On Wednesday, July 26, Cardinal George Pell appeared in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to face charges of historical sex abuse. This was an international news story, as the Cardinal is the most senior figure of the Catholic Church anywhere in the world to be formally charged with sexual abuse. In the Vatican he works – or was working – closely with Pope Francis on the finances of the Holy See. In Australia he was Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney and a lightning rod for criticism of the Catholic Church over the scandalous behaviour of some priests.
The Cardinal did not enter a plea in the brief hearing. But his barrister, Robert Richter QC, made a statement on his behalf. “For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest might I indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain his presumed innocence that he has.”
Officials in the state of Victoria have insisted that Pell can and will receive a fair trial. A key element for ensuring this in Australia (and other countries, like New Zealand, South Africa and Canada) is the sub judice (under judgement) rule. All public comment on cases before the court is banned. A breach of the rule can lead to prosecution for contempt of court.
The prosecutor, Andrew Tinney SC, insisted on the importance of the rule, reminding journalists at the beginning of the hearing that the sub judice period had started. “All reports should be limited to fair and accurate reports of the proceeding,” he said.
“Any publication of material speculating about the strength or otherwise of the case, the prospect of a fair trial or trials being had, whether the accused should or should not have been charged, the likelihood of conviction or acquittal, or any other such matters would be in contempt of court.”
No doubt the merits of the case are being dissected in half the households and tea rooms of the nation, but in the newspapers, radio and television there is an eerie silence. Pell’s next appearance in court will be October 6. Until then the media has effectively been gagged – in the interest of giving the accused a “fair go”.
However, there are ways to obey the letter of the Australian law, but not its spirit. And no one is better at this, I think, than the ABC, the government-financed national broadcaster.
Over the past week, leading up the media frenzy over Pell’s brief appearance, the ABC ran article after article defaming Christianity. Its target was the Christian view of marriage, which it depicted as warped, wicked and violent. Without mentioning a word about Australia’s best-known Catholic, its journalists blackened the record of the religion he represents.
Remember that Pell appeared in court on July 26. A week or so before, the ABC began running a series of articles on domestic violence and the “church” – as if all denominations are the same.
July 18. “'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God”. We learn that men use the Bible to abuse their wives. “Your problem is you won't obey me,” one Evangelical tells his wife. “The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse. You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t.”
July 20. “I was raped and controlled by my husband for decades. He was a priest.” The headline says it all.
July 24. “How to navigate the research on domestic violence and Christian churches: A few frequently asked questions.” The authors suggest that advising a couple to stay together to save a marriage perpetuates abuse.
July 26. “How Churches Enable Domestic Violence.” On the day Pell appeared in court, an historian argued that “Christian theologies of personal responsibility, self-sacrifice and forgiveness have been inappropriately applied to victims, doing enormous harm.”
July 26, again. “Could The Handmaid’s Tale happen today? For some women, it’s already reality.” A journalist for ABC’s Triple J radio station wondered whether Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel (and TV series) about “a puritanical religious movement” which treats women as sex slaves is plausible. Thankfully, she had retained a skerrick of common sense and concluded that the answer was No. But merely asking the question taints traditional Christianity.
July 28. “Asking Christians to do better by domestic violence victims is not an attack on Christianity.” An American Protestant theologian insisted that the Bible is used by many men to justify abuse and domestic violence. The article was illustrated with Rosary beads.
We have obviously stepped into a new era for Christianity. Until recently its moral standards were respected, even by people who did not agree with them. When there was criticism, it was for hypocrisy and inconsistency with those high ideals.
In a post-Christian society those same ideals are disdained by many powerful figures in public life as fundamentally corrupt. Instead of being admired as a teacher of sublime virtue, the Catholic Church, in particular, is being treated more as a barbaric anachronism, an Aztec sect without the pyramids. Fidelity to traditional Catholic values such as the indissolubility of marriage is being portrayed as a recipe for lifelong, self-destructive misery.
A series like these ABC articles leads readers to prejudge clergy – especially prominent clergy who are about to appear in court — through a lens of suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Expect more revisionist critiques of Christian doctrines in coming weeks. They will serve to make the case against Pell far more plausible.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.