Action Alert!

Vatican showdown

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 01, 2015

What happens when a member of a papal commission engages in irresponsible public criticism of a leading cardinal? We’re about to find out.

Under ordinary circumstances there’s no doubt that Peter Saunders would be quickly dismissed from the papal commission. But in the current atmosphere, such a move would indubitably provoke a chorus of protest, from “the usual suspects” claiming that this was one more effort to silence critics and protect powerful clerics.

The evidence? Who needs evidence?! Once a prelate has been criticized, he is treated as guilty, and anyone who attempts to defend him—by invoking the evidence, say—is condemned as an accomplice.

This is surely the case in Australia, where Cardinal Pell has been hounded by critics, and accusations against him—even when they have been investigated and dismissed—are rehashed incessantly in the headlines. It is rare to find a newspaper article offering a balanced presentation of the facts in his case (and regrettable that one excellent column defending him is behind a paywall.)

In their haste to whip up public hostility toward Cardinal Pell, media outlets in Australia and elsewhere have grotesquely exaggerated the importance of the criticism offered by Peter Saunders on a nationwide television broadcast. “60 Minutes” must have been delighted to learn that Saunders was ready to tear into Cardinal Pell. But a week ago, would the name “Peter Saunders” have meant anything to you at all?

My job requires me to follow Vatican affairs closely, and when Saunders met with Pope Francis, along with other lay members of the papal sex-abuse commission, CWN duly reported on the meeting. But to be honest, his name still was not familiar to me. He was, after all, just one of seventeen members of that commission, and that commission is one of many bodies advising the Pope.

If you read the media headlines, however, you might have a very different idea of how Saunders stands in the Vatican pecking order. The Sydney Morning Herald described him as Pope Francis' specially-appointed commissioner for the protection of children, while the Daily Mail of London identified him as One of Pope Francis’s closest advisors, and 9News went a step further with a headline reference to Pope’s top advisor.

Ironically, while Saunders cannot plausibly be described as a “top advisor” to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell can. So again the question arises: What happens when a minor figure on an advisory commission challenges the integrity of the Pope’s right-hand man? And again the answer: we’re now going to find out.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Jun. 03, 2015 8:11 AM ET USA

    Peter Saunders is not an Australian. He is from the UK and as far as I can ascertain has not met or spoken to Cardinal Pell. You are right that the left media have been gunning for Pell for years. He may not be the easiest to approach individual but when he became Archbishop of Melb he was the first to try and do something about the scandal that he had been left and with the knowledge that many hundreds of victims abounded from the actions of primarily a hand full of sick and evil acting clerics

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jun. 02, 2015 10:30 PM ET USA

    I had always thought that it was the acts of calumny or detraction that were sinful, rather than legal recourse to an unsubstantiated attempt to destroy one's character.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jun. 02, 2015 4:56 PM ET USA

    Excellent article, Phil. I could go on and on here, but I just thought I'd share that you can actually get around the paywall to read the defense of Cardinal Pell by going through Google News. Enter the title "Persecutors of Cardinal George Pell Willfully Ignore History" in Google News and it will give it to you for free.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jun. 02, 2015 12:45 PM ET USA

    If Saunders can substantiate his accusations, he did a wrong by not approaching Cdl. Pell before to clarify. I don't think that an accusation could not be made, but charity demanded that Cdl. Pell be approached before (talk to your brother before taking him to court, or, worse, to the media!). However, if Saunders' accusation is slaundering motivated by personal or ideological animus, I do hope that he is duly disciplined.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 01, 2015 6:07 PM ET USA

    So, who is Peter Saunders?