Catholics and non-Catholics around the world are justly outraged by the crimes and coverups of the Church’s hierarchy. But our concern for justice should also lead us to protest when men are falsely convicted. Today, Australia’s George Cardinal Pell sits in a Melbourne prison, awaiting the outcome of a hearing to appeal his recent conviction on five counts of child sexual abuse. (A decision may be rendered any time within the next month.) If there is justice down under, his appeal will succeed.
Pell is accused of having discovered two choirboys drunk on communion wine in the sacristy of the Melbourne Cathedral during a procession after Mass one Sunday in 1996, and forcing each to perform oral sex on him in front of an open door, while he was garbed in his liturgical vestments. These accusations have not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, nor can they be. As the defense pointed out at trial: The Cathedral’s communion wine was kept locked in a safe; Pell was always accompanied by multiple attendants when at the Cathedral; the sacristy, and the hallway outside its open door, would have been bustling with eyewitnesses; Pell could not have absented himself from the public proceedings without throwing them into disarray, which witnesses attest never happened; witnesses attest, too, that the boys never left the procession that day; it is physically impossible to perform oral sex on a man clad in an archbishop’s liturgical vestments; one of the boys, speaking to his mother years later, denied ever having experienced any form of sex abuse; he has since died and so is unable to contradict the accuser, on whose uncorroborated testimony rests the prosecution’s entire case.
The case against Pell is so shaky that even his theological and political opponents within the Church received his conviction with or . Pope Francis’s judgment may be from the fact that whereas the American ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been stripped of his priestly faculties, Pell remains a priest and cardinal even in prison.
Australian media that the jury must have found Pell’s accuser fundamentally credible, despite his literally incredible story. But an earlier jury, presented with the same video testimony, had been less convinced. That jury reportedly voted 10-2 for acquittal, resulting in a mistrial. That result should have been ominous for supporters of Pell: In the Australian climate, any jury that could not hang Pell would hang itself.
Pell has been a bogeyman in Australia for twenty years, thanks to his high-profile conservatism on issues of sexuality, economics, and the environment. The Victoria police began investigating him for sex abuse in 2013, before any complaint had been filed. Two years into their “trawling operation,” the Cathedral story emerged. Several other allegations, even less credible, emerged and have been dismissed.
In May 2017, weeks before Pell’s charging, Louise Milligan’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell appeared. A of police theories, Cardinal nonetheless won several of Australia’s major journalism awards. (Australia’s literary establishment, part of what Les Murray called “the ascendancy,” is always eager to disguise its provincialism by being demonstratively progressive.) After Pell’s charging, a court-ordered media blackout prevented the publication of any rebuttals.
Throughout Cardinal, Milligan expresses hostility to Catholic sexual teaching and casts Pell as its arch-spokesman. She appears to view his case as an opportunity to discredit a sexual ethic she detests. Her following the announcement of his conviction—“He spent his days telling the rest of us how we ought to live our lives, and now, here he was, scratching out his signature on the sex-offender register”—suggests the same.
The Australian newsmedia greeted Pell’s conviction gleefully, and their bloodthirstiness may be part of his salvation. The three judges now entertaining his appeal may determine that public hysteria caused the retrial jury to render an “unsafe verdict”—a verdict that could not have been reached rationally. Last year, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide was convicted of covering up sex abuse, then freed on these grounds.
According to the consensus , the appeal hearing went badly for the prosecution. Under stern questioning from the judges about the “wildly improbable” circumstances alleged by the accuser, prosecutor Christopher Boyce was to proposing that if the tale were untrue, it would make sense: “If you are going to make it up … why make it up?” Boyce accounted for the jury’s unaccountable finding by insisting on the nonreplicable “atmosphere” of a trial: “Your honors are not in the same position of the jury. You’re just not. I apologize if I’m not being helpful as I might. Generally a trial has a certain kind of … atmosphere to it.” Guess you had to be there.
It is difficult, in these times, to solicit indignation on behalf of a Catholic cardinal accused of wrongdoing. But all accused cardinals are not the same. McCarrick, for instance, was up to his neck in dirty money. Pell, tasked by Pope Francis with reforming the Vatican’s murky finances, retained PricewaterhouseCoopers to perform an audit in 2015. Opponents of reform the audit the following year—in a development that should have dismayed any foe of corruption, but that Milligan took merely as the occasion for a petty pun: “The cardinal’s wings have been seriously clipped.”
As a Vatican official possessing diplomatic immunity, Pell could have lived out his final years in Rome, at perfect liberty. He instead returned to Australia to stand trial, like a man confident of his innocence and the integrity of the courts. Three judges now have a chance to vindicate the courts by overturning his conviction. Observers around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, liberal and conservative, hope that they will.
Julia Yost is senior editor of First Things.