The Holy See and Cardinal Pell

George Weigel

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

COMING UP: Cardinal Pell: Our Dreyfus Case

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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