Earlier today in Australia, a three-judge panel refused to overturn Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on five counts of child sexual abuse. The vote was two to one. Pell was convicted last December, after an earlier mistrial in which ten of the twelve jurors voted to acquit.
It is a shameful day. The conviction of Pell is an outrage—not because he is a cardinal of the Catholic Church, but because the case against him was not proved, and could not be proved, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pell was charged with sexually abusing two thirteen-year-old choirboys on two occasions—in 1996 and 1997. Only one of those boys is still living. The other was asked by his mother in 2001 whether he had “ever been interfered with or touched up.” He answered no.
The one still living claimed that Pell found the two boys drunk on communion wine in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral immediately after Mass one Sunday and forced them to fellate him. The charge is both uncorroborated and implausible. Pell always greeted parishioners immediately after Mass. He was always accompanied in the cathedral by attendants. The vestments he was wearing would have made such an act all but impossible. The communion wine was kept locked in a safe. Choirboys were supervised. The sacristy was bustling after mass.
In short, the charge against Pell can seem plausible only if one is both ignorant of the workings of a cathedral and inclined to accept sensational tales of Catholic crime. Unhappily, both things are true of polite opinion in Australia and across the West.
Sexual abuse is indeed a problem in the Catholic Church—though less so than in some other institutions, including public schools and the family. Clerical abusers generally follow a pattern of grooming, showering favor on their targets and creating favorable opportunities to assault them. The charges against Pell, unlike many of the thoroughly corroborated charges against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, do not fit this pattern. It is interesting to consider that Pell sits in jail while McCarrick walks free.
In her opening remarks, Justice Ann Ferguson said that “there has been vigorous and sometimes emotional criticism of the cardinal and he has been publicly vilified in some sections of the community.” That is an understatement. Pell was convicted amid a spasm of anti-Catholic hysteria, whipped up by the Australian media and encouraged by law enforcement.
Louise Milligan, a journalist for ABC Australia, had written a book charging Pell with a host of lurid crimes. It became a bestseller despite its bad writing and laughable claims—not unlike its clearest predecessor, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. It also won a raft of awards. Meanwhile, prosecutors had been on a fishing expedition, looking for sexual abuse claims specifically against Pell. Is this how justice is supposed to work?
When Pell was finally convicted, Milligan made clear the basis of her hatred for him: “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.” In her eyes, and not only in her eyes, there was a particularly delicious kind of justice in the conviction for sex offenses of a person who had said that sodomy, contraception, and all the rest were sinful.
Her reaction expresses the anti-Catholic belief that the Church’s sexual teaching is bigoted, hateful, and repressive—unlike progressive views on sex, which (as we know) are wonderfully freeing and salutary. The fact that some Catholics agree with Milligan’s views and share in her glee should not shock us. It was a follower of Christ who handed him over to his enemies.
In this heated environment, it is no surprise that two judges found the witness credible. Like the parents at McMartin preschool, they “believe the children.” The lone dissenter, Justice Mark Weinberg, found that “at times, the complainant was inclined to embellish aspects of his account,” and that “his evidence contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies, and otherwise lacked probative value.” Weinberg “could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted.”
It is now clear, if it was not before, that Catholics cannot expect just and fair treatment at the hands of our liberal elite. Paper guarantees of due process and equal rights are of little value in the face of overwhelming prejudice. Regrettably, prejudice of the kind that has put Pell in prison is reliably generated by the liberal order so many Catholics are eager to defend.
Pell’s conviction is damning—not for him, but for those who issued it. Of course, this is not the first time an unjust conviction has shown the hollowness of a whole social order. And Catholics have not always been on the right side in such cases. The scapegoating of Cardinal Pell should redouble our desire to stand for the truth rather than with the crowd, to attend to the facts instead of the cultural politics.
Above all, the injustice Pell has suffered should prompt us to identify with all those who are denied justice, whoever they may be, however far from Catholic practice and belief. Catholics regard their sufferings as an opportunity to identify with Christ. He is present not only in the Eucharist, but also in the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the prisoner. Our efforts for Pell must be efforts for all of them.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.