After Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal on child sex abuse charges earlier this month, there was a momentary hope that this saga might end with the kind of humility that people of good will, not to mention a senior leader of the Catholic Church, ought to bring to such an agonizing episode.
The seven-member High Court of Australia ruled unanimously that the jury that convicted Pell of molesting two choirboys in 1996 after Mass in the Melbourne cathedral should have had reasonable doubt about the allegations. The court said there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.” Pell’s first trial on these charges ended in a hung jury in September 2018, but prosecutors retried the cardinal and the jury in the second trial unanimously agreed on Pell’s guilt in December 2018.
Last August, a divided appeals court ruled 2-1 against Pell’s appeal, but the High Court’s ruling on April 7 to quash the conviction was the final word.
Pell, 78, was immediately freed, having served 13 months of a six-year sentence. The president of the Australian bishops conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, issued a sensitive and carefully worded statement recognizing that the decision would be welcome news for some and “devastating for others,” and he reaffirmed the church’s “unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.” The Vatican, where Pell had spent a stormy tenure as Pope Francis’ point man for reforming Rome’s byzantine finances, struck a similarly balanced tone.
Pell’s initial statement also seemed aimed at reconciliation. “There is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” he said. “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.”
Alas, the peace was fleeting.
Pell and his fan base soon reverted to the form that I described, and lamented, in my previous column here: casting blame on others, deflecting attention from their own faults, picking fights and generally disregarding victim sensitivities. This was not entirely surprising: From his cell last August, and contrary to prison rules and any sense of ecclesial prudence, Pell joined a fierce conservative campaign against the Synod on the Amazon with a broadside that questioned every aspect of Francis’ ministry, from his missionary outreach to the synodal path and his desire for a “Church of the Poor.”
Pell seems unable to help himself, and that he was acquitted during Holy Week proved a temptation too great to resist. “The Lord is close to those who have been unjustly accused,” Pell said in a grainy cellphone video message that he recorded in Italian and sent addressed to his Italian friends for Easter.
This was rich, given that during his time in the Roman Curia, Pell made a point of belittling Italian ways of doing business and even had memos from his office sent around in English, rather than the Italian that is the lingua franca of the Vatican. As Massimo Faggioli put it in Commonweal, Pell’s video was “clearly not aimed at Italian Catholics in the pews, but at prelates in the Vatican, which suggests that he still hopes to recover his standing in Rome or have some sway in shaping the political alignment in the college of cardinals.”
Also on Easter weekend, Pell wrote a column in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian (conservative media in Australia and in the Catholic world have been crucial advocates for Pell) that managed to identify his own suffering with that of Jesus while claiming that, while that abuse crisis was bad for the Catholic Church, “we have painfully cut out a moral cancer and this is good.”
A few days later, in an irresponsible interview on Sky News with conservative provocateur Andrew Bolt, Pell dropped any theological pretensions and went full conspiracy-monger, telling Bolt that the case against him was a “persecution” carried out by liberals and Australian state media because they don’t like Christianity or Pell’s bully brand of social conservativism. “The culture wars are real,” said Pell, who was willingly baited as Bolt tossed him one leading question after another. “There is a systematic attempt to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations, with the examples of marriage, life, gender, sex, and [toward] those who oppose that, unfortunately there's less rational discussion and there's more playing the man.”
His accuser, Pell said, was “used” by these evil forces, and he agreed with Bolt that authorities would continue “trawling for victims” to use against him. The cardinal also said that senor Vatican officials who didn’t like his efforts to clean up curial finances played a role in selling him out to Australian authorities, though he provided no evidence of such a plot. “Just how high up it goes”—meaning corruption in the Vatican—“is an interesting hypothesis,” Pell said. Well.
Pell’s conservative allies in the church never needed much encouragement to amplify such views, and they quickly piled on, pointing to the “psychological problems” of Pell’s chief accuser (the other alleged victim died of a drug overdose years ago) and describing Pell’s prosecutors as a “lynch mob.” They called for a government investigation of both Australian media and “corrupt” law enforcement, and they repeatedly depicted Pell’s treatment as the result of an anti-Catholicism that was at least equal to traditional anti-Semitism. “If Pell was a rabbi instead of a cardinal, he wouldn’t have spent a single night in prison,” wrote Michael Warren Davis.
A thread running through all of this commentary is that Pell was “innocent.” Certainly, Pell may well have been innocent of this crime, and there were good, and sober, arguments on his behalf. But as the New York Times detailed, the Australian justice system is so opaque that no one except the judges and the jury saw all the evidence and heard all the testimony, making outside judgments inherently uncertain.
Moreover, this was not the only accusation against Pell, or the only example of his dire response to clergy abuse accusations. Prosecutors could reopen a case involving even earlier abuse accusations against Pell, from when he was a priest—a case that was shut down once he was convicted of the other charges. There are also at least eight civil suits against Pell, and now that Pell’s appeal has run its course, the redacted sections of a Royal Commission study of the Australian church’s record on clergy abuse may now be published. The relevant sections had been blacked out during Pell’s prosecution because they concern his role as a priest advising the bishop of Ballarat about how to handle abusive priests, and later, about how he handled abusive priests when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Even what is publicly known about Pell’s record overseeing abusive priests and dealing with victims is unsightly. Further revelations could put him in jeopardy not only with Australian authorities but also with the Vatican’s new anti-abuse procedures. As Michael Sainsbury wrote in La Croix, “no matter what the Holy See decides to do, or not do, George Pell will certainly remain tied up in legal knots for many years to come.”
That means George Pell will also be forever in the arena, a prospect that should frighten Australian Catholics who are preparing for a plenary council this October—a synodal process of the sort that Pell disdains—in an effort to promote reform and chart a new path for the country’s church. Pell’s prominence and support in some sectors in Rome are also worrisome for those who believe the church needs to open itself to self-examination, repentance and change.
The aftermath of Pell’s acquittal shows that the cardinal and his allies are stuck in the past, reveling in battles with ideological foes without seeing that they are their own worst enemies, and that the real casualty of such warfare is the Gospel itself. Sure, there is bias against the church and deep-seated anger among Catholics as much as the liberal secular elite conservatives love to hate. Who wouldn’t be angry at what church leaders were doing to cover up abuse while preaching about the sinfulness of others?
But casting Pell as the victim, and being reflexively offensive in your public witness and defensive about the institutional church, are the attitudes that got us into this scandal in the first place.
Yes, George Pell may have been acquitted in this case. But as his post-vindication conduct has shown, the church’s trials, and his, are anything but over.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.