On Wednesday, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, until recently one of the highest ranking officials in the Vatican, spent his first night in jail, after being convicted in December on four counts of an indecent act with a child under 16 and one count of sexual penetration of a child. Though his final sentencing will not occur until March 13 and his lawyers are appealing the conviction, the cardinal decided to withdraw his petition for bail, believing “it is appropriate for him to await sentencing.”
This comes after his lead attorney, Robert Richter, stunned a full courtroom during an initial sentencing hearing by seeming to diminish the severity of the acts for which Cardinal Pell was convicted. Mr. Richter said that, if the acts happened at all, they lasted “less than six minutes” and constituted “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case.” (People in the courtroom reportedly gasped at Mr. Richter’s comments.)
There are elements in the trial of Cardinal Pell that do not easily translate to a U.S. context. Until news of his conviction was reported by international press in December, few in Australia even knew the trial was happening. Though much of the proceedings were open to the public, journalists were prohibited from writing about the trial in any way, even to mention that it was in process, as part of a suppression order meant to prevent bias from affecting the judgment of the juries hearing this case and the second abuse allegation case that was to follow. (The second case ended up being dismissed at the start of this week, which led to the suppression order being lifted and Cardinal Pell’s public sentencing hearing.)
I spent a week in Melbourne this autumn sitting in on the trial; other than a handful of journalists there was no one else in the gallery, except for one day when a group of teenagers in their school uniforms came in unexpectedly during the examination of a witness. They sat silently in a row in this small courtroom, their presence a haunting reminder to all of us of the many children who have been victimized by Catholic priests. They left just as abruptly as they arrived.
Until news of his conviction was reported by international press in December, few in Australia even knew the trial was happening.
Cardinal Pell’s accuser was never present in the court; nor is his name or the name of his now-deceased co-victim public knowledge. The man’s testimony was given via video in a closed session of the court, the transcripts of which have not been—and may never be—released. That is a point worth remembering; any details you might read about how in 1996 the accuser and his friend, both aged 13, were assaulted in a sacristy by then-Archbishop Pell immediately following a Sunday Mass at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral are drawn only from the questions asked of other witnesses by the prosecution and defense.
No one but the jury, the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys has heard or read the actual testimony of the victim. In fact, the jury that convicted Cardinal Pell in December was only seeing a replay of the testimony and questions presented before a prior jury in the case, which was dismissed in late September after it failed to reach an 11-1 decision about Cardinal Pell’s guilt. (The Australian journalist Louise Milligan did publish a book about the cardinal that includes an account of the assaults; an excerpt can be found here.)
Considering Cardinal Pell’s history
In the days since the suppression order has been lifted and Cardinal Pell’s conviction has been reported in the Australian press, questions have been raised about the jury’s decision, given certain details deduced from the testimony against him. Among them: The cardinal supposedly opened his vestments to reveal himself to the victims (vestments do not, in fact, open but are rather pulled on and off over one’s head); he rushed back to the sacristy immediately after Sunday Mass, as opposed to the standard practice of staying to greet parishioners, and he did so unaccompanied by the aides who would normally be with him at all times; and the door to the sacristy was open while the children were being assaulted, but despite the busyness of the cathedral after Mass, there were no witnesses to the assault.
A few commentators in Australia have declared Cardinal Pell “a scapegoat” for the nation’s outrage following a recently completed, five-year national commission into child sexual abuse that brought out thousands of horrific stories of cover-up and abuse within the Australian Catholic Church. In the United States, George Weigel (who disclosed that he is a friend of Cardinal Pell) wrote in the National Review that “the verdict could not rationally have been reached on the basis of the evidence” and questioned the case for the lack of a corroborating witness to the accuser’s story.
Frank Brennan, S.J., the chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services Australia, spent many days at the trial and wrote in the Catholic periodical Eureka Street: “I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated…. The jury must nevertheless have thought—as the recent royal commission discussed—that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture. Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him.”
“Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him.”
To think that a jury might find it difficult to consider Cardinal Pell objectively is not beyond question. The cardinal has been connected to issues of sexual abuse and cover-up stemming from his earliest days as a parish priest. In the early 1970s he lived with one of Australia’s most notorious serial pedophiles, Father Gerald Ridsdale, and was on a diocesan committee that oversaw Father Ridsdale being moved to new parishes four times in five years, yet he claimed he never knew anything about Father Ridsdale’s crimes. (Father Ridsdale would later be convicted of abuse and assault against 65 children.)
In the 1990s, as archbishop of Melbourne, rather than join the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s national response to abuse, Cardinal Pell announced his own program a few weeks beforehand, called the Melbourne Response. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse determined that the Melbourne Response discouraged victims from going to police, had conflicts of interest that prevented it from serving the needs of victims and put a cap on redress that the A.C.B.C.’s program did not have, creating a situation in which there was no consistency of outcomes across the country.
As archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell would also create the “Ellis Defense,” which argued that the assets of a diocese could not be targeted as compensation for abuse perpetrated by any individual. In 2014 testimony before the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell reasserted the defense, saying, “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, 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.”
In 2002, then-Archbishop Pell was accused of having molested a 12-year-old boy at a church camp while he was a seminarian. An inquiry into the accusation found not enough evidence to charge Archbishop Pell, but the judge stated that while the archbishop “gave the impression of being truthful,” he also found that his accuser seemed to “speak honestly from an actual recollection.” A year later, Pope John Paul II elevated the archbishop to cardinal. In 2014, Pope Francis promoted him to the role of prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, having named him as one of his council of cardinal advisers in 2013.
The jury was instructed by Judge Peter Kidd, “This is not an opportunity to make Cardinal Pell a scapegoat for the failures of the Catholic Church.”
Cardinal Pell’s attorney himself told jurors before their deliberations: “You would have had to live on the moon to not be aware of [Cardinal Pell’s reputation]. Archbishop Pell was portrayed as the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church.” Before retiring for their deliberations, the jury was likewise instructed by Judge Peter Kidd, “This is not an opportunity to make Cardinal Pell a scapegoat for the failures of the Catholic Church.”
But to characterize the verdict against Cardinal Pell as the result of bias smacks to many of the same assumptions of privilege that have become a cancer in the church: Members of a jury, presumably including laypeople, are assumed not to be capable of understanding the details of internal church matters or fairly judging a senior cleric.
While I was in Australia, I was struck by how vehemently those I talked to rejected any thought of giving a guilty verdict to punish the cardinal for his longstanding poor treatment of abuse victims and their families. Even people I knew to be strong opponents of Cardinal Pell insisted a false conviction would constitute no form of justice.
None of which is to say the jury might not have gotten it wrong. One Australian expert says that Cardinal Pell has a good chance of winning on appeal.
In the meantime, the conviction of the cardinal is another painful reminder of the many Catholics, like his accuser, who have spent decades struggling to survive—and others, like the accuser’s friend and co-victim, who later died of a drug overdose his family believes was linked to his abuse.
As though picked for the occasion, the Gospel on Tuesday spoke to just how far the church has fallen short of the path of Jesus: “Then Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one child such as this in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the One who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37).