media had been prevented from reporting on the verdict because there was a hope of moving forward with yet another trial against the cardinal. That trial against Pell fell apart. Another, earlier proceeding ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury. The cases were confidential, but some outlets have reported that the jurors in that early trial voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal.
Nevertheless, one guilty verdict out of three was good enough to send a 77-year old cardinal to jail. And if the reporting is to be believed, this verdict was obtained without a shred of corroborating physical evidence or testimony. It comes as the result of just one complainant on decades-old charges. The defense had over 20 “unanswerable” witnesses testify on Pell’s behalf about his character and the logistical impossibility of him doing what he was alleged to have done. The man was, they said, never alone after offering Mass, never in a position to abuse anyone in such a public space, and vested in such a way that he would have been physically prevented from doing what was alleged.
One of the two boys Pell was convicted of abusing died of a drug overdose in 2014 before the case ever went to trial. He never accused Pell, nor gave evidence against him. The deceased’s mother admitted that he’d denied having been abused on at least two occasions. According to CNN:
The boy’s mother told police she’d explicitly asked her son if he’d ever been “interfered with or touched up in choir,” according to a transcript of Pell’s trial. The boy, then a teenager, said no.
It is impossible for us on the outside to prove innocence or guilt, but it is difficult not to form an opinion based on what is known. It is also clear that there has been a longstanding war against Cardinal Pell, with a number of questionable accusers appearing over the years, none of whose accusations could be verified, and some of which were simply proven false.
But now, after years of tireless efforts, Australia has a judgment against this hated figure who stood against the hedonistic impulses of the nation as a defender of Catholic orthodoxy. It is noteworthy, in public discussions of the case, that homosexual activists seem to be among those most gleeful over Pell’s conviction. That doesn’t appear to be a coincidence. Pell was notorious for not succumbing to their demands. He wouldn’t pretend that homosexuality was a force for societal good. He didn’t downplay the risks it posed to those engaged in the lifestyle. And so it’s no surprise that he was hated by them.
For a prime example, see this ugly opinion piece at The Guardian entitled “Brutal and dogmatic, George Pell waged war on sex – even as he abused children”. The contempt oozes out from between the words. “He was particularly brutal to homosexuals,” the author writes. “He laid the blame for their [homosexuals] troubles at the door of homosexuals themselves.”
“He kept it simple and brutal,” the author laments again. And he projects this disdain on the nation as a whole:
Australia never shared Rome’s high opinion of George Pell. That such an uncongenial, and at times embarrassing, figure was appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987 distressed many of the faithful in his home country. But these were the early days of John Paul II’s papacy, when such men were being rewarded around the world.
The author of the piece is David Marr. On the surface, he’s listed as an award-winning journalist. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that he was twice named as one of the 25 most influential gay Australians. Marr said,at the time of his second appearance on that list:
“I’m appallingly arrogant. I’m incredibly vain. I’m all those things that writers tend to be,” says Marr. But he also somewhat modestly admits that he sees himself as unworthy of the accolade. “There are so many more gay and lesbian people in Australia who do more for the gay and lesbian community than I do, who work harder at it, who have tougher lives.”
In the nomination profile, Marr is touted for being tough enough. Particular note is made of his work “regularly voicing opposition to the church on its teachings”.
Pell stood in his way. Pell stood in a lot of people’s way. Pell had to be removed.
Another place stood in the way was in his capacity as the head of the Vatican Bank reform. He was quite a nuisance to certain men in the highest reaches of the Vatican apparatus who were busily burying talents in places where they didn’t belong. So much off the books money, in fact, was discovered by Pell, that the final accounting was in the neighborhood of a billion Euros. Was it a coincidence that after digging up these hidden caches, Pell found himself suddenly facing renewed interest in decades-old charges? Former Vatican auditor Libero Milone — himself the victim of an apparent purge by entrenched Vatican interests — noted the suspicious timing of Pell’s charges:
The large international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was appointed by Pell in Dec 2015 to conduct an in-depth audit of Vatican finances. The authority given to PWC to continue the audit was suddenly suspended by other Vatican authorities in April 2016.
Pell is currently on a leave of absence facing sex abuse charges in his home country. The cardinal strongly denies the charges, which have been likened to a personal witch-hunt with dubious handling by Australian authorities.
Milone indicated it may not have been a coincidence that Cardinal Pell’s abuse charges – decades old – hadn’t appeared until the last few years, a Crux report said, about the same time his attempts at major financial reform inside the Vatican were beginning to cause waves.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu — described by Christopher Lamb of the progressive Catholic weekly The Tablet as the “most loyal of papal aides” — personally intervened to stop Pell’s work. Once Pell was hauled back to Australia, Becciu seemed more comfortable with the state of the financial reform. “There is a great deal of collaboration” in the process now, Cardinal Becciu told Lamb, “because the points [of dispute with Pell’s authority] were clarified.”
The respected and tireless Vaticanista, Marco Tosatti, noted in his March 1 column that with Pell, the word in Rome is that “the cannons are in Australia, but the cannonballs were made in the Vatican.” In other words, while Australia had already long-since taken aim at their moral public enemy, it has been alleged that it was people inside the Holy See who gave them the ammunition to take him down.
Tosatti notes, however, that there have been unintended consequences for this action against Pell, inasmuch as it has come back to haunt a papacy now beleaguered by its entanglement with various sexual abusers or those who protect them. Permit me to quote at some length from Tosatti’s fascinating analysis*:
Anyone who repeated to me this sibylline phrase [about the cannonballs], or something similar to it, at the time when Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò was still in the saddle, was alluding to the rather intense clashes of the Bergoglian circle with the Australian cardinal, who, indeed, is certainly not a member of the magic circle! Some will recall his role at the time of the Synod on the Family in opposing the attempt by Msgr. Bruno Forte and associates to sterilize the debate among the synod fathers, in order to present them all as Kaperian lights.
Pell is one who, when he is angry, pounds his fists, Bergoglio or no Bergoglio. If he is convinced that something is right, he pursues is like a bulldozer. And it is also well known that the Argentine is more aggressive with the weak, but is intimidated by the few who resist him to his face.
In short, Pell is a tank and was rather feared. My hypothesis is this: that Pell has been shot down by two separate sets of fire. The first is the “friendly” fire of the clerical establishment (this is the clericalism with which Bergoglio ought to occupy himself!) and the second is the enemy fire, secular and masonic, which saw in him a conservative traditionalist who needed to be eliminated.
Many clues lead us to think this; the fact is, however, that the news of Pell’s verdict came out at a very specific time.
When they used to tell me that phrase which I have cited, the gay lobby of the Vatican was in full force, and Pell was able to be singled out for sacrifice; but the verdict has arrived after the lobby has started to go into crisis, having lost many key pieces and ending up in the center of the storm thanks to the McCarrick case, the Chilean affair, the (Carlo Maria) Viganò dossier, the disgraceful behavior of the ultra-Bergoglian cardinal Donald Wuerl, the voices speaking out on the new Zanchetta scandal…
And so? And so Operation “Let’s Smash Pell” carried out with clerical contribution may now be revealing itself to be a boomerang, because in public opinion, which knows nothing of the backstory, Pell is merely the umpteenth Bergoglian man to end up in scandal, even though he is the only one among all those cited who really is not a Bergoglian man!
To sum it up, in the holy rooms of the Vatican, what is being said today seems to be, “What beautiful news! But if only it had arrived two years ago instead of now! Right now we don’t want this!”
Tosatti then takes note of the tragedy at the hear of this affair: “If Pell is innocent, if Pell is the man of faith I think he is, Pell is carrying the Cross of Christ, condemned like Him by today’s synagogue.”
It is a sobering thought, and one echoed by the Australian Catholic scholar and professor Dr. Anna Silvas, in a piece for La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. In her essay, entitled, “Cardinal Pell is innocent, that’s why,” Silvas says she doesn’t believe “that justice was served in this jury trial. It has all the smell of a ritual sacrifice for an ugly agenda”. She speaks of her own experience of the Melbourne Cathedral, and of Pell, and of the logistical impossibilities and “preparatory moral degradation” that would be required to pull off an act like that which the Cardinal was accused of. “It is unthinkable,” she writes, “that after thirty years or more of committed and proven intellectual, moral, priestly and episcopal life, that he, just having been appointed a Metropolitan, should on the first occasion of a Sunday Mass stoop to so crass and crude and sordid an exercise of pedophilia of which he has been legally convicted.” But she also notes the increasing degradation of both the Australian culture and the Australian Church, the specific animosity that the homosexual community in Australia has against Pell — who refused them a “rainbow” protest at a Sunday Mass in 1996 — and a “homosexualist agenda in Church and Society” that has been “gunning for him ever since”. Silvas also notes, however, the “disturbing number of priests in the Melbourne Archdiocese implicated in sexual scandals over the last three or four decades” — ammunition, she says, for those who would “attack us from without—or subvert us from within.”
“Without a doubt,” Silvas laments, “the Church, whether in Australia or worldwide is semper purificanda. We are long overdue for a severe chastisement, if you ask me, and I think things are set to become much worse for us.”
And worse they will become.
Although Pell is appealing his verdict, he sits alone in a jail cell under constant protection. The other prisoners are not likely to be kind to a man accused of committing heinous acts on children, and they will clearly make no more effort than the Australian courts have to determine if they’re true. The Vatican has now opened its own canonical investigation into Pell, and according to JD Flynn and Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency — both of them canon lawyers themselves, a complicated road fraught with difficulty lies ahead:
Canonical trials often take place after a civil government has ended its case against an alleged abuser, and the Church has developed some practices as a consequence of that.
For example, the transcripts of criminal trials in sexual abuse cases are routinely admitted as canonical evidence in Church trials. Very often, civil findings are treated as practically conclusive proofs, leading to an abbreviated administrative process.
Given the controversy caused by the Australian verdict, Pell’s canonical representatives are likely to insist on a full trial at the CDF, and to resist any overtures toward an abbreviated administrative process, like the one that handled the recent case of Theodore McCarrick.
In this trial, the stakes have gotten higher.
If Pell’s appeal is denied a hearing in Australia, Rome will face considerable external pressure to confirm the initial conviction and laicize Pell on the basis, principally, of the Australian verdict. But there would be a cost to yielding to that pressure.
If the CDF expedites Pell’s trial and uses as evidence his criminal conviction, at least some canonists and theologians will argue that the Church is ceding the role of canon law – and the “sacred freedom” the Church claims for herself – to civil authorities.
More concretely, priests and bishops, especially those from countries with disreputable justice systems or well-known anti-Catholicism, could find themselves asking what kind of justice they can expect from the Vatican if they should ever be accused of sexual abuse.
In the aftermath of the 2002 sexual abuse crisis in the U.S., many priests expressed concern that their right of due process was being routinely trumped by the desire of American bishops to demonstrate seriousness about all sexual misconduct allegations. If Pell is perceived to have been denied a fair canonical trial at the CDF, the same kind of crisis of confidence could emerge on a global scale, among both bishops and priests.
Pell will not stand alone in the crosshairs. While McCarrick had no verdict, the number of allegations about his conduct was overwhelming. Pell has had no preponderance of credible accusers, but he now has a conviction. Together, they will form, in the minds of people both inside and outside the Church, a symbol of corruption going to the highest echelons of the Catholic Church, and the repercussions are only just beginning.
Abuse victims in Australia are now lining up to sue the Church for “tens of millions”. Victims who had already reached settlements and “waived their right to take civil action” against the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Lawyers will argue that laws have to be changed. The clincher? “The integrity of the Melbourne Response” — Pell’s program of dealing with compensation for victims of clerical abuse –“is further diminished by the fact it was introduced by Pell in 1996, about the same time he sexually assaulted two 13-year-old choirboys.” Do we think such action will end in Australia?
In my piece last September about this transformative moment in Catholicism, “The Big Ugly,” I wrote:
If people don’t start tearing down churches with their bare hands by the end of this, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Of course, they won’t have to, because dioceses around the world will sell them off to property-developers who will turn them into high-rent residential spaces or maybe even gay nightclubs. After all, something we’ve learned from all the sexual abuse cases is that co-opting religious imagery is a feature of degeneracy.
And why will dioceses sell them off? To pay for abuse settlements, of course. Or legal defense against civil suits. Or simply because they can no longer afford to maintain them, because nobody shows up for Mass anymore. A great many people will no longer wish to be part of a Church that is perceived as fundamentally perverse and corrupt. That they almost certainly already had one foot out the door will be of little consequence when the demographic cost is totaled.
Someone on social media — a Catholic — said to me last night that they were excited to see the Church endure the financial bankruptcy that would mirror the moral bankruptcy already present.
I think a number of people feel that way, the impulse is somewhat understandable. But this genie can’t be put back in its bottle, and I don’t think people are really going to enjoy what happens as much as they anticipate. When the number of parishes in their diocese is diminished significantly. When the availability of sacraments is drastically reduced. When priests who are innocent are falsely accused in the hope of obtaining a financial settlement. When just admitting that you are a Catholic — that you continue to be a part of a Church known best for preaching against the popular sexual practices of our day while its leaders engage in criminal sexual activities — will make you a pariah.
That time is coming soon, I think. In some places, it’s already here.
Becoming a smaller, purer Church may ultimately be a good thing. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking it’ll be a painless one. A chastisement is coming indeed.
*Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino
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.