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Lessons from the Cardinal Pell Affair

There can be no justice without moral integrity on the part of the main actors (judges, journalists, bishops), and no living faith without the courage to suffer for one’s convictions.

Cardinal George Pell is pictured during the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in this Oct. 16, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Who steals my purse steals trash ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands,
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
— Shakespeare, Othello

Cardinal George Pell was falsely accused. After spending 404 days in solitary confinement, his conviction was finally quashed by the High Court of Australia in a unanimous decision [7-0]. Such is the hysteria whipped up by the anti-Pell – indeed anti-Catholic – media in Australia that the country is still divided; his life is still in danger.

The presumption of innocence is one of the basic pillars of criminal justice. An accused person is presumed to be innocent, until guilt has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. That is a principle common to all legal systems in the free world, including Canon Law.

In the case of clerics accused of sexual offenses, especially against minors or vulnerable adults, this principle seems to have been replaced by the presumption of guilt until the accused can prove his own innocence. This reversal of the burden of proof is a grotesque distortion of normative jurisprudence, moral law and Canon Law.

This situation is, in large part, due to the shock and outrage that continues to be felt after the extent and horror of clerical sexual abuse, and the cover-up by bishops and religious superiors was revealed.

But even when someone is found to be not guilty, the suspicion remains. A man could be deprived of his good name. And his family too. Since the canonical process is often delayed, a priest can remain suspended for years, at a reduced salary. If he is sick in America without health insurance, this could kill him.

Compared with other clerics falsely accused, Cardinal Pell was fortunate. First of all, there was Justice Weinberg, whose 220-page dissenting judgment was highly persuasive to the High Court. Secondly, there was a journalist, Andrew Bolt, who, after interviewing him in Rome at the start of the saga, was convinced of Pell’s innocence. Both of these men of integrity paid a heavy price in terms of public abuse.

In his April 14th television interview with Bolt, Pell exuded calm, inner joy, gratitude, and not a little humor. He showed no rancor, and forgave his accuser – thanks to a clear conscience and a firm faith in God, his true Judge. He bore his prison sentence with equanimity and with spiritual profit. Jail was, he said, like a spiritual Retreat. He enjoyed good relations with his prison guards. He made friends with his fellow-prisoners. They cheered when his conviction was quashed.

One lesson to be learned from this whole affair is that there can be no justice without moral integrity on the part of the main actors (judges, journalists, bishops), and no living faith without the courage to suffer for one’s convictions. Pell was – and is – intensely disliked by some people inside and outside the Church because of his public stance on the Church’s moral teaching. Catholic journalists of a “liberal” bent gloated over his false conviction; they were mostly silent on his acquittal. Few of his fellow-bishops behaved any better. This reflects the still unresolved crisis in the Church with regard to her moral teaching.

Secondly, we need to give more attention to the Eight Commandment, to not bear false witness against your neighbor. According to the Catechism, “Respect for the reputation of a person forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them an unjust injury”, such as rash judgement, detraction, and calumny (CCC 2477). Are we not all prone to rash judgement when we accept an accusation at face value? To what extent are journalists guilty of the first two at least, when they publish suspicious rumors about prominent figures from anonymous “sources”? The Victoria Police Department actually advertised for accusations against Pell. That is calumny of the gravest kind.

Making up for earlier mishandling of such cases in the past, bishops have drawn up much needed, stringent protocols for dealing with accusations. Clerical sexual abuse is gravely damaging to the victims. When a case is recent, and other children could be endangered, immediate action must be taken. In the case of accusations of an historic nature, however, prudence would demand that superiors be circumspect. Judging credibility is not easy. However, because of moral cowardice (fear of making a mistake, or fear of being later accused themselves of ignoring a complaint), some ordinaries are inclined to act immediately and withdraw the priest from ministry – leaving it to the courts to judge the credibility of an historical allegation.

In the United States, it seems that process has been driven by attorneys and diocesan insurance companies, with the sole motive of avoiding the massive expense of a trial. In one notorious archdiocese, it has become a cottage industry. A lay Canon lawyer with experience in this area informs me that some bishops even fail to give priests due process – with some priests driven to suicide because of lack of support from their bishop. This is evidently a grave offense against canonical equity and natural justice.

If the accused is found not guilty – after years waiting to be tried, first by a civil court and then by a Church tribunal – he may be returned to ministry, sometimes under certain conditions. Even without conditions, the suspicion remains. He is tainted – and his family with him.

Admittedly, previously Church leaders gave little credence to allegations of sexual crimes against children and vulnerable adults. They swept such matters under the carpet, and shunted offending clerics from pillar to post, while sternly warning about the dangers of gossip. Now they seem to err in the opposite direction, taking at face value any accusation made against a priest. Both extremes betray a lack of moral integrity. In America, the grave injustice of suborning a witness by diocesan “safeguarding panels” is not unknown. (That is: the use of evidence from a complainant who received a financial settlement as an inducement.) And what should one say about the canonical “administrative process” introduced by the CDF that may deprive the accused of his natural right of defense?

If acquitted, retribution must be made for the suffering inflicted on the falsely accused, whether the accused be lay or clerical, and on their families. With regard to any accused, a press statement supported by the local prosecuting authorities should be made stating the matter has been investigated and found to be without substance or foundation. With regard to a priest, a special Mass should be celebrated by the Bishop to return the pastor to his flock. His salary should be substantially increased and he should be given a sabbatical all expenses paid.

By accepting his unjust accusation at all times in the spirit of 1 Peter 2:19f., as Cardinal Pell evidently did, the rehabilitated cleric can make retribution for the crimes of his brothers, and so become more Christ-like. Loss of one’s good name can then become a path to sanctity.

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About Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD 13 Articles
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including The End of Irish Catholicism?, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae. His most recent book is The Dynamics of Liturgy—Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation (Ignatius Press, 2022). In 2011, Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Fr. Twomey for outstanding services rendered to the Church and to the Holy Father.


  1. let us not forget the bishops who slavishly followed the advice of psychiatrists and psychologists who told them that priests who offended sexually could be cured. These “experts” seemed to have been given a pass.
    A book by the Linacre Society-Catholic Medical Society- called “Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests” outlines that the hundreds of years of Church teaching on the instances of deviance was ignored by the bishops in favour of these “experts.”

    • Sharon, you are quite right.

      There’s also another way of looking at it, too: People who in good faith followed what was then the latest medical advice and did what the people who were supposed to be experts told them was the best way to treat people who committed these terrible acts are now blamed for it.

      In the case of the bishops, who should have known better than to defer to people the world held up as “experts” – if they had held instead to Church teaching on the matter, they would have been vilified then; instead, they’re vilified now, just as any bishop who holds fast to the teachings that homosexual inclinations and behavior are wrong and those who give in to (or worse, glorify) them should not be priests, are demonized. An object lesson in the fact that the world has rather a bad sense of justice.

      • True, Leslie. It used to be thought that therapies and interventions would allow child molesters to be rehabilitated but that didn’t work out.
        I think there are probably other theories we accept from psychologists today that may prove false in the future.

    • I can provide you with a paraphrase of the late Mr. Lee’s way of thinking: “I was a terrible priest, faithless to my vows with a number of women and then secretly marrying a woman. Instead of admitting my own guilt and repenting I will attack the Church and put the blame on Her, and claim that celibacy is impossible, so it’s not my fault at all.”

      He is the equivalent of a man who is married and commits adultery. “It’s not my fault; the Church is wrong to demand monogamy and fidelity. Those are impossible. I haven’t done anything wrong, it’s all the Church’s fault.”

      • Leslie,
        Some of the reviews of the book are revealing also.
        We expect married people to keep their vows and we don’t celebrate unfaithfulness. I don’t know why there’s a double standard for clergy. Character is what you do when no one is watching. And if you stumble, you shouldn’t encourage others to do the same.

    • Father Kevin Lee, who left the Priesthood to live with his wife in the Philippines and is the author of that book that you offer the link for, is nothing but an example of the very opposite of TRUE Catholicism: self-justification, self-absolution and self-sanctification no matter what sin one commits. That’s the kind of people that pre-judged, pre-condemned and pre-sentenced Cardinal Pell: cowardly Judas Iscariots disguised as sacrificial, protecting “heroes” and high moral “pontiffs”.

      [For some solid background on Father Kevin Lee, read the review about that book in Amazon written by “Maristella”, titled: “Written for Dubious Motives”]

      Theirs (and late Father Lee’s) Modus Operandi is by elevating and sanctifying themselves by placing an accusatory kiss on the innocent. Today’s False Justice: The guiltiest as judges of the most innocent. That’s the total opposite of what we need to heal and renew the Catholic Church and specially to bring true healing to the TRUE victims of clerical abuse who fill only find true healing in JESUS in that very Catholic Church. Ugly and Despicable!!

  2. The biggest lesson from this unfortunate affair is the oldest one in the history of Christendom: we will be persecuted for our Faith, and the minions of the Devil will stop at nothing to do so, even to the point of lies, calumny, deceipt and corrupting and perverting the criminal justice system to achieve their ends.

  3. I wont speak in defence of Mr Lee’s actions however he has much to say about the culture of the Clergy of NSW. A fact I find interesting is how the church acted swiftly in removing him from his priestly duties upon finding out he was married. The same cannot be said in how the church responded to finding out when a priest was abusing children.
    The Church still is not listening to the many who bear witness to the truth, and many within her ranks are not listening to the Holy Spirit.

  4. Perhaps a more relevant book to read pertaining to the subject at hand would be one written by the Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney when Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Sydney:

    May I suggest the lessons as outlined in the Archbishop’s book would be far more relevant for the Church to consider in detail. This is first hand from a faithfull Catholic Bishop in the center of the unfolding story.

    • Well, now, let’s take a look at this faithful bishop you admire so much:

      ““Looking back, I would say that my mother belonged to that category of Irish descent who desperately wanted to have a child who was a priest,” says the bishop, who went on to reject his mother’s brand of Catholicism and campaign for a radically reformed Catholic Church.”

      “A couple of months after he was ordained as a bishop in 1984, a paper he had written about giving communion to divorced people came to light in Rome and “I was put down as never to be promoted.””

      “As it turned out, he was happy with the freedom his position as an auxiliary bishop gave him. “If you’re a cardinal archbishop you can’t stay silent – it’s demanded that you speak out and say things like ‘No woman will ever be ordained till hell freezes over.’ And I couldn’t say that because I don’t believe it.””

      “He also had a few health issues, but the main reason for retiring, he confesses, was that he couldn’t work with the then archbishop, now Cardinal George Pell. “We were chalk and cheese,” he says, adding that he couldn’t back Cardinal Pell on his insistence that homosexuality was “perversion”.”

      “After his retirement Bishop Robinson finally had the time to put his thoughts on paper. And that’s when he really got into hot water. His 2007 book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, identified obligatory celibacy as one of the systemic causes of child sexual abuse and called for radical reform of church authority and teachings.”

      Faithful. Yeah, right.

      • To clarify my concern with the above article.

        The article seems to be in contradiction to Fr. D. Vincent Twomey’s response to the Murphy Report and the Irish Bishops where his response is summarised as such:
        On 2 December 2009 Twomey, speaking on the Murphy Report, said that those bishops named in the Dublin diocesan report “should resign immediately from their current pastoral positions”. Twomey also said that “the longer they delay in doing so, the greater the damage they will do to all faithful Catholics, and in particular to the survivors of abuse who are still paying the price for the sins of their priests and bishop”. He said, “at the very least, it would seem, all were guilty of negligence – some, such as Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick, whose behaviour was described as ‘inexcusable’, more than others. But all were deemed guilty of inaction, of failing to listen to their conscience, as Mary Raftery put it on radio and television.” “They seem incapable of responding”, he added.[2]
        Twomey said the bishops “were deemed guilty of putting the interests of the institution above the safety and welfare of children. Their failure to act when necessary, whatever the motivation, caused profound emotional damage to the victims of clerical sexual abuse and their families, and facilitated even more abuse.”[2]

        From what has been demonstrated in Australia by verifiable and legitimate accounts and testimony about Cardinal Pell with respect to the Childhood abuse situation in Australia; Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney, why isn’t a similar response from Fr Vincent Twomey equally applicable?

        • First you narrate Fr. Twomey’s dramatic response to scandal and then you make a humongous leap of logic to say that that connects directly to Cardinal Pell and somehow categorically proves his guilt so he must receive the same condemnation. Are Fr. Twomey’s words absolutely and always applicable to all just because of his apparent zeal for the victims? Is He God, by the way, or does he just pretend to be so in YOUR mind? Are those words applicable to Cardinal Pell just because of the high drama and pain in them? Are strong emotions, both the real and the manufactured, the ultimate test of Truth and culpability against some or all in the Church? Wasn’t that Hollow Fiery Emotional Zeal that unjustly condemned Cardinal Pell the first time he was tried?

          You say in your last paragraph: “From what has been demonstrated in Australia by VERIFIABLE and LEGITIMATE accounts and testimony about Cardinal Pell with respect to the Childhood abuse situation in Australia; Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney, why isn’t a similar response from Fr Vincent Twomey equally applicable?” (capitals added). That’s slander. IF THERE WERE any microscopic trace (like him sneezing in the direction of a victim) of any VERIFIABLE and LEGITIMATE accounts against Cardinal Pell in the abuse crisis in Australia or anywhere, he would not have ever been finally exonerated in the Prejudiced Court of the Hell Down Under, and with the present climate there of absolutely delirious and demonic anti-Catholic hatred, he would have been dragged through the streets, tortured publicly, burned alive and then decapitated.

          Anti-Catholic bigots then would have swept Australia burning all Catholic churches and attacking the rest of the Clergy and Laity. THERE’S NO GREATER DESTRUCTIVE ZEAL THAN THAT OF A GUILTY FALSE ACCUSER. Satan is a PARASITE as he can offer nothing but Hell, and he caricaturizes all virtues by taking them to the EXTREME and making them emotionally drug-like-intoxicating. As the Church has long said, “Any virtue taken to the extreme is a vice”. They have shamed the Church’s moral compass for society into silence in order to become the world’s shameless accusers.

          JESUS nailed all our guilt and shame on the Cross (Colossians 2:14) including all the more recent trillions of tons of guilt and shame thrown at the Catholic Church to induce a state of deviously manufactured MORAL AND SPIRITUAL TRAUMA, as deep trauma makes for easier to control zombies. The most extreme of anti-abuse zealots (using the true victims as human shields for evil) are the guiltiest of abusing others, society, the Church and the world. We True Catholics must never bow to the Accuser and his puppets no matter how viciously abused we are by them!! Only to JESUS!! (John 15:18).

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