Cardinal Pell: Our Dreyfus Case

In December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French Army was convicted of treason on the grounds that he had given military secrets to France’s mortal enemy, Germany. The charge was false; Dreyfus, a Jew, was framed. His trial was surrounded by mass hysteria and people with no grasp of the facts celebrated when Dreyfus was condemned to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, the horrors of which were vividly captured in the film Papillon.

The Dreyfus Affair roiled French politics for the better part of a generation, pitting “Dreyfusards” (mainly secularist and republican) against anti-Dreyfusards (primarily royalist and Catholic). The stench of anti-Semitism hung over it all; one Catholic who refused to succumb to that ancient psychosis was Pope Leo XIII, who told the editor of the Paris newspaper Figaro that Dreyfus’s suffering reminded him of Calvary. In 1906, the Dreyfusards saw their man vindicated, but the wounds in French society caused by the Dreyfus Affair remained open and festering long after Dreyfus returned to the army and served honorably in World War I.

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell in December 2018 on charges of “historic sexual abuse” is this generation’s Dreyfus Affair.

Ever since those charges were laid a year and a half ago, an atmosphere of public hysteria, fueled by secularist anti-Catholicism, has surrounded the case. That hysteria was intensified by the global Catholic sex abuse crisis, despite the fact that Cardinal Pell had been the leading Australian bishop fighting sex abuse. It is inconceivable that this Dreyfus-like public atmosphere did not have a distorting effect on Cardinal Pell’s two trials. Though the trials were held under an Australian media blackout, irrationality and venom, stoked by media bias, had already done their work.

The cardinal’s first trial last fall ended in a hung jury that voted 10-2 for acquittal (the jury foreman wept on reporting the deadlock). The second trial, amazingly, ended with a 12-0 verdict for conviction: even though the accuser’s charges were never corroborated by anyone; even though police incompetence in investigating the alleged scene of the crime was fully demonstrated; and even though the cardinal’s defense showed that 10 implausible things would have had to occur simultaneously, within a carefully controlled space of Melbourne’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, for the charges to be true.

There are obvious dissimilarities between the Dreyfus affair and the Pell case: Dreyfus was defended by secular people, while the attacks on George Pell over the past quarter-century have come, in the main, from aggressive secularists. The unhinged loathing of French royalists and anti-Semites for the Jewish bogeyman Alfred Dreyfus is, however, ominously similar to the unhinged loathing of secular progressives for the bogeyman George Pell. Dreyfus embodied the fears and hatreds of royalist Frenchmen still fighting against the French Revolution; Cardinal Pell embodies what the cultural and political left in Australia fears and hates: Christian doctrinal and moral orthodoxy, including the robust defense of the right to life from conception until natural death and a commitment to marriage rightly understood. Further, Pell compounded his offenses in the eyes of his enemies by relishing public debates in which he challenged the shibboleths of the politically correct on everything from climate change to the New Atheism.

To the anti-Dreyfusards, Captain Alfred Dreyfus had no business in the French Army and was unfit to participate in a properly ordered French society; so he had to be destroyed. According to those who created a rancid public atmosphere in Australia, in which a 10-2 verdict for acquittal could be flipped to a unanimous verdict for conviction on uncorroborated and unproven charges, Cardinal George Pell must be destroyed, so that Australia’s revolution of lifestyle libertinsm and political progressivism can proceed, unimpeded.

Cardinal Pell is now in jail awaiting sentencing, after which he will appeal his unwarranted and unjust conviction. Anyone who cares about justice, be they religious or not, must hope that the appellate panel of judges concludes that Pell’s conviction was what Australian law calls an “unsafe verdict” – one the jury could not rationally have reached on the evidence. Yet even if justice is done and Cardinal Pell is freed, Australia, and the rest of the West, is going to have to think long and hard about how this travesty could have happened – just as France did after the Dreyfus Affair.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA

COMING UP: Fifty years of friendship with Cardinal Pell

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, my pastor when I was growing up in Baltimore, was a striking character: Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; former Wall Street broker; high-ranking Army chaplain in World War II; world traveler; founding rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The latter two roles led to some creative thinking about arranging “coverage” at the cathedral during the summer, when he could be found abroad: one by one and year by year, Msgr. Whelan brought to Baltimore newly-ordained Australian priests who had studied in Rome, wanted to visit the U.S., and could use some money.

And so, precisely fifty years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967 he had become a fast friend of my family. Little did he nor I know that the next half-century would lead us into the same foxholes in various ecclesiastical battles; or to a shared friendship with a Polish priest, pope, and saint; or into synods, consistories, papal elections, and other adventures. We’re both a little slower and a little heavier than we were in the summer of ’67, when, if memory serves, I helped introduce the future cardinal to Frisbee at the beach. But the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.

That summer, Father Pell was heading for doctoral studies in history at Oxford after ordination in Rome from the Pontifical Urban University (horsemeat was a staple on the menu in his day). His intellectual gifts might have marked him out for a scholarly career. But Providence (and John Paul II) had other plans, and rather than teaching history full-time, George Pell made history, becoming the defining figure of 21st-century Catholicism in Australia. 

Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization. Thanks to Pell’s courage in facing-down the Australian forces of Catholic Lite, the Church in Oz today has a fighting chance.

Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has not been cost-free. Australia is a contact-sport country, and that national tendency to hit hard extends to both the Aussie media and to intra-ecclesiastical life. George Pell’s enemies, and their media lapdogs, have not caviled to lie about him for decades. Perhaps the most absurd charge was that this man, whose sartorial style rings up “Salvation Army Thrift Shop,” kept a house full of Church finery to satisfy his vanity. As it happens (and as I wrote at the time), I had just stayed in the cardinal’s house when this nonsense appeared; I hadn’t seen a vestment anywhere, but had noted thousands of books and the current issues of every major opinion journal in the English-speaking world.

More recently, the calumnies have become much darker, as the man who designed and implemented the Australian Church’s first vigorous response to the sexual abuse of the young has been charged with being an abuser. His friends are confident that the charges, like other fanciful allegations the cardinal has consistently denied and of which he has been exonerated, will be shown to be gross falsehoods – not least because we believe Pell is telling the truth when he flatly and forcefully denies the current accusations.

There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions that had become epidemic, ingrained, and virtually institutionalized. Given the stakes and the sleaziness involved, it would not be surprising to learn that some who would be most adversely effected by Pell’s success in Vatican financial reform may have been generating false accusations now in play in the Australian judicial system. Australia, it seems, is not the only place where hardball is played, and in very unsavory forms.

Cardinal George Pell is a big man in every sense of the word and his stamina under assault is entirely admirable. Its deepest root, however, is not his native combativeness but Pell’s faith. Its solidity, and the courage to which that rock-solid faith gives rise, may be what aggravates his foes the most.

It’s also what inspires his legion of friends, among whom I am honored to number myself – for fifty years and counting.