The Pell case: Developments down under

George Weigel

In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images

COMING UP: A Christian gentleman in the nation’s capital

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[On May 8, the Library of Congress and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars co-hosted a tribute to Dr. James H. Billington, who died last November 20. Billington was instrumental in bringing me to Washington during his service as director of the Wilson Center and we remained friends throughout his historic tenure as the 13th Librarian of Congress. As Librarian, Jim Billington vastly extended the reach of what is arguably the world’s greatest repository of knowledge. It was an unremarked aspect of his character, however, that I underscored in my contribution to the May 8 tribute.]

Clement Attlee once described Winston Churchill as akin to a layer cake: one never knew which layer of his personality would be displayed at a given moment — the 17th-century Churchill, imaginatively riding across the battlefields of Europe with his great ancestor, Marlborough; the 18th-century Churchill, standing in Parliament alongside Edmund Burke; the man born into 19th-century aristocracy at Blenheim Palace; the colossus of the democratic 20th century; or the visionary of the 21st century.

Jim Billington was similarly multi-layered in terms of accomplishments. To the rich array of his talents already described this morning, I would add one from my Wilson Center experience with him in 1984-85: His singular ability to enter any conversation and ask the one, penetrating question that got everyone thinking in a fresh way — no mean accomplishment among high-powered academics, who may doubt the pope’s infallibility, but not their own. In terms of character, though, I would highlight today what three and a half decades of friendship taught me was the deepest “layer” of Jim Billington — the layer that made all the other layers (the husband and father, the scholar, the public official, the diplomat, even the TV star) possible, and that made the man so compelling: Jim Billington was a Christian gentleman.

Once familiar, that character type is all the more precious for being somewhat rare today. So at a moment when some in our public life cannot bring themselves to use the word “Christian” to describe those murdered in Sri Lankan churches on Easter, while others weaponize faith for partisan purposes, let us remember, and be grateful for, the example of Jim Billington, Christian gentleman: A man in whom faith enlarged and amplified reason, while reason purified and deepened faith. With Pope Saint John Paul II, Jim Billington knew that (as John Paul put it), “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” And in his gentlemanly, Christian way, Jim Billington tried to help Washington understand that, in his service at the Wilson Center and at the Library of Congress.

Secure in his basic Christian conviction, Jim Billington was a man of great books who knew that a book’s greatness is based, not on aspects of its author’s identity, but on that author’s ability to unveil deep truths about the human condition. And from the great books, Jim Billington learned, and tried to help others learn, that the civilizational enterprise we call the West — including the American democratic experiment — has roots that ran far deeper than the Enlightenment, roots that reach back to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: to biblical religion, its teaching about the dignity of the human person, and its Exodus-informed conviction that life is adventure and pilgrimage, not cyclical repetition or meaningless absurdity; to the ancient Greek conviction that reason can get at the truths that are built into the world and into us; and to the Ciceronian conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force.

Inviting as many as possible into that great, multi-faceted civilizational conversation, in as many venues as possible and through as many instruments as were available, was Jim Billington’s grand strategy for the Library of Congress. It was a commitment forged by both faith and reason. And the accomplishment we remember and honor today was the accomplishment of a Christian gentleman, whose deepest convictions opened him up to serious conversation with everyone else.

At a moment in our national history when convictions tend to create silos rather than robust and thoughtful debates, it is good to remember the example of a man of faith and reason whose convictions created genuine human encounters, real conversations that broke out of zero-sum gamesmanship and enlarged the understanding — and thus the humanity — of everyone involved.