After Cardinal Pell’s rightful acquittal 

George Weigel

The unanimous decision by Australia’s High Court to quash Cardinal George Pell’s convictions on charges of “historic sexual abuse” and acquit him of those crimes was entirely welcome. Truth and justice were served. An innocent man was freed from imprisonment. The criminal justice system in the State of Victoria was informed by Australia’s supreme judicial authority that it had gotten things badly wrong. The anti-Pell haters in the Australian media were reminded that their power has limits.

Yet there remains a lot to be reckoned with in the aftermath of this case, which bore all the tawdry hallmarks of a witch hunt.

Did the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) collude with a corrupt Victoria police department in a sleazy attempt to dig up alleged crimes where none had been previously reported? Why did so weak a case ever come to trial, given compelling evidence that what was said to have happened simply could not have happened in the timeframe and circumstances alleged by the complainant? Why was the jury never informed that the complainant had a history of psychological problems? What effect did the lynch mob atmosphere in Victoria have on the hung jury in the cardinal’s first trial, and on the incomprehensible guilty verdict rendered by the jury in the retrial? Why was the cardinal forbidden to say Mass for over 400 days, even when in solitary confinement?

These are questions proper to Australia and should be examined by the public authorities there; a parliamentary inquiry into the behavior of ABC and the Victoria police seems the least that ought to be done. The Pell affair also has implications for other countries and for the world Church, as public officials and Catholic leaders continue to grapple with the societal-wide plague of the sexual abuse of the young.

Cardinal Pell had two jury trials because in the State of Victoria, a defendant in a criminal case cannot request a bench trial (i.e., a trial by a judge alone). Surely this policy needs to be re-examined in all jurisdictions in which it is in force, given the extreme difficulty of empaneling an unbiased jury in fevered public circumstances such as those surrounding the Pell affair (which resembled Salem in 1692 or France during the 1894 Dreyfus case).

In the State of Victoria, a criminal charge of sexual abuse can be brought to trial solely on the word of a complainant. No physical evidence of abuse having occurred is required; neither is any form of corroboration. This requires re-examination, and not just in Australia.

The Crown prosecutor’s case against Cardinal Pell rested on the credibility of the complainant and nothing else. The two judges whose appellate decision last summer upheld the cardinal’s conviction cited a similar credibility criterion as decisive. There is something seriously wrong here, though. Complainant credibility should be the beginning of a chain of legal reasoning, not the end of the matter. For if “credibility” is the only criterion to be considered, then no real defense is possible against a charge of sexual abuse (or any other charge, for that matter).

Raising one criterion of legal judgment, complainant credibility, to the sole criterion of judgment renders a defendant guilty prima facie – and that dismantles two of the pillars of a just criminal law: presumption of innocence, and the state’s obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The High Court decision strongly objected to this narrow focus of judgment, as did Justice Mark Weinberg in his brilliant dissent from last August’s mistaken appellate decision. Other jurists and legal practitioners throughout the world should pay close attention. Otherwise, sentiment will replace reason in adjudicating criminal cases, and that is effectively the end of the rule of law.

Media irresponsibility is not just a problem in Australia. ABC, however, has set a new standard for viciousness in its ongoing campaign of defamation against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Pell – a campaign that reached new depths of ugliness even as the High Court was considering its decision. And ABC is a public-funded, state-owned broadcast service. Some hard thinking about the public responsibility of public broadcasters is thus in order throughout the world. No one has a free speech or freedom-of-the-press right to engage in willful defamation of character, and certainly not at taxpayer expense.

Cardinal Pell has been vindicated, but others matters of consequence remain unsettled. It can only be hoped that the cardinal’s acquittal helps both Church and state think more clearly, and act more justly, when faced with the grave crime of sexual abuse.

COMING UP: Embracing the kind of redeemer God appointed

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The Gospel readings of Lent remind us that opposition to Jesus and his mission frequently grew out of the desire for a redeemer who was more like what various characters in the drama thought a redeemer should be.

Jesus’s fellow-townsmen reject him because they can’t imagine a messiah whose relatives are all around them. In Jerusalem, the upper crust rejects Jesus and his claims because he’s from the Galilean boondocks: “A messiah from Galilee? Please. We had something else in mind.” The Sadducees reject Jesus because he challenges their notion of the Temple as the privileged locus of God’s presence, while the Pharisees object to his understanding of the Mosaic Law. The Twelve, along with Martha and Mary, miss the point when Jesus deliberately delays his visit to Bethany so that the glory of God may be revealed in his raising Lazarus from the dead. Then the final, degrading insults come on Calvary. There, Jesus writhes in agony and struggles for breath on a cross surmounted by the mocking Roman inscription, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum [Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews], while passersby hurl taunts – “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35).

Notwithstanding the “Suffering Servant” canticles of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’s contemporaries found the idea of a messiah who would redeem Israel through his suffering (especially suffering unto death) implausible, bordering on ridiculous. Surrounded by misery, including such horrors as leprosy and demonic possession, these men and women had difficulty imagining that the Chosen One would manifest God’s glory through the suffering that was ubiquitous in their time and place. Our contemporaries often have a different problem: because suffering is typically kept distant, sheltered in special facilities, western culture tends to forget that suffering is an irreducible part of the human condition and that suffering teaches us something important about us.

Throughout his long life, St. John Paul II knew suffering from the inside. In the 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris [Redemptive Suffering], he invited the Church to look deeply into the mystery of suffering – a meditation especially apt in this plague time.

Animals feel pain, John Paul noted, but only men and women suffer. So suffering, even great physical suffering, has an inner or spiritual character; suffering touches our souls, not just our nervous systems. That is why the Bible is “a great book about suffering” (in John Paul’s striking phrase). And while the Scriptures contain many accounts of profound suffering, the Bible also teaches that “love…is the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering.” That was the truth to which Isaiah prophetically pointed in the “Suffering Servant” songs. To grasp that truth fully, however, humanity needed more than images or arguments; a demonstration was required.

That demonstration, Salvifici Doloris teaches, was what God ordained “in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

There the Son, giving himself without reservation to the Father’s plan of redemption, took the world’s evil upon himself and immolated it in perfect self-sacrifice to the divine will. On the cross, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, the Son freely bore “all that the Father finds loathsome,” and did so in order to “clear out all the refuse of the world’s sins by burning it in the fire of suffering love.” At Calvary, the divine wrath at the world’s wickedness coincides with the divine mercy, determined to heal all that evil has broken or disfigured. On Calvary, the purifying fire of divine love reaches into history and transforms everything in this world that seems to stand against love, including suffering and death.

To embrace the cross is to embrace the logic of salvation as God has established that logic, not as we might design things. God’s “demonstration” does not end on Good Friday, however. It continues through Holy Saturday until the full meaning of “redemption” is revealed on Easter.

There, in the Risen Lord who manifests what Benedict XVI called an “evolutionary leap” – a new and supercharged mode of human life – we encounter the supreme demonstration of the divine logic of redemption. There, in the “Lamb….[who] had been slain” (Revelation 5:6) but who is now gloriously, radiantly alive, we meet God’s triumph over death itself and over all that is death-dealing in the world. There, we meet the redeemer God ordained:

Jesus…has become a high priest forever…For all eternity he lives and intercedes for us…there is no limit to his power to save all who come to God through him. (First Responsory,  Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent, from Hebrews 6:19-20, 7:24-25).