Vatican City, Mar 5, 2019 / 05:00 am (CNA).- The Vatican has announced that a canonical process against Cardinal George Pell will soon begin in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pell was convicted last year by an Australian jury on five counts of child sexual abuse.
Pell’s case is well known to be controversial: while the cardinal was convicted by a jury of his peers, at least some Church figures seem to support his claim of innocence, and observers in Australia have raised serious questions about the integrity of his trial.
Secular media outlets and commentators, including some of Pell’s otherwise most implacable critics, have called the Victoria jury’s verdict into question.
Under those circumstances, the CDF has an unenviable task. Officials will approach the case with an awareness that their verdict, no matter where it lands, could have serious repercussions for the Church.
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.
Still, the situation invites comparison to McCarrick’s.
Pell now has a criminal conviction, while McCarrick does not. Like McCarrick, Pell has been accused of other incidents of abuse: he is alleged to have molested four boys in a swimming pool in the 1970s. But his defenders say there are a paucity of proofs in the allegations against Pell, and the swimming pool allegations were dropped by criminal prosecutors because they lacked proof. And by the time a McCarrick process got underway at CDF, there was a thick dossier of mutually supportive and easily proven allegations. Pell’s dossier is not quite the same.
CDF judges will approach Pell’s case with less moral certitude than they approached McCarrick’s. And unlike Pell’s case, McCarrick’s verdict had little potential to cause an international incident.
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.
On the other hand, if Pell is found ‘not guilty’ by a Vatican court that considers the same evidence presented in Victoria, the consequences could be just as dramatic.
If a Vatican court finds in Pell’s favor, some might accept the decision as a just verdict founded on the evidence, or lack thereof. Others might also welcome it as a stand in favor of due process and the autonomy of the Church.
But the outcry from victims and their advocates would be considerable. Catholics are already asking impatient questions about whether the Vatican takes seriously allegations of abuse: a CDF decision that runs counter to an Australian criminal conviction – however controversial – could set back Roman efforts to show how seriously the Church takes the issue of abuse.
If the Australian government faces a domestic uproar, or sees a ‘not guilty’ decision as an implied condemnation of its justice system, it might join with other countries that have begun asking if the Holy See ought to have sovereign status in international law, or even threaten to sever its diplomatic ties. That is no small thing.
Under the seal of the pontifical secret, canon lawyers and Church officials know that priests have been canonically convicted of child sexual abuse on evidence no more compelling than that facing Pell. Still greater is the number of priests who have found themselves made permanently “unassignable” after a single, unsupported accusation.
But Pell’s case, unlike those, will unfold with a global audience, and amid the great series of crises over sexual abuse the Vatican has faced in recent years. The decision in Pell’s canonical trial, no matter what it is, could steer the direction of the crisis– no verdict will be without consequence.
Canonical judges are exhorted to judge only the facts of the case- but in this case, no matter the outcome, that will be no easy request.
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