Ethics & Public Policy Center

Easter in Jail: The Travesty of the Pell Case

Published in The Catholic World Report on April 16, 2019


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.

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. 

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