Law & the Courts

The Persecution of Cardinal George Pell

Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall (Reuters: Tony Gentile/File Photo)
Could this have anything to do with Vatican financial reform?

Let’s get the “full disclosure” out of the way up front: Cardinal George Pell and I have been friends for 50 years, and collaborators in different projects for 25.

The Victoria police in his native Australia have now announced that they are filing “multiple charges in respect to historic sexual offenses” against Pell. This has come as no surprise to those familiar with the fantastic campaign of false allegations of sexual abuse that has been conducted against the cardinal: allegations of which he has been consistently exonerated. But despite that fact — or perhaps because of it — the campaign has recently intensified Down Under, creating a thoroughly poisonous public climate exacerbated by poorly sourced but widely disseminated allegations, no respect for elementary fairness, and a curious relationship between elements of the Australian media and the Victoria police during the two years the investigation leading to the current changes has been underway. So it may be worthwhile, before offering a few of my own thoughts on another angle in this tawdry business, to note several recent comments from Australians who have not been caught up in an atmosphere of hysteria and persecution that inevitably invites comparison to Salem, Mass., in the 17th century.

Earlier this week, in the June 26 issue of The Australian, Robin Speed, president of the Australian Rule of Law Institute, a non-partisan and nonprofit organization whose name indicates its purpose, cautioned against prosecutors acting against Cardinal Pell “in response to the baying of a section of the mob.” Speed, himself an attorney, also warned that if the cardinal were charged (as he now has been) and found innocent (as his friends believe he will be), the long, drawn-out conduct of the two-year investigation could well warrant a judicial inquiry.

Two weeks before, in the same newspaper, an op-ed columnist, Angela Shanahan, had some sharp words for the public atmosphere that has gripped Australia like a bad fever: “Conspiracy and rumour reign, logic and fact have gone out the window in the case of Pell. . . . In all this sound and fury, the cardinal has acted impeccably. He has said nothing except to state his innocence. He waits, prays, and gets on with the job. Pity more people didn’t do the same.”

On June 9, in the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Peter Craven reviewed a new book about Pell, Louise Milligan’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell — a hatchet job riddled with inaccuracies and replete with unfounded allegations. The review concluded on this somber note: “One can only hope to God that in the present climate people will be capable of realizing this is a case being mounted for a witch trial.”

In late May, Amanda Vanstone, an Australian politician who has held several ministerial portfolios in addition to serving as Australia’s ambassador to Italy, confessed in a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald that she was “no fan of organized religion” but immediately went on to say that “George Pell’s trial by media has to stop.” “What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages,” she wrote. “Some in the media think they are above the law both overseas and at home. . . . What we are seeing now is far worse than a simple assessment of guilt. The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial.”

And in mid May, Andrew Halphen, co-chairman of the criminal-law section of the Law Institute of Victoria, described the inappropriate leaking of information about the investigation against Pell in the Sydney Morning Herald as exhibiting a “lack of regard” for the cardinal’s rights and a “startling affront” to the legal system. Halphen also expressed “grave concerns” about whether Pell could receive a “fair trial” if charges were brought, and noted that he could not think of any “other matter in recent memory where a DPP’s [director of public prosecution’s] advice to the police in respect of whether or not to charge a person finds its way to the front page of a major news publication before a person is actually charged.”

Thus it was little wonder that, on the morning of June 29, Cardinal Pell said that he was “looking forward to having my day in court,” in a brief statement from the Vatican press office. As to the charges themselves, the cardinal could not have been blunter, or clearer:

These matters have been under investigation now for nearly two years. There have been leaks to the media, relentless character assassination, and for more than a month claims that a decision on laying charges is “imminent.” . . .

I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.

I have kept Pope Francis regularly informed throughout this lengthy process, and have spoken to him in recent days about the need to take leave to clear my name. I am grateful for his support in granting me this leave to return to Australia. I have spoken to my lawyers about when I need to return home and to my doctors about how best to do this

I have been consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome.

George Pell has many enemies in Australia, political and ecclesiastical. They and their allies in the Aussie electronic and print media have indulged in a campaign of vilification against him for decades, charging him with everything from vanity to bullying. It’s all rubbish. But in the past few years, as the longstanding anti-Pell campaign has gone into overdrive with allegations of sexual abuse, there has been another dimension to this drama that should be flagged.

Cardinal Pell has been relentless, straightforward, and bold in his pursuit of Vatican financial reform, which Pope Francis brought him from Sydney to Rome to design, implement, and oversee.

Cardinal Pell has been relentless and, in an Italian context, shockingly straightforward and bold in his pursuit of Vatican financial reform, which Pope Francis brought him from Sydney to Rome to design, implement, and oversee. That reform has had its ups and downs. But Pell has had his share of successes, and despite the sometimes fierce bureaucratic resistance he’s encountered as he’s dealt with ingrained patterns of corruption, malfeasance, cupidity, and stupidity, he’s forged ahead.

It is not unreasonable to imagine — indeed, it’s more than likely — that as his reforms began to threaten serious financial (and perhaps legal) consequences for the miscreants, those determined to maintain the status quo from which they had richly benefited took care to try to derail Cardinal Pell by fostering more false allegations in Australia, where, as I’ve just noted, poisoned ground for the reception of such calumnies had been well prepared.

However that plays out — and investigative reporters looking for a really good story should be digging into the possibility of an Italian–Australian connection or connections in this affair — George Pell will have his day in court. He will not be the only one on trial as he faces his accusers in a court of law, however. The reputation for fairness and probity of the Australian police and judicial systems will be on trial with him, as will the Australian media and those in Australian politics who have directly or indirectly encouraged — or at the very least failed to stand up against — the relentless and brutal attack that has been underway against one of Australia’s most accomplished sons for years.

Cardinal Pell’s friends, among whom I am honored to be numbered, must hope that the persecution fever gripping Australia breaks; that the cardinal receives a fair trial; and that our belief in his innocence will be vindicated by a jury that takes the rules of evidence — meaning the lack thereof — more seriously than those who have been baying for George Pell’s blood.


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George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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