For a brief moment in the summer of 2018, there was a glimmer of unity in the fractured Catholic Church as the faithful, left, right and center, joined in outrage over another round of revelations of past crimes and misdeeds by priests, and even retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
That unity didn’t last long. Within weeks, the Catholic right and their media outlets were weaponizing the abuse crisis to target gays and their ideological foes while turning a blind eye to the obvious or potential sins of their friends and allies, and they used the McCarrick case to leverage an anti-Francis ambush by the disgruntled former curialist, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Now the news that an Australian court has denied Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on sex abuse charges has sent conservatives into a veritable frenzy as they pull out all the stops to defend the former Melbourne archbishop and, more recently, Vatican finance minister. The original verdict, and now the denied appeal, were seen as landmarks in the effort to hold Catholic Church officials accountable, no matter how important they are, and to reform the ecclesiastical system and culture that fostered abuse and their cover-up.
That’s not how Pell’s friends saw it. There are certainly arguments that could be made on behalf of the 78-year-old cardinal, and they were made – and they were rejected by jurors and judges alike. Yet Pell’s pals were convinced that this was the greatest miscarriage of justice since the Dreyfus affair, and evidence of a rising tide of anti-Catholicism akin to the persistence of anti-Semitism. Pell, they claimed, is a martyr who was being targeted because he is an outspoken conservative and defender of traditional Catholic teaching, and they demanded his canonization. Santo subito!
“The testimony used to convict Thomas More was more plausible than that used to convict [Cardinal] Pell,” tweeted Edward Peters, a canon law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The charges against Cardinal Pell were so outrageous as to be utterly impossible,” Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote in the National Catholic Register, a conservative site prominent in campaigns against Pope Francis.
The Pell verdict was also invoked for political ends. “Catholics cannot expect just and fair treatment at the hands of our liberal elite,” Matthew Schmitz wrote in First Things, blaming “a spasm of anti-Catholic hysteria, whipped up by the Australian media and encouraged by law enforcement.” It was a line echoed by his wife, Julia Yost, in an eye-popping column in the New York Post that blamed a “campaign of misinformation and demonization carried out against [Pell] by Australia’s liberal media and legal elites.”
Pell’s allies attacked the victim, who the Victoria court’s chief called a compelling “witness of truth,” and they derided the case as based solely on one man’s testimony with no corroborating witnesses or evidence, and one that dealt with events more than 20 years ago in the unlikely setting of a cathedral sacristy after Mass. Those arguments ignore the fact that most abuse cases only surface long after the fact – traumatized 13-year-old choirboys are not known for running to the police – or that most abuse cases rest on a victim’s testimony and credibility. And abusers are by definition risk takers who do not act as rationally as most of us would – because most of us do not sexually abuse children.
Indeed, the case against Pell is remarkably similar to the one that brought down McCarrick: a 2017 claim that McCarrick had sexually molested an altar boy in the 1970s after Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was what triggered the Vatican investigation of him. There was no end to the digital ink that Catholic conservatives spilled in highlighting McCarrick’s case and his guilt, and using the case to bash Francis – who in fact launched the investigation of McCarrick, stripped him of his cardinal’s rank and eventually had him defrocked. “Conservative Catholics were quick to embrace the charges leveled against McCarrick, even without a trial verdict,” Michael Sean Winters wrote in a sharp column for the National Catholic Reporter. “Why accept the allegations against McCarrick so readily, while maintaining Pell's innocence?”
The reality is that whatever one thinks about Pell’s guilt or innocence, the case against him, in church terms, is at least as strong as the case against McCarrick was. Pell was accused of abuse numerous other times over the years, and if, as The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb reported, none of the others went to trial for various reasons, all could come into play as the Vatican decides whether to strip him of his ecclesiastical rank and privileges. Lamb also rounds up the repeated instances of Pell’s insensitive and even bullying treatment of victims when he was bishop, and his actions that may have shielded abusers – and which could lead to church discipline.
At its heart, however, the most troubling aspect of the reaction to the Pell verdict is not that they are using it to promote their political agenda or indulge their persecution complex. It’s that Pell’s allies have used a plausible allegation of sex abuse as a loyalty test for a friend and ideological ally.
Conservative commentator George Weigel, for example, who after Pell’s appeal was denied compared the Australian justice system to “the Soviet Union under Stalin,” has been one of Pell’s fiercest and angriest defenders – because the two men have been buddies for more than 50 years. Weigel loves and trusts Pell, and they share a conservative outlook that sees liberals as enemies to be vanquished by an “orthodox” band of brothers who are convinced of their own rectitude and see accusations like those against Pell as “gross falsehoods” that shouldn’t even be entertained.
This is dangerous. Remember it was Weigel and his fellow travelers in conservative Catholic circles who were the fiercest defenders of horrific abusers like Legion of Christ founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. For years they repeatedly downplayed reports of clergy abuse while vilifying the media. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, famously said that giving the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe for the clergy abuse reporting “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”
One would think the ensuing 15 years of hard experience should have encouraged a sense of epistemic humility, and a sense of charity for victims. Yet today these conservatives still too often turn a blind eye to serious allegations about their friends and allies while targeting their foes for relentless coverage.
As a result, the crisis has become another wedge issue rather than a rallying point for all Catholics to protect “the least of these.” George Pell is obviously a generous and loyal friend to those who are generous and loyal to him. Of course they don’t think he is abuser; he doesn’t abuse them. On the other hand, as those beyond his circle of trust know too well, the cardinal can be gratuitously bullying and abusive. That doesn’t make him a sex abuser.
Pell’s guilt or innocence are not dependent on your own view of him. Knee-jerk loyalty is as dangerous as reflexive bias. Much blame for the clergy sex abuse crisis has been set at the foot of clericalism, the notion that priests benefit from a kind of “old boys” network of fellow clerics who cover for each other no matter what.
But the blind faith that so many lay Catholics have placed in George Pell show that clericalism, alas, is not just for clerics.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.