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 be assigned to him once more is not yet clear.
At the same time, Pell’s old enemy, Cardinal Becciu, has come a cropper. 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.
We should pause here and review the principal facts of the case against Cardinal Pell. In Melbourne, he was found guilty on the basis of the uncorroborated testimony of one of the alleged victims. In the eyes of the court a credible witness, this man’s account was inherently implausible, based on the time and place of the alleged abuse, just after Mass at Melbourne Cathedral, when Pell had little or no opportunity to carry out the acts of which he was accused.
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. Which is not how the law is supposed to work.
Pell’s current good fortune is likely to make clerical hierarchs everywhere feel better about themselves, especially if they are hit by cases of sexual abuse. The real scandal, the 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 thought about acts of sexual abuse by clerics in terms 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 heard of 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. At a public meeting, the petition was handed over to the responsible bishop, George Pell. Many of the school’s teachers rowed in behind the families. Pell did not. The Archdiocese ignored the petition, and 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, an habitual sexual predator, who also liked to kill animals in front of children, 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 offenses. 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 offenses 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 offenses for which the Archdiocese has agreed to pay compensation, which is a different matter.