Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for historic child abuse has provoked intense interest in Australia and around the world. So far he has served about a hundred days of his six-year sentence. On Wednesday and Thursday his lawyer appeared before a Court of Appeal in an attempt to have the verdict overturned.

The news, for Pell-watchers, is that there is no news. The proceedings were broadcast live, but it was impossible to discern what the three expressionless judges thought of the dry-as-dust review of the trial.

The case for the prosecution rests entirely on the testimony of the complainant, who accused the Cardinal of vile and grotesque abuse in the sacristy after solemn Mass on a Sunday in December 1996. A few weeks later Pell allegedly assaulted him in a corridor, again after Sunday Mass. The prosecutor contended that the boy, now in his 30s, was an unimpeachable witness: “He was clearly not a liar, he was not a fantasist, he was a witness of truth.” The fact that the victim had calmly endured hours of ‘‘searing’’ cross-examination proved that he was reliable.  

Apart from two technical points of law, the case for the defence is the inherent improbability of the victim’s story. The defence team listed 13 issues which, it claimed, the jury had ignored when it found Pell guilty. These should have led them to conclude that the complaint had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt.

It is impossible to predict what will happen. The Court of Appeal could free Pell by deeming the verdict “unsafe and unsatisfactory” or it could affirm the jury’s decision. Australian judges are loath to overturn verdicts, for juries are deemed to be reliable by virtue of a mysterious insight they have into a defendant’s guilt or innocence. “I’ve said it before that I think juries almost always get it right,” one of the judges told the prosecutor. But, he added, “The word is almost.”

It could be weeks or even months before the Court of Appeal hands down its decision. And that may not end the matter. The outcome can be appealed to the High Court of Australia by either the prosecution or the defence. In the meantime, Cardinal Pell has returned to solitary confinement in Melbourne Assessment Prison.

But there may be a positive side to this sad story. Whatever happens, the trial of Cardinal Pell, together with other developments, is a sign, albeit a flickering and ambiguous sign, that the Good Ship Secularisation, which for several years has been favoured with fair winds and following seas, may be taking water. 

Pell’s enemies are numerous and noisy, filling newspaper pages, websites and social media with their jeering and hooting. In some cases, this hostility is due to the Cardinal’s sometimes abrasive personality; in others, to his handling of the Australian Catholic Church’s appalling sex abuse scandal. But many others are gloating simply because Pell’s fall is an emblem of the imminent quenching of the embers of Christian faith in Australian society.

But other developments suggest that this is far from being the case.

The first is the unexpected return of the incumbent government in last month’s national election. The Labor Party, which was expected to storm in by pundits and bookies alike, was thrashed. Instead of gaining a thumping majority in Parliament, it lost a seat.

There are a number of reasons for this – the personality of the leader of the Opposition, complacency, poor messaging, shaky economic policies, its position on climate change, unpopular taxation proposals – but one reason was a perception that Labor was a threat to religious freedom. Amongst other issues, it wanted to remove exemptions for employment in religious schools and to strengthen protections for LGBTQ people. Labor leader Bill Shorten blundered by taunting the Prime Minister to choose between his Christian faith and a commitment to protect LGBTQ people from being offended.

After the election, leading Labor MP Chris Bowen said that “people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them”. Labor needed “to tackle this urgently”, he commented. Amen to that. There is no doubt that Australia is changing. But not necessarily in the way that the local intelligentsia anticipates. While Twitterati are racing to expunge Christianity from public life, others, including many vibrant migrant communities, are digging in their heels to protect it.

Another development is the controversy over rugby union star Israel Folau. Folau posted comments on Instagram which offended the LGBTQ crowd. He was unceremoniously sacked. Again, the Twitterati applauded noisily. But surprisingly, community support for Folau is running strong. It’s not a sign of homophobia – his biggest supporter is radio shock jock Alan Jones, a strong supporter of same-sex marriage. It’s a sign that many Australians feel that Christians have a right to voice their opinions in the public square. Folau is fighting back by suing his former employer, Rugby Australia, for unfair dismissal.

Is it too much to describe Pell and Folau as martyrs?

As far as Pell is concerned, two historians have taken very different positions. George Weigel, the American biographer of John Paul II, believes that he is. In a stinging article in First Things, he compared Pell’s conviction to the Dreyfus Affair – the conviction of an innocent Jewish army officer for spying — which racked France for a generation. “It is inconceivable that this Dreyfus-like public atmosphere did not have a distorting effect on Cardinal Pell’s two trials,” he writes. “Though the trials were held under an Australian media blackout, irrationality and venom, stoked by media bias, had already done their work.”

Austen Ivereigh, the British biographer of Pope Francis, is far more sceptical. Writing in the American Catholic magazine Commonweal, he said: “While I was inclined to think him innocent, I also found repugnant the martyrdom narrative Pell and his supporters had created around his prison cell. But there is nothing in this goodies-and-baddies narrative that assigns any responsibility to Pell himself, or to … the kind of clerical puissance Pell represents.”

Weigel has a surer grasp of what is at stake. Ivereigh says that Pell is a symbol of the “haughty defensiveness, … finger-wagging moralism, and … tribal ruthlessness” of the Australian Catholic Church. But justice requires that Pell be judged as a man, not as a symbol. Only men can commit crimes and only men can be martyred.

In the 21st Century, we probably need an ampler definition of martyrdom. Christian heroes of the past century like Aloysius Stepinac or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero or Edith Stein died for their faith under military dictatorships. This still happens. But the tactics of Christianophobes have changed. Today, a disgraced person is less powerful than a dead person. Pell and Folau have both been crucified on social media. Pell lost his freedom in the hysteria; Folau’s career was wrecked. In the 21st Century, dictatorships of relativism use social media to twitterstorm Christians into pariahs.

It won’t work. “Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum,” Tertullian wrote in the Second Century. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Let’s update that: online shaming is like shedding blood.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet