Today the Vatican Press Office stated that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be conducting an investigation into sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal George Pell, allegations of which Pell was found guilty by an Australian jury in December 2018. That verdict, which found Pell guilty of five counts of sexually abusing minors in 1996, was only made public this week, after prosecutors dropped additional allegations against Pell dating back to the 1970s.
This statement was issued by the interim director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti:
After the guilty verdict in the first instance concerning Cardinal Pell, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm.
The results of that investigation will determine what disciplinary actions, if any, the Vatican will take against Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne and of Sydney who, until three days ago, was prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. On Tuesday the Vatican confirmed that “precautionary measures” have been imposed on Cardinal Pell—he is “prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors”—during the course of his sentencing by the Australian court and the expected appeal process. Pell, who has maintained his innocence, was taken into police custody today to await sentencing on March 13.
Some observers have drawn contrasts between how the Vatican is handling the Pell case and how it handled the case of the former archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Once the accusations against McCarrick were made public, his removal from the College of Cardinals, his banishment to a life of “prayer and penance,” and his eventual removal from the clerical state, took place in a number of months.
John Allen, writing at Crux, explains the difference between the McCarrick and Pell cases: “It’s actually fairly simple: Early on, senior officials were convinced of McCarrick’s guilt. With Pell, they still aren’t.” He states:
Over the last couple of days, Crux has spoken with some of the Catholic Church’s leading reformers on clerical sexual abuse, inside the Vatican and out. To be clear, these are not people automatically inclined to give accused clergy the benefit of the doubt, and several are figures who actually dislike some of Pell’s political and theological stances as well as what’s often see as his fairly bruising personality.
Nonetheless, they’ve expressed skepticism that Pell is actually guilty of the crimes with which he was charged and convicted.
The irony is that the people in the Vatican most inclined to welcome Pell’s conviction aren’t really reformers on sexual abuse, but those lukewarm about house-cleaning on the financial front who resented Pell’s challenge to the status quo during his brief tenure as the Vatican’s financial czar.
Allen details the problematic elements of the prosecution’s case, also outlined by George Weigel at National Review under the headline “Why the case against Cardinal George Pell doesn’t stand up”. Weigel writes:
Before the trial, one of the complainants died, having told his mother that he had never been assaulted. During the trial, there was no corroboration of the surviving complainant’s charges. Other choirboys (now, of course, grown), as well as the choir director and his assistant, the adult members of the choir, the master of ceremonies, and the sacristan all testified, and from their testimony we learn the following: that no one recalled any choirboys bolting from the procession after Mass; that none of those in the immediate vicinity of the alleged abuse noticed anything; that indeed nothing could have happened in a secured space without someone noticing; and that there was neither gossip nor rumor about any such dramatic and vile incident afterward.
Notwithstanding this evidence of Cardinal Pell’s innocence (an innocence affirmed by ten of the twelve members of the first trial jury), the second trial jury returned a verdict of 12–0 for conviction. Observers at the trial told me that the trial judge seemed surprised on hearing the verdict. The verdict and the finding of the first, hung jury suggest that, in the media circus surrounding Pell, a fair jury trial was virtually impossible. That point was recently conceded by the attorney general of the State of Victoria, who suggested that the law might be amended to permit bench trials by a judge alone in such cases — an option not afforded George Pell.
In an essay for First Things, titled “The Pell Affair: Australia Is Now on Trial”, Weigel further argues:
No one doubts that the Catholic Church in Australia was terribly negligent in dealing with clerical sexual abuse for decades. No one who actually knows the history of Catholic reform in Australia can doubt that the man who turned that pattern of denial and cover-up around was George Pell—who also had the honesty and courage to apply the stringent standards he imposed on others accused of abuse to himself. If Pell is made the scapegoat for the very failures he worked hard to correct, the gravest question must be raised about Australian public opinion’s capacity for reason and elementary fairness—and about the blood lust of an aggressively secular media, determined to settle political and ecclesiastical scores with one of the country’s most internationally prominent citizens, who dared to challenge “progressive” shibboleths on everything ranging from the interpretation of Vatican II to abortion, climate change, and the war against jihadism.
A report by Catholic News Agency—which published details of the Pell verdict in December, despite the Australian court’s gag order—illustrates why senior Vatican officials, including those who are otherwise disinclined to favor Cardinal Pell, may well be wary of his “guilty” verdict:
CNA reported after Pell was convicted that the evidence advanced by prosecution relied entirely on a single accuser, one of the alleged victims.
The second alleged victim did not give evidence in court. The court did hear evidence that the man told his mother at least twice that he had not been a victim of sexual abuse, before he died of a drug overdose in 2014.
The other former choir member, who did testify in court, reportedly told the deceased man’s mother only after the man died that both had been abused by Pell.
According to the prosecution, Pell and the choir members “went missing” from a recessional procession at the end of a Mass celebrated by the archbishop in 1996. Pell is alleged to have abused the choristers somewhere within the cathedral sacristy immediately following that Mass.
The defense’s legal team produced records that showed that during the period between August and December 1996, when the abuse was alleged to have taken place, Pell only celebrated the cathedral’s 10:30 Sunday Mass twice. The court also heard witness testimony that Pell had been with guests immediately following Mass on one of the two Sundays.
According to evidence given at the pre-trial hearings in March 2018, on both of the Sundays at which Pell said the 10:30 Mass, the choir held practices for the taping of a Christmas performance immediately following Mass, when the absence of two choristers would have been immediately noticed.
Evidence was also presented which showed that the layout of the cathedral did not match the narrative of the prosecution. The court had previous heard evidence from a pastoral associate at the cathedral, Rodney Dearing, who testified that Pell required help to remove his vestments after every Mass, and it would have been nearly impossible for the archbishop to expose his genitals while fully vested, or to commit other sexual acts in the vestments.
Dearing also told Victoria police that the layout of the cathedral did not align with the accusations.
“I can’t understand, knowing the layout [of the cathedral] and how things worked, how it could have occurred,” Dearing told police, according to Australian media reports filed before a gag order on the trial was instituted.
How then to understand the 12-0 “guilty” verdict, reached after the jury in the first trial against Pell had been deadlocked 10-2, with the majority in the cardinal’s favor? Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest who was present for the Pell proceedings, writes that he was “devastated by the verdict”:
My only conclusion is that the jury must have disregarded many of the criticisms so tellingly made by [Pell’s defense lawyer] Richter of the complainant’s evidence and that, despite the complainant being confused about all manner of things, the jury must nevertheless have thought—as the recent royal commission discussed—that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture. Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him. The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.
Pell has been in the public spotlight for a very long time. There are some who would convict him of all manner of things in the court of public opinion no matter what the evidence. There are others who would never convict him of anything, holding him in the highest regard. The criminal justice system is intended to withstand these preconceptions. The system is under serious strain, however, when it comes to Cardinal Pell.
The events of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, the federal royal commission, the publication of Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal and Tim Minchin’s song Come Home (Cardinal Pell) were followed, just two weeks before the trial commenced, by the parliamentary apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. … Such things tend to shift not the legal, but the reputational, burden upon an accused person to prove innocence rather than the prosecution to prove guilt. …
Was the verdict unreasonable? Can it be supported having regard to the evidence? Those are questions for the appeal court. I can only hope and pray that the complainant can find some peace, able to get on with his life, whichever way the appeal goes. Should the appeal fail, I hope and pray that Cardinal Pell, heading for prison, is not the unwitting victim of a wounded nation in search of a scapegoat.
A piece in today’s edition of The Age has several quotes from close friends and acquaintances of Pell:
Anne McFarlane said the cardinal had been staying with her family during legal proceedings this year and last year.
“Living with Cardinal Pell for so much of the past eight months, driving him to and from court and sitting in support of him on many occasions, I have come to know him on a day-to-day level… his needs are very simple, he is completely humble and undemanding and he is very grateful for any kindness or help at all,” she wrote.
“I don’t even recognise the George Pell who is portrayed in the media.”
She said Pell offered the family support when her daughter gave birth to a baby who was very sick and while her 51-year-old sister was terminally ill.
“Over the years of our friendship I have been well aware of the portrayal of Cardinal Pell in the media and it is a far cry from my experience of him,” she said.
Others that submitted character references to the court included Sue Buckingham, the founder of religious group David’s Place, which helps people who are homeless and disabled; Ellie Heiss, the former coordinator of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry; and a former colleague at the Archdiocese of Sydney, Daniel Casey.
Finally, regarding media coverage of the trail, Reuters reports:
Dozens of Australian reporters and editors may face jail sentences for their coverage of Vatican Treasurer George Pell’s child sex abuse trial after being issued with legal notices asking why they should not be charged with contempt of court. …
The maximum penalties for contempt of court in Victoria state are five years jail and a fine of more than A$96,000 ($69,000), while a company can face a fine of nearly A$500,000.
Victoria’s The Age newspaper on Tuesday said that the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had issued 32 show cause notices to its journalists and other mastheads owned by parent Nine Entertainment Co asking them to explain why they should not be charged.
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