Easter in Jail: The Travesty of the Pell Case

An innocent bishop is being made into a ritual scapegoat for the malfeasance (and worse) of his predecessors in high Church office.

Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne Feb. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, AAP images via Reuters)

In December 2018, Cardinal George Pell, former Archbishop of Sydney and head of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, was convicted of “historic sexual abuse” in a court in Melbourne, Australia, where Pell served as archbishop before his transfer to Sydney. Two months ago, in February 2019, the cardinal was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Cardinal Pell has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and both the verdict and the sentence will be appealed in June. Friends of Australia, friends of the Catholic Church, and friends of the truth must hope that the appeal is successful. For if the verdict and sentence are confirmed, the reputation of Australian justice would suffer a severe blow, and the rhetorically violent and malicious assault on the Catholic Church that played a considerable role in the public atmosphere surrounding Pell’s trial will be vindicated – with more assaults on other innocent Catholic clergy certain to follow.

With a few honorable exceptions, the world media’s reporting on the Pell trial, verdict, and sentencing followed the lead of a deeply biased and often-hysterical Australian press, which was another factor warping the judicial process in this tawdry affair. So as Cardinal Pell prepares to spend Easter in jail – where, in a fine display of courage, he has been cheering up those who have come to console him – a review of the relevant facts will help clarify the wickedness of the verdict against this innocent man.

+ A year before any charges were laid, the police in Victoria (the Australian state where Melbourne is located), went on a fishing expedition against Cardinal Pell, known as “Operation Tethering.” The police went so far as to place advertisements in the local press, trolling for “information” on past misbehavior at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

+ The cardinal was told by the police in early 2017 that their “investigation” had produced nothing; several months later, he was told that charges would in fact be forthcoming.

+ As a citizen of Vatican City holding a Vatican passport, the cardinal, who knew that he was innocent and that the febrile public atmosphere in Melbourne would make a fair trial difficult, might have chosen to stay in the Vatican – and the Victoria public authorities could have done nothing about it, given his diplomatic immunity. Yet Cardinal Pell immediately decided to return to Australia to defend his honor and, by extension, the work he had done in rebuilding Australian Catholicism over twenty years of service as archbishop of the country’s two principal sees.

+ After an extensive “committal hearing” at which his defense counsel demolished the prosecution’s case, the magistrate in charge, after dismissing some charges as literally incredible, decided to allow other charges to go to trial – even though she admitted that she would not vote to convict on several of them.

+ The cardinal’s first jury trial, in October 2018, ended in a hung jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Reliable sources indicated immediately afterward that the jury had voted overwhelmingly to acquit Cardinal Pell; that the jury foreman, presumably convinced of the cardinal’s innocence, had wept in reporting the jury’s deadlock; and that several other jurors were visibly distraught. The prosecution might have dropped the charges at this point, but chose to pursue a second trial. Like its predecessor, this trial would be conducted before a jury saturated in the anti-Pell propaganda flooding the Australian press and social media, because Victoria criminal law does not allow for a “bench trial” by a judge alone, even when it seems unlikely that an impartial jury can be found.

+ At the second trial, as at the first, the prosecution presented no evidence that the alleged crimes had ever occurred; the only “evidence” was the charge being made by one of two original complainants. (The second complainant surfaced by the police “investigation” died before the case went to trial, having told his mother that he had in fact never been abused). The prosecution presented no corroborating evidence to support the complainant’s charges. The defense presented more than a dozen witnesses who testified under oath that the alleged crimes could not have happened, given the security-controlled space where the crimes were alleged to have occurred in the cathedral; these witnesses also testified that no one had noticed any choirboys missing from the procession after Mass on the day of the alleged abuse. The defense made clear that there had been no complaint at the time of the alleged offense, some twenty years earlier, nor had there been any rumors or stories of about the alleged incident in the years after. It was also made clear that the cardinal was never alone after Mass – which is when the alleged abuse was said to have occurred – as he was always accompanied before, during, and after Mass by other liturgical ministers, and after Mass by well-wishers. Indeed, for Pell to have been in the sacristy (alone) where the crime was alleged to have occurred would have meant his abandoning a longtime habit of greeting worshippers outside the cathedral after Mass – and then, somehow, making his way to the sacristy alone and without anyone noticing. The jury was further informed that the police had never seriously investigated the scene of the alleged crime, which was a secure space behind locked doors. Moreover, the point was carefully made that the vile acts alleged were physically impossible, given that Pell was fully attired in pontifical vestments when he was alleged to have abused the complainant. The jury was also shown a videotape of the police interrogation of Cardinal Pell in early 2017, during which the cardinal calmly rebutted all of the allegations while the investigating officers made fools of themselves.

+ The jury at the second trial deliberated several days, on occasion asking the judge for further instructions. The jury then returned a unanimous verdict of guilty, which, to those present in the court, seemed to surprise the judge – who nonetheless had no legal capacity, under Victoria criminal law, to reject what he may have regarded as a false verdict. It does not strain credulity to think that the jury, its judgments warped by an external atmosphere of anti-Pell and anti-Catholic hysteria, simply ignored the judge’s instructions on how evidence (or in this case, the lack of evidence) should be construed, and thus rendered a verdict that fit the public mood, not the facts of the case. And that mood was, in a word, venomous: outside the courthouse, mobs were baying for George Pell’s blood at every phase of this grotesque procedure, from arraignment through “committal hearing” through the two trials, in an Australian reprise of the bigoted hysteria that characterized the trial and false condemnation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in late-19th century France.

+ The post-trial sentencing hearing was described by a man present as “something out of Kafka,” because none of the three men arguing about the sentence – the judge, the prosecutor, and Pell’s defense counsel – actually believed that the offenses for which Cardinal Pell had been convicted had taken place.

+ At Cardinal Pell’s formal sentencing in mid-March, the judge (who had demonstrated fairness at both trials), said on several occasions that he was doing what the law required him to do – that is, follow the jury’s decision. He never once said that he agreed with the jury’s finding which would have been typical in such cases. His sentence was lighter than Pell’s persecutors were hoping for, and the mob howled in protest, both in the streets, in the mainstream media, and on social media – although several brave souls among Australian opinion columnists wrote that this entire affair did not meet elementary standard of justice, much less the criterion of conviction “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

How did this travesty happen?

It happened in part because, prior to George Pell’s appointment as archbishop of Melbourne, the Catholic Church in Australia had failed to address clerical sexual abuse by helping the victims, punishing the perpetrators, and holding bishops accountable for their misgovernance. It is one of the supreme ironies of this miscarriage of justice that Pell was the first Australian bishop to put procedures in place for rigorously handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse and reforming seminary practice so that abusive behavior was much less likely. In fact, Pell had applied to himself in Sydney the protocols he had established for handling abuse allegations, there and in Melbourne, standing down from his office until an inquiry by a former Australian supreme court justice cleared him of previous, spurious charges. An innocent bishop is thus being made into a ritual scapegoat for the malfeasance (and worse) of his predecessors in high Church office.

It happened in part because George Pell has been a figure of political as well as ecclesiastical controversy in Australia for decades. He refused to bow to political correctness on issues ranging from the LGBTQ agenda to immigration to anthropogenic climate change, which infuriated the Australian Left. He was a vigorous defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a dedicated Church reformer in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which infuriated Catholic progressives. He was a robust public personality, who did not hesitate to challenge the shibboleths of a media whose belief in its own infallibility would make Blessed Pius IX blush. So over some two decades, his political enemies and ecclesiastical detractors created the caricature of an arrogant, cold-hearted, reactionary ecclesiastical autocrat, a grotesque portrait in which none of his friends recognized the man they know (and I count myself one of those friends, having known the cardinal for over a half-century). But that vile misrepresentation “fit” the other caricature being promoted in Australia at the same time: the caricature of an out-of-touch, misogynist, homophobic, and politically reactionary Catholic Church. Having spent the better part of forty years in public life, often in public controversy, I can say without fear of exaggeration that I have never seen a public figure whose enemies have so brazenly and blatantly lied, as Cardinal George Pell’s enemies have lied about him. His persecutors have been shameless for decades, and they remain shameless today.

This travesty also happened because Australia – and particularly the State of Victoria – has changed dramatically in the past two generations, becoming a hotbed of aggressively secularist anti-Catholicism wedded to political correctness. Those biases have rarely been challenged to the degree they have been challenged elsewhere in the English-speaking world. So the persecutors of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell, and anyone holding conservative political opinions have learned that they have nothing to fear from making the most outrageous charges, which then reverberate throughout the echo chamber of the Australian press (including the national broadcasting agency, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and Australian social media, to the point where demonstrable falsehoods are accepted as established fact.

And all this happened because various parties with an interest in Cardinal Pell’s demise wanted it to happen – which raises questions that an Australian media interested in serious investigative journalism would be pursuing tenaciously:

• Why did the Victoria police instigate “Operation Tethering?” What discussions took place between the police and the prosecutor’s office while that fishing expedition was underway and after it was concluded?

• Is it mere coincidence that this travesty began at the moment when Cardinal Pell’s work at the Vatican was beginning to uncover financial corruption of considerable magnitude? In the murky worlds of international finance, who has benefited from Pell’s persecution?

• Who was paying for the professionally printed placards held up before the cameras whenever Cardinal Pell appeared in public after his return to Australia? Who organized the mobs outside the courthouse in Melbourne during his two trials?

• And do the answers to these three sets of questions intersect?

There is thus much at stake in Cardinal Pell’s appeal.

Australia has enjoyed a reputation as a country of vigorous but fair public debate: a mature democracy that offers an example to new democracies around the world. That reputation is now in grave jeopardy, as one of Australia’s most distinguished sons has been convicted of vile crimes after a trial conducted in a witch-hunt atmosphere, by a jury that heard absolutely no corroborating evidence that the crime had occurred.

The Australian criminal justice system and the Victoria police are now under indictment in the court of rational world public opinion. And if the cardinal’s appeal is rejected, the question will surely occur: Can anyone can travel safely or do business confidently in a country where the rule of law seems to have been superseded by the rule of hysterical public opinion?

The Catholic Church in Australia will be dealt a severe blow if Cardinal Pell’s false conviction is not reversed on appeal. And even if truth finally prevails and the cardinal is vindicated on appeal, the Church will have a hard road ahead of it: a road that can only be traveled by an evangelically dynamic Church willing to confront vigorously both its own failures and its biased persecutors.

Thus anyone who cares about justice, the Church, and Cardinal Pell will pray that this innocent man is vindicated in the appeal process.


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About George Weigel 243 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

29 Comments

  1. I wrote to Mr. Weigel to ask for information on how to donate to Cardinal Pell’s defense fund, and he replied. As soon as I can figure out how to do a wire transfer, I intend to donate.

    Remind me never, ever to go to Australia.

    • Dear Leslie, You would be fine and welcome in Australia, don’t worry! The vindictive, prejudiced Catholic blaming syndrome is unfortunately a worldwide trend and is perhaps better confronted rather than escaped and hidden from in defeat. Best wishes, Andrew

  2. I write from Melbourne and, first of all, I thank George for his fine articles in defence of Cardinal Pell. However, I do wish to point out that the story that the first trial was deadlocked at 10-2 in the Cardinal’s favour is erroneous.
    This is because no one can know what the vote of the first jury was, as in Australia, it is not revealed in the courtroom, and jury members are prohibited from revealing it; nor can members of the public or journalists ask a jury member what the vote was. That’s the way the law works here.
    How and where the story started, I do not know, although I do know that it began at the time the first jury was dismissed.
    I am aware that people will gossip, but all the more reason to drop the story; it is a story that cannot be substantiated with any reliability.

    • Members of the media spoke to jurors, presumably more than one of them, who agreed to disclose things because they felt the whole thing was grossly unfair. Just because jurors are ordered to keep silent does not mean they do

    • Incorrect. The ratio of the split was never divulged publicly. Very few people are aware of the split. This is a furphy that’s gained traction but is, In fact, erroneous.

      • Perhaps you would like to tell us how you know this. As the previous commentator pointed out the ratio could have been provided by a jury member to the media anonymously. We don’t know & probably will never know.

  3. I would really like to know what Matthew Kelly who is Australian, what his thoughts are on this, or for that matter Bruce Downs. Both men are strong Catholics, and have helped the church by writing books, studies, DVDs, CDs, retreats and more. They would know – and without talking with them, I bet they would agree with this article. Satan is after the church… all the “isms” are about to destroy it.

  4. Thank you Dr. Weigel for this detailed account, absolutely indispensable to manage to take in such a contorted set up.
    And here too we see some of the inexplicable double standards we are starting to get accustomed to:
    With Cardinal Pell, the Holy See let it be known that his case will be discussed before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and while it awaits the verdict from the Court of Appeals “as a measure of prudence” and “to guarantee that justice takes its course” it has confirmed the two measures taken against the Cardinal on his return to Australia “interdiction from the public exercise of ministry” and “all contact in any way or fashion with minors”: both in excess of need since the Cardinal is now in isolation and can not celebrate Mass.
    On the other hand, with Cardinal Barbarin who is also awaiting the verdict of the Court of Appeals, and wished to step down, the attitude has been completely different. In the Cardinal’s own words: “The Pope told me that while awaiting the appeals verdict the presumption of innocence applies. If I accepted your resignation, he said, it would mean that I recognize that you are guilty. I can’t do that.”

  5. With Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who is also awaiting the verdict of the Court of Appeals, and wished to step down as Archbishop of Lyons, the attitude is completely different “The Pope told me that while waiting for the appeals verdict the presumption of innocence applies. If I accepted your resignation it would mean that I recognize that you are guilty. I can’t do that.”
    Double standards, as usual.

    • Cd Barbarin’s is a civil case brought by a private litigant, not the State. As such the verdict is made on the balance of probabilities, not “beyond reasonable doubt”. So even if his conviction is upheld on appeal, the Court is saying that there is still up to a 49% chance that he is innocent.

  6. The secular Left in Australia (in law, politics and media) is wedded to the idea that Pell is guilty, the same way the French military establishment in France was wedded to the idea that Dreyfus was guilty of treason.

    Pell is a symbol of everything they hate, and sending him to prison -even via a trial that was a farce and for charges on which no reasonable court could have convicted him- is an ideological affirmation that they are morally right in their quest to destroy what remains of the Christian roots of Western civilisation. By contrast, if the Pell verdict were reversed, and his conviction revealed to be the product of false evidence and judicial misconduct, then their entire worldview will be discredited and their credibility to act as the harbingers of “progressivism” destroyed. For these reasons they will fight to the bitter end to prevent this verdict from being reversed.

  7. As an Australian and practising catholic I am embarrassed and disgusted at the witch hunt conducted in the Cardinal Pell case. The environment I knew as younger person would never have tolerated this blatant miscarriage of justice nor the persecution this man has been subjected too.
    How did standards deteriorate so quickly, what are the trigger points we as citizens failed to identify allowing such travesties to occur- Is it totally media generated or does Australia suffer from so much apathy that it tolerates injustice to this extent.
    Cardinal Pell has accepted the penalties handed to him with dignity and stoicism and is to be admired and applauded for his character and example, he has avoided all temptation to criticise his detractors despite the incredible bias directed at him. He must emerge victorious and the Catholic Church trusted to continue the work of restoration started by the Cardinal

    • Sadly, I think there is a fair bit of apathy. When you see some excitement on Australia, it is often a case of ‘follow the money, unfortunately: The mobs outside the court could have been rent-a-crowd for all we know. In the eyes of some, the Church has a pool of assets just waiting to be drawn down. There are lawyers chomping at the bit for the next lot of clerics to take down. For those who are guilty, these lawyers perform a valuable role. For the opportunists, thery’re existence is gold. That’s why our legal processes must uphold the law, not uphold the baying mob. This

  8. Thanks to Dr. Weigel for an insightful and factual presentation of this horrific miscarriage. As an American Catholic, I have heard little here of this, but the little I did read made for an almost immediate bad taste in my mouth. The whole thing reeks. I thought from the very beginning: how could this have happened when and where the “victims” said it did?! Poor man. I will pray for him.

  9. Australia doesnt have an exclusive on trumped up charges and convictions of abuse against catholic clergy. Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, has a similar story. You can read about it here
    https://www.newsweek.com/2016/01/29/billy-doe-altar-boy-sends-four-men-prison-philadelphia-rape-case-417565.html
    and here
    http://www.bigtrial.net/2018/10/old-notes-show-that-billy-doe-only.html#more

    But in Pennsylvania these “hysteria convictions” are more “equal opportunity”
    http://www.bigtrial.net/2017/04/federal-agent-no-sex-scandal-at-penn.html

    • I don’t know a lot about the Penn State case (and I care nothing at all about football), but when I heard that Joe Paterno was being condemned because after he reported what was told to him he didn’t then “do something,” it seemed odd and unjust. I worked in a school, and every year we had training on reporting abuse, and it was made crystal clear to us that once we reported it, that was it, we were forbidden questions or investigate because we were not trained to do so and might mess up the investigation. We were also told that we most likely would not be told about the results of the investigation. So I didn’t, and don’t, understand just what they expected Mr. Paterno to do.

  10. George Weigel I can only make reference to the Cross that this travesty of injustice has transpired, that it has occurred for you and for the many who align with Cardinal Pell at this time during Holy Week and Easter. When evil seems triumphant in every quarter particularly where least expected we vanquish it by emulating Christ who suffered the ultimate injustice.

  11. As a Catholic who lives in Melbourne Australia, I cannot thank you enough. Everything you have said is true. It is one of the greatest injustices that we have seen. People in the community have been baying for Cardinal Pell’s blood. This is because the secular media has demonised him for over 20 years. Although in private conversations there are many many people (who would ordinarily oppose Cardinal Pell who believe that he is innocent.) I pray that the decision is overturned- although I fear it will not be.
    My faith in the Victorian criminal justice system is lost.

  12. That Cardinal Pell rendered himself unto a rabid Caesar to defend his innocence in a country marred by bigotry and foregone conclusions, that brutal circus that is Australia, suggests that he is either innocent or insane, the latter being better applied to his accusers and the multitude of gossip mongering Aussies who have nothing better to do than froth at the mouth while devouring all sense of decency.

  13. The Church has its own sovereign justice system called Canon Law which has been around many centuries before places like Australia or the U.S. ever existed. Therefore, the Church ought to establish a system of investigation and adjudication of such allegations on it own, using properly trained investigators and even before such cases are heard in civil courts make its judgment. If it finds the priest or bishop innocent, then the Bishops Conference ought to be able to count on a pool of competent lawyers to defend them in court. As for Cardinal Pell, who was a high up official in the Vatican, if such an investigation had been done as it should have, then he ought not to have gone to Melbourne to face a cangaroo court. Yes, he wanted to go, but I think Pope Francis ought to have decided that he was not going. There is a similar case against the French Cardinal Barbarin, who was not even the bishop of Lyon when what he is accused of took place. How far is this going to go? Is some country going to order that the Pope be detained? The CDF declared that it would investigate the case once the appeal had been done. Why should the CDF depend on what a cangaroo court in Australia or any other country does? The Church ought to stand up and defend itself from this type of onslaught.

  14. Cardinal Pell is not the only victim in this travesty.

    In the article you state that there were a dozen witnesses supporting Cardinal Pells version of events. I’ve read other reports saying 18 witnesses and others saying two dozen.

    Regardless, one thing I opine that is abundantly clear is that,
    a. The Police, and
    b. The Prosecutors, and
    c. One Magistrate, and
    d. A jury of “peers”
    do not believe statements made by practicing Roman Catholics, no matter how many people made, prefering instead to believe the uncorroborated statements of a single complainant. Would the evidence 50 or 100 practicing Catholics have been required to clear the Cardinal in this case?

    I opine that this means that practicing Roman Catholics in Victoria are second class-Citizens, who have a serious civil rights problem, as they are treated as part of a lying cult or cabal who’s evidence cannot be trusted, and can dismissed out of hand.
    Regards.

    • In Australia Guilt is now determined by the uncorroborated testmony of only one biased witness. The dependable exercise of fair and blind jurisprudence is now ended in Australia.
      You are back to show trials and Hilter’s Fascism.
      The the next step in Australia’s fascist evolution is imprisonment and/or execution based entirely upon allegations with no witness required, you only need a judge satisfied that a mere allegation is sufficient to impose sentences. It seems Australia today has many such judges.

  15. Thank you George Weigel for your article on the injustice metered out to Cardinal Pell. I couldn’t help reflecting on Good Friday how there were so many similarities in the injustice of Cardinal Pell’s trial and Our Lord’s trial. False accusers brought forward, baying mob, those in authority determined to convict.
    I know many Catholics are praying for Cardinal Pell (as well as myself, of course) that true justice will prevail when the appeal trial takes place and that Cardinal Pell is comforted knowing many people are praying for him.

  16. Thanks Dr. Weigel for this nice report. It is clear to me that justice in this world is a delusion. Nevertheless what about the evidence facts for the defence of Cardinal Pell was unsuccesfully trying to bring to the court ( I mean : a simple simulation of the timing of the bishop, a reconstitution of the facts in presence of the miserable man that claims to be abused, a psychological expertise) ?

    And another question : is there now a chance for an appeal to the supreme court in Australia ?

    Truth will always have the last word, so I think we should continue praying for Cardinal Pell as our parents did for József Mindszenty !

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