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Lessons to be Learned from Cardinal Pell’s Case (News Analysis)

April 07, 2020

Sometime early this morning, Australia time, Cardinal George Pell should have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The first psalm in today’s Morning Prayer (43) begins: “Vindicate me, Lord; judge my case against an unholy nation.”

Within a few hours, in Cardinal Pell’s case that prayer would be answered.

Shortly after noon on April 7—Tuesday of Holy Week—Cardinal Pell left Barwon Prison, a free man. He had been behind bars for more than 400 days. During that term he had been denied the opportunity to celebrate Mass. He probably had not read Morning Prayer, because he had been deprived of even his breviary. Prison officials had insisted that he could not receive letters addressed to “Cardinal” Pell; he was treated as a common convict.

Then on April 7 Australia’s top court ruled—in a rare unanimous decision—that the cardinal had been wrongly convicted, and that an appeals court had also erred in upholding the verdict. The High Court reminded Australia, and the world, that an accused man must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And in this case there was never any substantial evidence of guilt.

Throughout his very public trial—a trial that took place first in the Australian media, before it came to the courtroom—Cardinal Pell insisted that he was innocent of the sex-abuse charges that had been lodged against him. That insistence seemed to inflame the passion of a trial-court judge, who imposed a harsh sentence because he saw the cardinal’s claim of innocence as a lack of remorse for the crimes he had allegedly committed.

The cardinal’s conviction—in a second trial, after the first trial resulted in a hung jury (with a majority reportedly leaning toward acquittal)—came after prosecutors hung their entire case on the testimony of a single witness, the prelate’s accuser. There was no physical evidence to support that testimony, no other witnesses to corroborate the accuser’s claims. On the contrary, every other witness at the trial testified not only that the cardinal did not engage in the alleged acts, but that it was physically impossible for him to have been where he was said to have been, to do what he is said to have done.

Incredibly, an appeals court upheld the conviction, reasoning that the accuser’s testimony was credible, and therefore dismissing all defense testimony. The dissenter in the appeals court’s 2-1 decision pointed out that the majority had turned the ordinary burden of proof on its head, and ruled that the accused had failed to provide conclusive proof of his innocence.

’Acting rationally’

Today’s ruling from the High Court vindicates that dissenter, Justice Mark Weinberg, as well. It is unusual for the High Court to rule unanimously against an appeals-court decision. But in their 7-0 ruling, Australia’s top justices found that “their Honours’ analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place.” In fact, the High Court found, the evidence presented at trial “required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt.”

The jury did not act rationally, then. Nor did the appeals court. Nor, for that matter, did the prosecutors in Victoria who began to mount a case against Cardinal Pell even before there was a single complaint, and pursued the case relentlessly even in the absence of evidence. Cardinal Pell had become a target of hatred, a scapegoat for the failures of the Australian hierarchy to curb clerical abuse. His case had become, as I remarked after the appeals-court ruling, “Australia’s version of the Dreyfus affair,” in which “the ruling class decided that it was better to betray an innocent man than to admit an injustice.”

The victim of his injustice, Cardinal Pell himself, has been admirably serene throughout his ordeal. Rather than complaining about his confinement, the cardinal said that he was using his time in jail as an “extended retreat.” He refused to engage in polemics and urged his supporters to have faith in the Australian justice system—showing a confidence that few of those supporters shared. “I hold no ill will toward my accuser,” he said after the High Court ordered his release. “I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.” He continued:

However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.

Mixed reactions

The Vatican welcomed the cardinal’s acquittal, in a statement noting that it “has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority.” The statement noted that Cardinal Pell had always asserted his innocence, and said that the Vatican “has waited for the truth to be ascertained.”

Unfortunately the High Court decision did not fully ascertain the truth of Cardinal Pell’s guilt or innocence; it merely ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify a guilty verdict. So the cardinal’s implacable foes can—and undoubtedly will—continue to presume his guilt. The Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests was “dismayed and heartbroken” by the High Court’s ruling. Voice of the Faithful lamented “decisions relying less on presumed guilt or innocence and more on technicalities judges determine to carry more weight than a jury’s decision.” Thus the weight of evidence is a “technicality” that ideologues will dismiss.

Authorities in Victoria, the state that brought the case against Cardinal Pell, were more measured in their reactions. Premier Daniel Andrews declined to comment on the High Court ruling, but reassured every abuse victim—a category that would presumably include the cardinal’s accuser—that “I believe you.” The Victoria Police released a statement promising that they would “respect the decision of the High Court matter and continue to provide support to those complainants involved;” they said nothing about the man who had spent more than a year in prison on an insupportable charge.

Even the cardinal’s colleagues in the Australian Catholic hierarchy were lukewarm in their reactions. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, acknowledged that the High Court ruling “will be welcomed by many,” but added that it “will be devastating for others.” Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, in his own statement, first offered his sympathy to the cardinal’s accuser and only then added that he would “acknowledge Cardinal Pell who has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout.” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney proffered much stronger support for the cardinal, saying that the High Court decision “confirms his conviction was wrong.” Archbishop Fisher rightly observed that the case “has not just been a trial of Cardinal Pell, but also for our legal system and culture.”

Unfinished business

Cardinal Pell is now a free man, but he is a man without a full-time position. He has been relieved of his duty as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a post that he had used to instill fear in the hearts of money-changers around the Vatican. He is no longer a member of the powerful Council of Cardinals, and since he is over the normative retirement age of 75 he will not be re-appointed (although four of the six current members of that body are also over 75). He has been effectively sidelined from his old position of power in Rome.

In February 2019, after the jury trial that resulted in the cardinal’s conviction, the Vatican opened its own inquiry into the sex-abuse charge. That investigation has been delayed, pending the final result of the Australian courts’ deliberations. It should now be wrapped up quickly—providing that the cardinal’s rivals within the Vatican do not insist on stringing out the process.

But before the books are closed on this remarkable miscarriage of justice, one more investigation should be undertaken, to ascertain whether it was purely coincidental that the campaign to indict Cardinal Pell in Australia, and thus remove him from active involvement in Rome, was launched just at the time when he was threatening to expose powerful and corrupt business interests around the Vatican.


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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 08, 2020 10:51 AM ET USA

    @shrink To you question: how much Chinese Communist money is floating through Vatican bank accounts? How about 30 pieces of silver.

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Apr. 07, 2020 6:38 PM ET USA

    I do not believe this paragraph is accurate: "Unfortunately the High Court decision did not fully ascertain the truth of Cardinal Pell’s guilt or innocence; it merely ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify a guilty verdict." At paragraph 127 the High Court also stated "...there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted." It is very rare for the High Court to make such statements.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 07, 2020 5:55 PM ET USA

    Excellent brief, and excellent question at the end. We know from the earliest days of the Church, that religious betrayal is tied to greed—call it the Judas effect. Let's start with looking at the rats who turned on Pell, and then pivot to find out how much Chinese Communist money is floating through Vatican bank accounts.