At last Cardinal Pell can—sort of—face his accusers
If you’re surprised by the criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell, you haven’t been paying attention.
For two years now the Australian cardinal has been the primary focus of an aggressive media campaign, with rumors about a police investigation constantly leaking into the press. Now at last the charges are out in the open—more or less. We know that prosecutors will bring formal charges against Cardinal Pell; we still don’t know exactly what those charges will be.
The cardinal himself was obviously not surprised by the announcement. He had already made arrangements to take a leave of absence from his Vatican duties; he had consulted with doctors about his trip back to Australia to defend himself. (Notice, by the way, that if he chose to duck the prosecution, he could stay at the Vatican, since the Holy See does not have an extradition treaty with Australia.) He knew this was coming. Both his actions and his attitude are consistent with his public statement that he is happy for the opportunity finally to defend his reputation.
Unfortunately the damage is done. If the charges are tossed out of court at the first opportunity, for lack of plausible evidence—as the cardinal’s staunch defenders believe they will be—critics will complain that the case was suppressed. Even if Cardinal Pell could prove with mathematical certainty that he is innocent, he will still be remembered as the cardinal who was accused of sexual abuse. The trial-by-media has already concluded. Public opinon, which does not concern itself with the niceties of the legal process, has already reached a verdict. The cardinal has been found guilty, before he even made his defense—indeed, before the actual charges were made public.
To me it is noteworthy that Cardinal Pell now replaces Cardinal Bernard Law as the Catholic prelate most widely vilified in connection with the sex-abuse scandal. Both cardinals have admitted to mishandling complaints about abuse by other clerics. (In the case of Cardinal Pell, this is separate from the personal complaints against his own conduct, which he steadfastly denies.) But objectively speaking there is much more damning evidence of personal misconduct, and of gross mishandling of complaints, by other prominent prelates. (Archbishop Weakland and Cardinal Danneels come immediately to mind.) Is it a coincidence that liberal Catholic prelates have escaped the torrential media criticism that has engulfed the more conservative Cardinals Law and Pell?
The very public trial of Cardinal Pell is a frightening spectacle, a reminder of how difficult it is to preserve the rights of someone who is accused of a heinous crime, and how easy it is for rumors to ruin a reputation. Let’s pray for a prompt, fair hearing and a clear, just result.
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