The disgraced Australian Cardinal, George Pell, may yet be rehabilitated. Now that the High Court of Australia has quashed his conviction for the sexual abuse of boys, he has returned to the Vatican. Whether a senior role will once more be assigned to him is not yet clear.
At the same time, Pell’s old enemy, Cardinal Becciu, is facing troubles of his own. Investigations of a dubious real estate transaction which had allegedly been masterminded by Becciu from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State have dredged up a sludge which will stink for a long time yet. Becciu has been forced to resign from the Curia and to surrender his rights as a cardinal.
Secret bank accounts share scrutiny with greedy fixers, strange family beneficiaries and even stranger female advisors, who have neither a clear role to play nor discernible qualifications, but live the high life on Vatican expense accounts. What flourished on Becciu’s watch was the very thing that Cardinal Pell had set out to put an end to when he was appointed some years ago to reform the Vatican’s financial management systems.
The troubles of George Pell were highly convenient for Cardinal Becciu. With the energetic Australian locked up on the other side of the world, and with nobody of his calibre in Rome to take his place, it would be business as usual in the counting houses of the Secretariat of State. It is now suggested that the destruction of Pell was aided and abetted by Vatican insiders working for Becciu, perhaps even by Becciu himself. Pell is beginning to look like an innocent victim.
The paedophilic crimes that Cardinal Pell was at first convicted of constitute very serious violations of the person. We should pause here for a moment and review the principal facts. In Melbourne, Pell was found guilty on the basis of the uncorroborated testimony of one of the alleged victims. Though this man was deemed by the lower courts to be a credible witness, his account appears inherently implausible to anybody with first-hand knowledge of the Catholic Church and its liturgies. The alleged act of abuse took place in the Sacristy of Melbourne Cathedral just after Sunday Mass, which had been celebrated by Pell. A Cathedral Sacristy just after Sunday Mass is a busy place. The liturgical vestments which his accuser claimed that Pell was still wearing would make it very difficult for body parts to be exposed. Pell could have had little or no opportunity to carry out the acts of which he had been accused. Corroborative evidence was certainly needed. No such evidence was provided.
It was the task of a jury of ordinary men and women to decide whether they entertained a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Cardinal Pell. In the first trial, the jurors could not agree. In the second trial, they decided unanimously that Pell was guilty. On appeal, the conviction was upheld. After a further appeal, the judges of the High Court overruled the lower courts on the grounds that the test of reasonable doubt had not been properly applied.
Why did the jurors who convicted Cardinal Pell fail to apply reasonable doubt? Observers point to a climate of anti-Church hysteria prevalent in Australia. A long history of sexual abuse at the hands of clerics has come to light, and with it a shameful policy of cover-up which reaches to the highest levels. Pell appears to have been convicted pars pro toto for the Catholic Church.
Pell’s current good fortune is likely to make clerical hierarchs everywhere feel better about themselves, especially if they are dealing with cases of sexual abuse. The real scandal, the ongoing betrayal by the Church of vulnerable persons to protect the privileges of a clerical caste, may well lose some of its urgency.
The jurors in Melbourne may have been aware of Pell’s appearances some years earlier before the Royal Commission established to investigate sexual abuse. Asked whether he believed that the Church should take the blame for the abuse committed by its priests, Pell demurred. “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her,” he stated, “I don’t think it’s appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”
Jurors are ordinary citizens. They bring common sense to bear on abstract legal constructs. It is not likely that the jurors in Melbourne were minded to look on acts of sexual abuse by clerics as a question of ‘policy.’ The shocking violation of abuse, and the lifelong suffering such violation entails, would have been very present to them in their deliberations.
Among Pell’s jurors were family men and women. From the publicity surrounding the Royal Commission, they would have known, as all Australia did, of the utterly vile Fr. Peter Searson.
In 1986, the Archdiocese of Melbourne had been petitioned by a group of fifty families to remove Searson from Doveton parish and the parish school, because they were disgusted at the treatment meted out by him to their children. The petition was ignored. Searson began a programme of intimidation against those families and teachers who had spoken out against him. Even when the headmaster at Doveton resigned in protest, the Archdiocese did nothing. Searson was a prolific sexual predator and sadist. He gave sex education classes on an individual basis during which the physical molestation of children was a regular occurence. He carried a gun, and took pleasure in using it to frighten children. He liked to torture and kill animals with children watching. Searson’s career as an abuser had begun in the 1950s. He was not removed from the ministry until 1997.
By no sane reckoning can the ‘leadership of the company’ be absolved of responsibility in such a case.
Knowing that the Church had left Searson and many others free to abuse, knowing that the Church was likely to continue with mendacious inaction if it believed it could get away with it, the plain people of Australia, in the collective person of 12 jurors, decided that they would act. Pell was the Church. Pell was guilty.
To go by a recent interview (December, 2020) Cardinal Pell is confident that the new protocol he introduced for dealing with cases of clerical sexual abuse when he became Archbishop of Melbourne significantly reduced the number of new offences. With the ‘Melbourne Response’, as it is called, Pell is claiming to have ‘broken the back’ of the abuse problem in his then jurisdiction. If this is true, he is to be highly commended. Whether the number of offences is indeed close to zero, as Pell believes, remains to be seen, if it can be seen. Pell may be generalising from the number of new cases for which the Archdiocese has agreed to pay compensation. This is a different matter.