While I did not know Australian Cardinal George Pell, who died last week at age 81, his ordeal of recent years has had a profound impact on me.
Assisting with research at the Catholic League as his case unfolded, I became convinced that Cardinal Pell was the target of a scandalous injustice. Now, reading his extraordinary three volume Prison Journal, I am deeply touched by his Christ-like humility and steadfast resolve in the face of unrelenting attacks, false accusations of the most heinous sort, wrongful conviction and imprisonment, before finally being fully exonerated.
I will delve more into that journal’s inspiring spiritual witness in my next post.
For now, some observations on Cardinal Pell’s legal ordeal: the charges against him, the conduct of Australia’s legal authorities, the venom of his attackers.
The accusations, that he sexually abused minors, were never credible. Most were dropped before trial, and those retained—alleged abuse of two teen-age choir boys in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral immediately following a jam-packed Sunday Mass in 1996—were rendered implausible by the setting, lack of privacy, and the testimony of numerous witnesses as to the Cardinal’s very public whereabouts at the time in question. One of the choir boys had told his mother, years before he died in 2014, that no such abuse had taken place. And the lone accuser altered details as his original narrative began to unravel.
To those prosecuting Pell in the court of public opinion—media, assorted anti-Catholics and anti-Pell Catholics, some abuse victim advocates—his actual guilt or innocence was never really the point. Cardinal Pell was the face of the Catholic Church in Australia, and the Catholic Church—while culpable but hardly alone—was being made the face of Australia’s sexual abuse scandal. That Pell, as Melbourne’s Archbishop in 1996, established one of the earliest and most aggressive responses to clergy sexual abuse, was of no import to those whose agenda was less the protection of children than the discrediting of a man whose “unflinching defense of Catholic teaching on issues like marriage and human sexuality” made him a target of “secularists and social progressives,” as Catholic news site The Pillar observes.
There is also the murky question of Pell’s trial in Australia derailing his work in Rome as Pope Francis’ point man investigating Vatican financial corruption. “All the major agents for financial reform at the Vatican were attacked, especially in the press,” Pell wrote in Volume 1 of his Prison Journal, “and a number of these senior figures in Rome feel my Australian problems are connected there. We have no proof of such a connection,” he wrote, “although I do not discount the possibility.”
Nor do I, especially after revelations that Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of the Vatican operatives now on trial for financial misdeeds, sent more than $2 million in Vatican funds to Australia during Pell’s trial. Becciu’s lawyer said the transaction was “classified and couldn’t be possibly commented on.” Becciu denied the funds had anything to do with Pell. But according to Catholic News Agency, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, a former senior official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, said the funds were sent to the Australian Bishops’ Conference specifically for Pell’s expenses during his trial and imprisonment. The Australian Conference of Bishops, according to CNA, disputed that claim, saying it “did not receive the money.”
Hard not to be suspicious amid such glaring contradictions.
The legal process against Pell in the Australian state of Victoria gave new meaning to the term “kangaroo court.” The police, without any complaints against Pell, initiated an investigation in 2013; then extended it, with additional funding, two years later, still absent any complaints against Pell. Why such an open-ended fishing expedition? According to Catholic News Agency, emails exchanged between senior police officers in Victoria discussed how the Pell investigation could be used to generate headlines that would distract media and public attention away from a major breaking scandal about to engulf the police force. Here again, it appears another agenda, not the pursuit of justice, was at work.
Pell’s first trial ended in a hung jury, reportedly with a vote of 10-2 for acquittal. A second trial, convened almost immediately (although Pell’s accuser reportedly did not want it), delivered up the conviction desired by Pell’s persecutors. Pell’s defense team was not allowed to offer any evidence to impugn the accuser’s credibility, though there was much in his background to sow doubts about his truthfulness.
A Victoria Court of Appeals panel upheld Pell’s conviction by a 2-1 vote. However, in a detailed, 200 page dissent, Justice Mark Weinberg, identified by commentator Andrew Bolt as Australia’s “greatest authority on criminal law,” found the guilty verdict “impossible to accept.”
“There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense,” Weinberg wrote of the accuser’s testimony. Moreover, he noted, the prosecution offered no evidence to corroborate that testimony, nor any refutation of the more than 20 defense witnesses who testified to the implausibility of the accusations.
Ultimately, Australia’s highest court overturned Pell’s conviction by a unanimous 7-0 vote, stating that any jury “acting rationally” would not have convicted the Cardinal.
Likewise, a public and media “acting rationally” would not have presumed His Eminence guilty solely on the basis of the weak, and easily contradicted, claims of the accuser; the apparently corrupt motives of the Victorian police; and the anti-Catholic motives and personal animosity toward Pell of so many of his persecutors.
Following his conviction, media delighted in referring to “the disgraced Cardinal Pell.” Do they now refer to “the disgraced Victoria legal system,” “the disgraced Victoria police,” “the disgraced secular media”? Of course not; even though all of them were indeed disgraced when the high court thoroughly debunked Pell’s unjust conviction.
His persecutors still do not acknowledge Cardinal Pell’s innocence, because the truth has never been their goal. Destroying this man, the Church he served, and the moral values he defended, was always their real agenda.