On June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, George Cardinal Pell was charged with a range of sexual offenses. The police force in Victoria, Australia, where Pell has lived most of his life as a priest, has been intimating for weeks in the local media that charges were forthcoming. The Victorian police are acting on advice from Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), whose office suggested that charges could be laid.
The DPP has issued a notice to all major Victorian media outlets, warning them that as the case is now sub judice, all reporting must be fair and impartial. That this notice had to be issued at all is a telling indication of just how angry and distorted public commentary on the Pell case has become. Things were different fifteen years ago, the first time Pell was accused of sexual offenses. He stood aside as archbishop of Sydney, was investigated, and was exonerated. His vindication was greeted even in the mainstream media with a sense of relief. Today, the public mood is such that it seems almost impossible for Pell to obtain a fair trial.
Pell’s response to the charges has unsettled those in the blogosphere who—having no idea of Pell’s character—had predicted his seeking sanctuary in the Vatican, and having to be brought back to Australia by extraordinary means to stand trial (Australia currently has no extradition agreement with the Vatican). Pell was unable for health reasons to travel back to Australia some eighteen months ago during the hearings of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse. This fact was greeted with outrage: Australian avant-garde performer Tim Minchin immediately recorded and released “Come Home (Cardinal Pell),” a song consisting mostly of personal abuse, which has enjoyed significant sales.
Yet Pell has refused to take refuge in the nearest crypt—to the bewilderment of those who believe the Church is run along Dan Brown lines. Instead, he immediately responded publicly and personally to the charges, and has said he is looking forward to his day in court. The pope has given him leave from his current role to fight the case, and Pell is seeking medical clearance to fly back to Australia to face the charges in person in mid-July.
How are his fellow bishops handling the news? Pell is known for his conservative theological views, which have not always endeared him to the local bishops’ conference. Back in 2015, when Pell was summoned to appear before the Royal Commission, five archbishops and two bishops wrote an open letter supporting him. Of those seven, at the time of this writing only two—Archbishops Anthony Fisher, O.P. of Sydney and Julian Porteous of Hobart—have renewed that support. Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Pell’s successor and the man closest to the pointy end of this case, has also issued a statement. All these men have known Pell for years; none of them believes he is guilty of these offenses.
How will the case progress? Broken Rites, an Australian organization that has exposed dozens of cases of clerical abuse, describes several possibilities. Pell’s lawyers could split the charges, requiring a series of juries to hear separate cases. This process could take a year, during which time the results of the hearings would be withheld from the media. If Pell’s lawyers were to appeal any adverse decision, the case would take still longer to resolve—perhaps many years.
If Pell is found innocent of all charges, there will be outrage from those who have already found him guilty. It will be seen as yet another miscarriage of justice; another crucifixion of innocent victims by an unfeeling institutional Church, with its expensive lawyers and bottomless reserves of Vatican gold. Pell’s reputation will never recover. He will return to the Vatican and live out his days under a shadow, pending future accusations. He will have had a terrible purification, and the interesting experience (yet again) of finding out just who his real friends are.
If Pell is found guilty of even one charge, the outcome will be almost the mirror-opposite. Those who believe Pell incapable of these offenses will see it as yet another miscarriage of justice; another crucifixion of innocent victims by an unfeeling and anti-Christian legal system, with its expensive lawyers and bottomless reserves of taxpayer money. For Pell personally, the outcome will be disastrous. And if the case becomes mired in process, with no clear outcome and possible abandonment of proceedings, it is hard to see how that will help anyone, either.
This is the tragedy: Pell will have his day in court, yet so little good is likely to come of it, whatever the outcome. Those involved in the sexual abuse crisis in the Church—and we are all involved—are already so polarized that it is increasingly difficult to find any common ground, and thus any way forward. One of the most horrible effects of the sexual abuse crisis is the atmosphere of raw hatred, which arises mostly from genuine anger and disappointment over the fact that sexual abuse has taken place at all, and that we have taken so long to do anything about it. This atmosphere extends far beyond the physical victims, to the hundreds of thousands who have been scandalized.
Scandal causes spiritual death because it annihilates faith, hope, and charity, so very quickly and thoroughly. The Church in Australia and elsewhere has sowed the wind; it is now reaping the whirlwind.
Philippa Martyr is an Australian historian, writer, and commentator.