Cardinal George Pell was released last week from an Australian prison, having spent 405 days behind bars for crimes of which he is not guilty. The High Court of Australia was unanimous in its judgment that the case against Pell had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Had the jury “acted rationally on the whole of the evidence,” it could not have returned a guilty verdict.
When Pell’s first appeal was denied last year, some people insisted that the judgment of the Australian legal system was irreproachable, and that Pell’s defenders just needed to come around to the fact that their man was guilty. Now that Pell has been acquitted on all charges, many of those voices have changed their tune, questioning the impartiality of a unanimous High Court. Other voices have fallen silent altogether.
Last August, after Pell’s first appeal was denied, Michael Sean Winters, at the National Catholic Reporter, expressed his concern for Cardinal Pell’s friends, comparing the hard truth they faced – the criminal conviction of Pell – to the hard reality faced by many of Theodore McCarrick’s friends and allies.
“My heart goes out to Pell’s friends, but they must come to terms with reality: It is virtually impossible, now, to believe that Pell was entirely innocent of the allegations leveled against him. That is not an indictment of his ecclesiology. It takes away nothing of his accomplishments. But, the same could be said of McCarrick. The hypocrisy of treating these two men differently must stop.”
These sentiments have not, to say the least, aged particularly well. As it happens, it was – and remains – entirely possible to believe in Pell’s innocence. Moreover, there are some very good reasons that Pell and McCarrick have been and will continue to be treated differently, and it is not “hubris. . .about the Australian justice system” as Winters imagined.
For one, Pell and McCarrick have been treated differently by their friends. No doubt many of McCarrick’s friends felt horribly betrayed when the allegations against him were made public. But if his friends were convinced of his innocence, did any speak a word in his defense? Did any of them protest, as many of Pell’s friends and supporters did on his behalf, that the evidence brought against him simply did not add up? Not even McCarrick seemed terribly convinced of his innocence. “I’m not as bad as they paint me,” McCarrick told Slate, “I do not believe that I did the things that they accused me of.”
Cardinal Pell and McCarrick have also been treated differently by their opponents. While enemies of each man have predictably taken their potshots, a good number of Pell’s adversaries think the trial was a sham and that Pell was scapegoated. Have any of McCarrick’s long-time critics spoken in his defense? Has anyone known to be a theological or political opponent of McCarrick stood up to say that the charges against McCarrick simply don’t make sense? I know of none.
George Pell and Theodore McCarrick have also been treated very differently by Pope Francis. It was barely a month after allegations surfaced that McCarrick had abused a minor before he was out of the College of Cardinals. Six months later, he had been laicized. I’ve been critical of Pope Francis’ handling of the McCarrick case – we’re still waiting on that report, by the way – but even the most hardened cynic must admit that, once allegations were made public, the pope acted swiftly.
Of course, McCarrick didn’t go through the long process of a criminal trial. But the simple fact that Pell remains a member of the College of Cardinals today tells us something about how differently Pope Francis sees the two cases. And the fact that the morning Pell’s acquittal was announced, Pope Francis offered prayers for, “all persons who suffer an unjust sentence” might tell us something more.
Underlying all of this is a fundamental and reassuring point: evidence still matters. That, in the end, explains the enormous difference between how McCarrick and Pell have been treated. There is no “hypocrisy” in insisting on the difference between innocence and guilt.
There is one more consideration in this: How does one square relief at the acquittal of an innocent man with sincere solicitude for those who have been abused – and especially for those who have been abused only to have their accusations disbelieved and see their abusers escape justice? We know this has happened.
As Cardinal Pell himself said in his first on-camera interview following his release, if the pendulum has swung too far toward presuming the guilt of Catholic clerics accused of abusing minors, it is worth remembering that the pendulum was once far in the other direction. There was a time, not so long ago, when clear evidence of abuse was simply not believed by those who might have been in a position to put a stop to abuse or to provide help to those who have suffered at the hands of clergy.
It is easy these days to be seen taking the side of those who allege sexual abuse. When being seen choosing sides is easy, we should be wary. Not because abuse victims don’t deserve or need the compassionate attention and support, which the Church offers and which it has too often failed to offer in the past. (They do.) An unwillingness to stand for the rights of the accused, especially in a moment like the current one, would suggest that our solicitude is not for justice, but for standing up for the right sort of victim.
For too long the Church reflexively stood with those it was “easy” to believe and “easy” to defend: accused priests. For that we are still paying the price, though the greater price was paid in the suffering of victims. Justice demands better.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.