Anyone who has heard me preach recently knows that I am deeply intolerant of child abuse and disgusted by the abuse scandal in the church. I believe bishops who covered up abuse should be held accountable by the civil realm and thrown into prison. So on the surface you might expect me to be pleased that a Cardinal has finally been found guilty of abuse and incarcerated in Australia. But, like many who have followed the case closely, I am actually troubled because I do not believe abuse has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
What follows is not, therefore, an unquestioning defence of Pell simply because he is Catholic. If he is guilty of historic sex abuse we should lock the man up and throw away the key. What follows is my fear concerning what might prove to be a witch hunt and a serious miscarriage of justice. Which I think should concern anyone, regardless of beliefs, who believes justice should be administered in court based on evidence and not simply hearsay.
The first thing to understand that this case did not begin, as one might expect, with a victim bringing information to the police. Rather it began with the police appealing to the public for people to come forward and accuse the Cardinal of abuse. This within a nation steeped in anti-Catholic sentiment whose media had already turned Cardinal Pell l into a figure of derision. The first alarm bells ring regarding impartiality.
Conspiracy theorists point out that the case rather conveniently materialised just as Cardinal Pell was getting to the heart of serious corruption in the Vatican bank allegedly linked to powerful people. Was he set up to stop him in his tracks? Who knows but even leaving aside the conspiracy theories this case itself is riddled with problems from a judicial standpoint. Let us consider the case itself then.
Two accusers came forward. Both were unstable men, one of whom later confessed to his mother, on his deathbed, that the abuse never, in fact, took place. That left one. So it was, ultimately, one word against another. Now any active policeman or lawyer can tell you that, in normal cases, one word against another is not enough to secure a conviction. Why then was the case not dropped? How did Cardinal Pell end up behind bars on evidence that would have been thrown out of court in almost every other instance?
Then there is the fact that this trial was a re-run. The first jury having acquitted Pell by a vote of 10-2. In Britain this would have been the end of the matter. But instead the case was heard again with a new jury. On what grounds was this done given that no new evidence was submitted? Those alarm bells begin to ring louder.
And then there is the nature of the claim itself. In convicting Pell the court simply dismissed the evidence of worshipers, servers, choir members and clergy who came forward to say such abuse could not happen. The accuser claims the abuse took place after a busy Sunday Mass in a Cathedral sacristy; a busy room whose door was open at all times. Meaning the abuse is meant to have taken place just feet away from passers by, anyone of whom could have entered the room at any time.
Furthermore the victims admit to having not known Pell prior to the abuse. Meaning they were not groomed yet neither called out for help. Are we really to believe a man with no prior police record would be so reckless as to happen upon strangers in a busy sacristy and chance his arm in this way? A serial sex offender might behave like this but it does not seem the modus operandi of a prelate with a reputation to protect.
Then there is the fact that bishops are never left alone when vested on duty but accompanied by members of the laity. This is where the claim begins to become fantastical – supposedly Cardinal Pell not only refused to go and greet the faithful after Mass, which would have been noticed, but managed to use a six minute window when the prosecution claim his chaperone was having a cigarette to carry out the abuse. Again this seems so risky as to be madness. Surely a man who took such risks is unlikely to have only elicited two allegations from a nation wide police appeal?
And there are inconsistencies in how the abuse is said to have occurred. The allegation is that Pell parted his vestments down the middle to expose himself before forcing both boys to perform oral sex. Yet, as any church person knows, the vestments worn at mass cannot be parted as albs are seamless. And, as a priest who has occasionally needed to use the lavatory whilst vested, I can assure you that, with vestments hitched up around one’s waist with one hand, one is hardly able to control oneself -let alone two other people. Put bluntly the accusation as it stands makes no sense to anyone who wears vestments regularly. How is Pell meant to have held his robes up over his waist whilst also forcing two separate people to do lewd things? It just doesn’t add up.
Some, admitting that the case is flimsy, suggest it doesn’t matter because he was probably guilty anyway. I am sorry but that is not how justice works. If there is good evidence bring it to court. But if there is insufficient evidence we have to suppose innocence until proven guilty.
Do we really want to support a society in which one can go to prison simply on the hearsay of another? This case is now going to appeal. I pray that either much better evidence is presented or else it is thrown out. Otherwise Pell will not be the greatest victim in this case. The real victim will be the credibility of the Australian judiciary.