Published March 13, 2019
George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference
Cardinal George Pell’s December 2018 conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse” was a travesty of justice, thanks in part to a public atmosphere of hysterical anti-Catholicism—a fetid climate that had a devastating impact on the possibility of his receiving a fair trial. How else does one explain how 12 jurors, presented with uncorroborated charges refuted by overwhelming evidence that the alleged crimes could not have happened, completely reversed the overwhelming pro-acquittal vote delivered by a hung jury in the cardinal’s first trial last year?
Cardinal Pell knew from hard personal experience how virulent the anti-Catholic atmosphere in Australia had become. As a member of the College of Cardinals and a senior Vatican official, Pell enjoyed Vatican citizenship and held a Vatican diplomatic passport; he could have stayed put, untouchable by the Australian authorities. Yet he freely decided to submit himself to his country’s criminal justice system. He knew he was innocent; he was determined to defend his honor and that of the Church; and he believed in the rectitude of the Australian courts. So he went home.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Australian justice system has thus far failed one of Australia’s most distinguished sons, who had put his trust in it. The police went on a tawdry fishing expedition for something-on-Pell. (Who, one wonders, set that in motion? And why?) A preliminary hearing sent the subsequent charges to trial, although the hearing magistrate said that, were she a juror, she wouldn’t vote for conviction on several of the alleged crimes. The first trial proved the cardinal innocent, and the re-trial returned an irrational verdict unsupported by any evidence, corroborating or otherwise. The media gag order placed on both trials, although likely intended to dampen the circus atmosphere surrounding the case, in fact relieved the prosecution of having to defend its weird and salacious charges in public.
So as of early March, the cardinal is in jail, in solitary confinement, allowed a few visitors a week, as well as a half-dozen books and magazines at a time. But he is not permitted to say Mass in his cell, on the bizarre grounds that prisoners are not allowed to lead religious services in prisons in the State of Victoria and wine is not permitted in cells.
Given all this, it is not easy to understand why, the day after the conviction was announced publicly, the interim Vatican press spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, reiterated the mantra that has become habitual in Vatican commentary on the Pell case: the Holy See, Gisotti said, has “maximum respect for the Australian judicial authorities.”
Why say this? It is precisely the Australian judiciary (and the lynch-mob atmospherics in Melbourne and elsewhere) that is on trial today in the global court of public opinion. There was no need for such gratuitous puffery. Mr. Gisotti could have, and should have, said that the Holy See awaits with interest and concern the results of the appeal process, and hopes that justice will be done. Period. Full stop. No flattery. Above all, no hint of a suggestion that the Holy See believes that the Australian police and judicial authorities have done their job fairly, impartially, and respectably thus far.
Shortly after Mr. Gisotti’s comment, it was announced that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was beginning its own canonical inquiry into the Pell case. In theory, and one hopes in practice, the CDF investigation can be helpful: properly conducted, it will exonerate Cardinal Pell of the preposterous charges on which he was convicted, because there is zero evidence that the cardinal abused two choirboys and ample evidence that the abuse could not have occurred in the circumstances in which it allegedly happened. So justice can be done by the Holy See, whatever the ultimate outcome in Australia.
For the sake of an old friend, but also for the sake of Australia’s reputation in the world, I hope that the appeal process, which begins in early June, will vindicate Cardinal Pell—and the faith he has put in his countrymen and the Australian judicial system. The latter is and should be under the closest scrutiny by fair-minded people, however. The Holy See should take note of that, and should therefore resist any further temptations to render a gauzy, and certainly premature, verdict on “the Australian judicial authorities.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.