Cardinal Pell is not the chief victim

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.

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16 thoughts on “Cardinal Pell is not the chief victim

  1. Truly we are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand we are presented with senior clerics who for decades behave disgracefully with impunity. On the other, with one senior cleric who is condemned on the very slightest evidence.
    Our Lady Untier of Knots, come to our aid!

  2. You have put my own reflections about the Pell case into words, Father Ed. Thank you for stressing how important it is for every individual to receive a fair trial, regardless of the suspicions or prejudices that people may have about the person concerned or the organisation(s) to which they belong. Of course neither you nor I attended the trial, but on the basis of what I have read it seems that the case against Pell does not even stack up on the basis of the balance of probability, never mind being beyond reasonable doubt.

    My guess is that unless further evidence against him comes to light his appeal is likely to be successful.

    I think many people like to take sides on the basis of sentiment rather than evidence. They can find it very difficult to separate out their feelings for or against a particular individual from the need to ensure that justice is based on true evidence. It is much easier (and of course lazier) to think along the lines of ‘I don’t much like him and what he stands for so he must be guilty’. Likewise people can take the view ‘He’s a great guy so he can’t possibly be guilty’. And of course it was the latter attitude that enabled many abusers to commit their crimes with impunity for so long. Just think, for example, of what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote (as recently as 2002!) about Marcial Maciel, one of the most notorious abusers ever: “… after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counterclaims, I have arrived at moral certainty that the charges [against Maciel] are false and malicious.” Eventually, of course, Neuhaus had to eat those words.

    1. Yes, quite, hence I have been very careful to state that if guilty of abuse he deserves harsh punishment and stipulate that my concern is centred only on that which pertains to this case

  3. The last sentence sums it all up. As George Weigel remarked lately; henceforth no one will be secure in Australia, particularly in the State of Victoria; neither natives nor visitors.

    1. Let’s wait to find out what happens at the appeal, Legris. As I said in my earlier comment, I think it likely that Pell will be found innocent on appeal, unless further evidence against him comes to light. And at least it looks as if the appeal may go ahead fairly quickly, so he won’t have to wait 14 to 16 years in prison, unlike the ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Birmingham Six’, ten innocent Irish Catholic men deprived of justice for years by the English judicial system. And at least Pell did not have a confession beaten out of him.

      But I think there is an important similarity between the Pell Case and the Birmingham/Guildford cases. In both instances the accused individual(s) belonged to a class of people perceived by society as having behaved atrociously (high-ranking Catholics in 2019 and Irish Nationalist Catholics back in the 1970s). Because there is a public appetite for retribution in such situations, injustices against individuals who may be innocent (in spite of those with whom they are associated) are, unfortunately, likely to occur and even to be tolerated.

      Of course there are miscarriages of justice in any judicial system. I am not sure if you live in England, Legris, but if so, do you, I wonder in the light of your final sentence, feel that nobody “neither native nor visitors” is secure in England following the disgraceful injustices against the ten innocent Irish Catholics?

      1. Sorry Terry for taking so long to reply. I hope with you that indeed the appeal of Cardinal Pell would be successful or he might really die in jail as Cdl. George foretold.
        Even the Judge admitted that there was strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a lynch mob against Catholic clerics in play in this case. My question is: how did the Judge make use of this acknowledgment of his? The sentence of 6 years was still fallen. And the Judge did said Pell might not survive it.
        As to your question: I do not know of the Birmingham/Guildford cases and I do not live in England. As to Australia, I would say at this moment I would not have anxiety traveling there. But I will be keenly attentive of any anti-Catholic sentiments. Maybe a time will come, when it would indeed be unsafe for a Catholic to travel “openly as a Catholic” to anywhere with a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. I never thought that would be possible. But I am not so sure now.

  4. Reports from Australia paint a worrying picture of that court. He may be innocent of the major charege if not all charges. Hopefully, the appeal will clear the air.

  5. If Pell’s appeal succeeds, all contributors will, quite properly, accept his innocence. If the appeal fails will his guilt be as readily acknowledged?

    1. You ask a really important question, Steve. Of course there are two quite separate understandings of the definition of guilt: (i) one’s own conviction, based on a rational assessment of available evidence, as to whether an individual did or did not commit the particular crime(s) of which they are accused (ii) the actual judgement of the jury (or a panel of judges in the case of an appeal) as to whether the individual is guilty or not. So what I am saying is that contributors to these comments will (assuming they are motivated by reason rather than prejudice:-) base their belief in Pell’s guilt or innocence on their assessment of the available facts rather than just on the outcome of the recent trial OR the appeal. Father Ed has set an excellent example here by his detailed outlining of the facts as he sees them rather than just taking sides for or against the accused.

      So we must await the appeal, but at the same time we must reserve our right to disagree with the appeal outcome if we think that it is not supported by the facts. (Just as those of us who examined the facts of the Birmingham Six case knew by 1985 that they were innocent, but we had to wait six years for this to be acknowledged, at their second appeal, by the legal system, their first appeal in 1988 having been unsuccessful.)

      1. Thank you, Terry, for your customary balanced response. I raised the question neither to assert Pell’s guilt nor to question Fr. Ed’s take on the case. He makes some cogent points. I genuinely wonder what it would take for those who believe Pell innocent to accept his guilt and, conversely, those who believe him guilty to accept his innocence.
        There are four possible truths and outcomes here: (i) Pell is innocent and will be cleared on appeal, (ii) he is innocent and his appeal will fail, (iii) he is guilty and his appeal will succeed and, (iv) he is guilty and his appeal will fail.
        In essence Pell is being tried in three separate courts – the Australian criminal court, the “court of public opinion” and, inevitably, in the minds of individuals such as ourselves. Only one of these courts is designed to be unbiased. In only one of these courts can judge and jury – or appeal judges – not only consider all of the evidence but observe every second of cross-examination and observe the witness under the stress of cross-examination. Everything else is second, third, fourth hand – or worse.
        It is hard, if not impossible, for individuals not to view proceedings other than through the lenses of their own prejudices and preconceptions. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox baseball team took bribes and “threw” the World Series – the equivalent of Manchester United deliberately losing the FA cup final to Liverpool. Legend has it that, as the guilty players trudged tight-lipped from the court house, a tearful youth ran up to pitcher Joe Jackson and screamed “Say it ain’t so, Joe! Say it ain’t so.” Some betrayals are too much to bear.
        What trust can we place in public opinion – in reality, not one court but many? It is hard to imagine the Australian public giving Pell a fair hearing for reasons to obvious to enumerate. Modern legal systems are designed in part to pre-empt public lynching. Pilate, of course, handed one of his problem decisions over to the court of public opinion. It did not end well.
        Those of us lucky enough to live in democracies with legal systems founded upon due process generally accept that a man found guilty – after all appeals have failed – is guilty as charged. Yes, miscarriages of justice occur. Nevertheless, I for one will accept whatever verdict is reached. Like democracy, the jury system may be one of the worst systems ever devised but it is demonstrably better than all the rest.

        1. I work as a prison chaplain. I could show you many cases that make you weep. The girl given a twenty year sentence for trafficking drugs whilst the abusive boyfriend who forced her to do it remains at large. So many working class people in prison, so few middle class people- how many bankers faced trial for corruption? How many politicians get investigated for it? Over in America both Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson seem to have avoided justice simply by virtue of affording the best lawyers. We have a judiciary – it is far better than many. But it is not perfect. Far from it.

          1. I could not agree more. The poor, the powerless and the marginalised have always been more likely to suffer miscarriages of justice than the rich and powerful. Most would see Pell as far closer to the latter camp than the former. I doubt that he resorted to the Australian equivalent of legal aid to pay for his defensive – although the “plain vanilla sex” remark from his then lawyer suggests that money has been very ill-spent.
            Whilst generally wary of conspiracy theories I have to acknowledge that the only clear winners in this baleful episode are the rotten apples in the Vatican Bank who will, no doubt be cracking open the champagne (or Lachrima Christi?). So vast are the potential sums involved and so effective the smear, I find it hard to rule the possibility of a frame-up out entirely.
            That said, it is entirely possible for a man to have total financial probity and at the same time be sexually corrupt. The climate in which all this occurs is entirely of the Church’s own making.

  6. Regardless of guilt or innocence, the accused is entitled to a fair, impartial trial which abides by judicial requirements.
    The shameful thing about the Birmingham Six is that the court system, in the shape of the Master of The Rolls (Lord Denning at the time) rejected the not guilty evidence on the grounds that he could not believe/accept that the prosecution and police could fabricate their case. He thought that was an impossible situation and said as much in public.

    I suspect that a similar unbelieving attitude, on the part of those who could have stopped the rot some decades ago, led to the infiltration of the church by its enemies. Now we have a major clear-up job on hand, because in the secular world the problem is much worse and until we are seen to be clean we cannot speak as clearly as we should. Planks and splinters come to mind.

    1. Pat, The Australian Commission concluded that seven percent of Australian Catholic priests sexually abused children over a period of more than fifty years . If you can explain how they did this without the other ninety-three percent either noticing or doing anything to prevent the abuse I will accept the absurd proposition that the Church has been “infiltrated”.

    2. I share Steve G’s concern and caution about what exactly you mean by your suggestion, Pat, that the church has been infiltrated. Could you perhaps clarify when, and by whom, this ‘infiltration’ took place?

      Do you think that the Church had been ‘infiltrated’ by the 1930s, when so many Irish boys – including my own father – were physically abused, arguably to the point of torture, by teachers in schools run by the Christian Brothers? Had the church been ‘infiltrated’ by the 1940s, when Marcial Maciel (dubbed an “efficacious guide to youth” by Pope Saint John Paul) set up the Legion of Christ as a cover for his sexual and financial deviancy? Had the Church been ‘infiltrated’ by the 1950s, when nuns in Ireland were abducting young children from vulnerable mothers and selling them to well-to-do US Catholics? Or was the Church perhaps not ‘infiltrated’ until the 1960s? Do you, Pat, perhaps go along with the notion of a relatively pure pre-conciliar Church (notwithstanding the examples of disgraceful behaviour I have given above) ‘infiltrated’ as a result of the permissiveness of the 1960s?

  7. You were there in court, were you ? You heard and saw the evidence, did you ? You were in the room with the first jury, counting up the votes, were you ? You listened to the second jury and were able to assess its decision as being undertaken on a false basis and in contradiction of its oath, were you ?

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