A tale of two Georges   

George Weigel

When a pope is elected, the cardinals who have just chosen him make their way to the Hall of Benedictions atop the narthex of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a challenging journey for some: In 2005, the frail, 79-year old Cardinal William Baum was carried out of the Sistine Chapel, through the basilica, and up to the Hall of Benedictions by his conclavist-secretary, Msgr. Bart Smith, doing a fair imitation of Aeneas toting Anchises out of Troy as sculpted by Gianlorenzo Bernini.

As the new pontiff is presented, the cardinals appear at the windows flanking the central loggia of the basilica; there, they receive the first papal blessing with the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. On March 13, 2013, two cardinals remained behind for a few moments, alone in a window after Pope Francis retired for the night. They seemed pensive, these experienced, thoughtful, and prayerful men, both of whom had worked hard to reform troubled dioceses. The Church had just experienced an unprecedented form of papal abdication; the conclave had resolved itself quickly in favor of a candidate unfamiliar to many electors; what was coming next?

One of those men was the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, who died in 2015. The other was his friend and ally, Cardinal George Pell, then the archbishop of Sydney, later the Vatican’s chief financial officer. Some years before, Cardinal George had shocked the priests of Chicago by suggesting, almost offhandedly, that while he would die in his bed, his successor would die in jail and that man’s successor would be executed in the public square – after which the martyr’s successor would, as the Church had done so often in the past, help pick up the fragments of a broken civilization and start again. It seems unlikely that, on the night of March 13, 2013, Cardinal George imagined that his hypothetical scenario would be dramatically accelerated, the only difference being that the friend beside him would be the one in jail. And Cardinal Pell would be in prison, not for the defense of life or religious freedom, but because of a wickedly perverse conviction on uncorroborated charges of sexual abuse that a jury had been shown could not possibly have happened.

There are, as sociologist Peter Rossi used to say, many ironies in the fire.

We may hope and we should pray – intensely – that Cardinal Pell’s conviction is reversed on appeal. If it is not, the innocent cardinal will become a prison evangelist and a witness to Christ behind bars. Australian justice, on the other hand will have suffered a devastating blow from which it will take a long time to recover. And reasonable people will wonder whether it is safe to do business or travel in a country where a fever-swamp media and secularist bigots have the capacity to distort the legal process into a grotesque parody of democratic maturity.

But even if the appeal is successful – as it should be on any rational grounds, and if the words “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean anything in Australian courts – the assault on the Church and its leaders will continue. The issue of clerical sexual abuse has been weaponized. And that weapon is being used, not to deal with abominable sins and crimes that cry out to heaven, but to settle all sorts of other scores, ecclesiastical, political, and, in Pell’s case, financial, given the corrupt practices the cardinal was exposing.

The acceleration of Cardinal George’s prediction of cardinals-in-jail should also give pause to those who blame the abuse crisis on “clericalism.” Clericalism – the evil misuse of the respect those in Holy Orders rightly enjoy because of their sacred office – facilitates abuse; it doesn’t cause it. Like the charge of abuse, the “clericalism” trope has been weaponized by the Church’s enemies, to the point where it is becoming difficult for any Catholic cleric charged with misconduct to receive a fair hearing or a fair trial. The vicious public atmosphere on display in Australia whenever the words “George Pell” are spoken is not improved by senior churchmen, in Rome and elsewhere, blaming abuse on “clericalism.”

From his present station in the Communion of Saints, I have no doubt that Francis George is interceding for George Pell, and for the vindication of justice by the judges who will hear the Australian cardinal’s appeal – even as the American cardinal regrets how prescient he was.

Featured image by Mauricio Artieda | Catholic News Agency

COMING UP: The Holy See and Cardinal Pell

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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 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.”

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images