The inexplicable conviction of Cardinal Pell
Through bitter experience over the years, I have learned never to proclaim that some trusted figure couldn’t possibly be guilty of sexual abuse. I have learned to wait, to weigh the evidence, and if a court finds the man guilty, to accept that finding.
Since I don’t know the facts, I cannot guarantee that Cardinal George Pell is innocent of the offenses of which he has been convicted in a secret trial. But I can say that a grave injustice has been done, for several reasons.
First, because in a proper legal system, not only is justice done, but justice is seen to be done. The trial of Cardinal Pell, conducted under a court-ordered media blackout, has prevented the world from knowing what evidence was presented against him, what defense was offered. We have only leaked reports: hearsay evidence. If the court had its way, we wouldn’t know that the cardinal had been convicted. To this day we don’t even know what charges were brought against him.
Cui bono? Whose interests were served by this secrecy? Not those of the cardinal’s accusers, who have already come forward. Certainly not those of the cardinal, who had no opportunity to defend his tattered reputation. The general thrust of the charges against Cardinal Pell had been discussed in the Australian media for months before the court imposed a gag order. It was the prosecution that wanted a secret trial. Why? There is no reassuring answer to that question.
Second, because the results of the trial, as they have been recounted to us by several reasonably reliable sources, are not convincing. We have been told that the jurors reached a unanimous decision. But we have also been told that in an earlier trial, in September, the jurors had voted 10-2 to acquit the cardinal, before their failure to render a final verdict led to a new trial. If these reports are accurate (and with all these reports there is no certainty), then the net result of two trials has produced a slim majority in favor of conviction: not a resounding endorsement of the prosecution’s claims.
And heaven knows the prosecution was aggressive. Cardinal Pell has become an unpopular figure in Australia, a convenient scapegoat for the abuse scandal there. It is noteworthy that police opened an investigation of Cardinal Pell, looking for evidence of sexual abuse, before receiving a complaint.
Third, because before the media blackout was imposed, witnesses had testified—and they presumably testified again at the trial—that Cardinal Pell couldn’t have done what he was accused of doing. In most sex-abuse cases, the jury must ultimately weigh the conflicting testimony of accuser and accused, about what did or did not happen when they were alone together. But in this case, priests familiar with the charges insist that it is literally impossible for the cardinal to have been alone with the young men who have accused him. The allegations involve incidents that allegedly took place in the Melbourne cathedral. The cardinal, we are told, was always accompanied by other clerics while he was at the cathedral, he was wearing liturgical robes, and the sacristy that is supposedly the scene of the crimes is open to passersby.
Fourth, because Cardinal Pell has repeatedly denied the charges—not with the sort of bluster that we have come to expect from accused clerics, but with a simple, matter-of-fact insistence that he did no wrong, and a confident (in fact maybe naïve) assertion that he would be vindicated when he had his day in court. Of course guilty men can protest their innocence, too. But I find Cardinal Pell’s denials more convincing than most. Moreover,…
Fifth, the charges against Cardinal Pell are isolated. The alleged incidents in the cathedral, and another allegation dating back to a pool party in the 1970s, are the only complaints that have emerged, through months of aggressive investigation. Is it really plausible that someone who demanded sexual favors from altar boys in the 1990s would have made no other such demands before or after? That such a brazen predator would have no other victims?
In other cases, when a prominent Catholic prelate has been accused of sexual misconduct, other charges have quickly followed. The first accusations against McCarrick, Apuron, Wesolowski, O’Brien, Groer, and others were quickly followed by cascades of other charges; once the first public complaint was lodged, other complaints proliferated. Not in this case.
Maybe he is guilty; I cannot dismiss that possibility. But Cardinal Pell has not acted guilty. His behavior has been unlike that of other convicted prelates, and the case against him has been thoroughly unlike those against other abusers.
Cardinal Pell will have an opportunity to appeal his conviction (and it is noteworthy that an Australian appeals court recently overturned the conviction of another prelate, Archbishop Philip Wilson, in a setback for overzealous prosecutors). But it will be months before his appeal is heard. At 77 years of age, and with a balky heart, the cardinal may not live long enough to enjoy any vindication. He has already been relieved of his post at the Vatican, and is unlikely to receive any new pastoral assignment even if he is finally cleared of all charges. In a word, he has been effectively removed from the scene. And again I find myself asking: Cui bono?
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