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Pell and the Pope’s dilemma

Christopher Lamb - The Tablet - Tue, Sep 10th 2019

Pell and the Pope’s dilemma

Cardinal Pell (left) with Pope Francis in 2014 - Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Although many people in the Vatican believe he is innocent, the high-profile Australian cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for abuse has been dismissed. He now faces a church investigation and trial. As our Rome correspondent explains, this is a nightmare for Pope Francis

The news arrived in Rome via a faltering video feed in the dead of night. From Victoria’s Court of Appeal, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson stated that Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his convictions for the oral rape of a choirboy and the sexual assault of another chorister at St Patrick’s Cathedral when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s had been rejected.

Witnesses inside the court on 21 August said the news was greeted with a deep silence. Small gasps could be heard across the room. The cardinal was motionless upon hearing the verdict; his lips pursed a little. He took a long drink of water, before being led away. 

A little over two years ago Cardinal Pell had been working out of a first-floor office in the Vatican’s apostolic palace, where since his appointment by Pope Francis in 2014 he had been overseeing an energetic reform of the Holy See’s finances. He is now in prison serving out the rest of his six-year sentence, the highest-ranking figure in the Church ever to be jailed for sex abuse. 

The Pell case is a nightmare for the Pope. It is not just that the cardinal’s appeal against his conviction has been dismissed, but that a majority of people at high levels in the Church believe Pell is innocent. Among the cardinal’s supporters, there is deep scepticism about a conviction that divided the appeal judges and rests on the testimony of a single accuser.

Nevertheless, Pell now faces a church investigation and trial which some in Rome say could even acquit the cardinal of the charges he was found guilty of by the Australian justice system. Such an outcome would spark a diplomatic crisis. All this means that if Pell does receive a full canonical trial the case would almost certainly end up on the Pope’s desk for a final decision.

If he were to allow Pell to keep his clerical status it would leave the impression of a Church picking and choosing the bits of civil justice it wants to follow, and this would undermine all its efforts to tackle abuse over recent decades. Survivors would ask why the Church believed the protestations of innocence of a jailed cardinal and not a victim of abuse whose testimony had convinced a jury and two appeal judges. 

At its heart, the Pell case hinges on who you believe. Treating a cardinal differently from any other priest accused of abuse would run counter to the message of Pope Francis’ abuse summit in February, at which the testimonies of survivors were described as like the wounds of Christ on the Cross. Does that change when the complainant is alleging that they have suffered abuse from someone in one of the highest positions in the hierarchy? The cardinal’s supporters ask how he could be convicted on the testimony of a single witness; yet the vast majority of rape and sexual assault cases rely on the word of one complainant.

Senior officials at the February summit repeatedly stressed that the Church must follow the law of the land in cases of alleged abuse. Process dictates that allegations of abuse are reported to the civil authorites and the accused priest is removed from ministry, and that if a criminal court finds him guilty of sexually abusing a child the Church starts its own internal legal process, which ordinarily leads to the removal of the convicted man from the priesthood. When it was established that allegations of child abuse against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were credible he was expelled from the college of cardinals. He then faced a canonical trial that saw him removed from the clerical state. 

The Australian prelate, however, remains in a prison cell as a member of the college of cardinals, an archbishop and a priest. He is said to be “undecided” about whether to lodge an application for special leave to the High Court. If he does, a hearing to determine his application will be listed for later this year. So the legal process is not yet exhausted. Sustained by an international network of fervent supporters, whose more extreme members are elevating him to martyr status, the cardinal even smuggled, before the appeal verdict came through, a characteristically caustic handwritten warning about the Amazon synod – a project close to the heart of Pope Francis – out of his prison cell.

Francis encouraged Pell to return to Australia to face justice, and has been ready to remove bishops guilty of abuse as well as priests from the clerical status. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said after the Pell decision: “If you are a high-ranking church official, not even a conviction is enough for the Church to levy punishment.” The Pope will want to avoid the perception taking hold that cardinals get preferential treatment. The ancient Roman depiction of Lady Justice has her blindfolded for a reason. 

Outside the Melbourne courtroom, abuse survivors and their advocates celebrated. It was, they said, a victory for “the little people” against one of Australia’s most powerful figures. “Hallelujah! Proof there is a God,” one yelled. The appeal decision was momentous. Not only had the cardinal’s accuser convinced a jury, but two out of three of the top judges in the state. Pell’s multi-million-dollar defence had lost. Legal history had been made. 

In Rome, the news hardly registered. Not only was the decision handed down in the small hours, it also came in the last week of August. At this time of year, the cobbled backstreets of the Eternal City are eerily quiet. Piazzas are deserted. The restaurants and shops, normally buzzing with activity, pull down their shutters. Much of the Vatican does the same.

In the morning after the appeal judges’ decision broke, Matteo Bruni, the newly appointed Holy See spokesman, appeared in the Vatican press room to read out a short statement. The Holy See, he said, respects the Australian judicial system but also recognises that the cardinal maintains his innocence, and he has the right to appeal to the High Court of Australia. Bruni stressed the Church maintains its closeness to victims, and the right to pursue clergy abuse offenders. He later clarified that any internal disciplinary procedure against Pell would not take place until all his legal avenues have been exhausted. This is the usual procedure. 

The statement reveals that, mixed with a declared respect for the Australian justice system, disbelief about Pell’s guilt remains. How, many are asking – not only in the Catholic world, and not only among Pell’s friends and supporters – could he have possibly carried out the oral rape and molestation of two choirboys straight after Sunday Mass in a sacristy in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral?

At his trial, at his retrial – the first jury failed to agree a verdict – and then at his appeal, the cardinal’s defence team put forward several reasons why it simply couldn’t have happened in the way the complainant described. The sacristy is a busy place; there were witnesses saying Pell would have been always been accompanied; the robes he was wearing made it physically impossible. All of this placed doubts over the conviction in the minds of some observers. The disbelief is understandable. It is devastating for any community to accept that one of their leaders sexually abused children. It’s even more difficult, given that Pell played such a dominant role in the life of the Church. Shock and denial are to be expected. 

The three appeal court justices went back to the cathedral, they watched video of the evidence given by the witnesses who appeared in the trial, they read the 2,000-page trial transcript, they examined the robe. And in an exhaustive judgment, two of the justices said the jury were right to convict. Sexual abuse of children, they argued, has often been perpetrated when there is a high risk of detection. Pell’s robes were moveable. The witness statements claiming that he was never alone were not definitive. Crucially, they described the former choirboy, now married with a child and in his mid-thirties, as a “compelling” witness who had given his evidence with “clarity and cogency”. He was a powerful “witness of truth”.

The fact that he couldn’t remember everything perfectly added to his credibility. They were struck that he had recalled the abuse taking place in the priest’s sacristy rather than the archbishop’s sacristy, where Pell would normally have robed. At the end of 1996, when the former choirboy said the abuse happened, the archbishop’s sacristy had been out of use due to repair work and Pell was using the priest’s one instead.

Nevertheless, one of the judges dissented. In more than 200-pages of legal argument, Justice Mark Weinberg, one of Australia’s leading experts in criminal law, said he found the complainant to have embellished his story. “There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense,” he wrote in his judgment. He placed weight on the testimonies of church officials who claimed Pell would have never been left alone at St Patrick’s Cathedral and would have been greeting parishioners at the entrance when the abuse was said to have taken place, and concluded that the jury must have had a doubt. Weinberg may have given the cardinal a lifeline for a final appeal to Australia’s High Court. 

The Pell case has divided Australians. Some Catholics see Pell’s conviction as an attack on the Church, and claim the cardinal has been made a scapegoat for all the abuse of children by priests that has taken place in Australia. Some priests are anxiously thinking that if a cardinal can be sent to jail on the uncorroborated evidence of one complainant, then they are even more vulnerable to false accusations. Part of the wider context is that this was not the only allegation of abuse levelled against the cardinal. Initially, he was reportedly facing 26 charges from several complainants, one of whom later died. A second trial he had been facing collapsed. In 2002, as Archbishop of Sydney, Pell had been accused of abusing a 12-year-old boy while a seminarian. And Pell is likely to be heavily criticised when Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to abuse finally releases its findings on how he handled abuse cases as Archbishop of Melbourne. The cardinal has also been criticised for treating the survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families with an almost callous insensitivity. 

In a statement released after the appeal decision the man known only as Witness J said he had risked “privacy, my health, my well- being, my family” to make his complaint. He said he is making no claim for compensation and hopes his ordeal is now over. The justice machine, he added, rolls on “almost forgetting about the people at the heart of the matter”. The former choirboy said he was glad that Pell had the best legal representation that money could buy, and he praised Judge Peter Kidd for a “compassionate, balanced and fair sentencing”. 

The danger for the Church is to be seen as standing in judgment over criminal courts. It must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Now is the time to put aside tribal loyalties, and look for a survivor-led response to abuse. Complainants have to be listened to with compassion and sensitivity, regardless of the rank or prestige or notoriety of those they accuse. Compassion must also be shown to George Pell, for whom this case may be a tragic and ignominious end to many years of service to the Church, including an honourable role in making the Vatican’s tangled finances more transparent.

“Although my faith has taken a battering it is still a part of my life, and part of the lives of my loved ones”, says the dignified former chorister. If he is able to hold on to his faith, then the Church can have hope that a better future can be built out of the ashes.

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