We all know that 2020 has been an extraordinary year in many respects. For Australians with any notion of justice, one of the few positives in the year was the High Court’s April 2020 decision to unanimously quash the unsound conviction of Cardinal Pell from 2018.
We all remember the vitriol and poison that surrounded the trial and conviction of Cardinal Pell, but surely the High Court’s decision would provide an opportunity for Australians to show some semblance of sympathy for a man who had endured months of unjust imprisonment with equanimity. The reality has of course been quite different.
The High Court’s decision was not greeted with any apology, offer of compensation to the Cardinal or announcement by the Victorian Premier of an inquiry into how this injustice had been perpetrated. Instead the Premier made a statement which hardly endorsed the High Court’s decision.
Many will recall his statement which read:
“I make no comment about today’s High Court decision. But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: ’I see you. I hear you. I believe you.’”
The day following Cardinal Pell’s acquittal, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne was vandalised with the words “Rot in Hell Pell” and “no justice.” After reports of the police visiting the Homebush seminary, where Cardinal Pell moved after being released from prison, to look at the security position for him there, were initially reported as though the visit formed part of a new police investigation against him. One might have thought that the Cardinal might be left in peace, but not so.
The media then developed a bizarre fascination with his eating habits, with the Sydney Morning Herald running a story in August detailing a dinner at the home of Carla Zampatti and then his eating at the Australia Club. Cardinal Pell’s travel arrangements then attracted intense media coverage, with speculation that he was being given “special treatment” in being permitted to do so, and widespread and significant coverage in the media of a lone heckler outside his apartment.
Now several Italian newspapers have claimed that Cardinal Becciu sent 700,000 Euro of Vatican funds to Australia during Cardinal Pell’s trial. The claims are unproven and largely unattributed. Cardinal Pell’s defence team has denied receiving any such funds. Claims have been made that the funds were used to pay Cardinal Pell’s accusers. Through his lawyer, Vivian Waller, “Witness J” — the key Prosecution witness in the case — has denied “any knowledge or receipt of any payments” and indicated that he would make no further comment.
Cardinal Becciu has also denied making the payment. The claims are of course scandalous and very difficult to believe. Having said that, the manner in which Cardinal Pell was investigated by the Victorian Police and the fact that the allegations made against him ever proceeded to trial — given their obvious improbability from the outset — and that a conviction was achieved and maintained on appeal to the Victorian Court of Appeal are also difficult to believe.
Perhaps because of his clear and resolute defence of the Magisterium of the Church to a world which finds much of the truth of the Church’s moral teaching unpalatable, judgmental and contrary to the contemporary Zeitgeist, Cardinal Pell has attracted much animosity and opposition.
The scourge of historical child sexual assault, and the initial failure of the Catholic Church to adequately address that scourge, also attracted legitimate criticism of the Church — much of it focussed, unfairly on any view, on the person of Cardinal Pell.
The atmosphere in Australia toward Cardinal Pell prior to and during his persecution was sufficiently toxic for any injection of foreign funds to facilitate a prosecution not being a necessary element to explain what occurred. However, the latest allegations cannot be ignored. Robert Richter, who represented Cardinal Pell in his jury trials, has said about the Italian claims that:
“[I]f those reports are accurate, they have to be investigated. I want those reports to be thoroughly investigated by both Australian and international authorities.”
Professor Mirko Bagaric, Dean of Law at Swinburne University, has made a similar call. In this they are both clearly correct, but those investigations really need to go further and examine how and why the whole prosecution of Cardinal Pell on the claims ultimately rejected by the High Court was able to occur. It just cannot be allowed to happen again.
The article has been republished from The Catholic Weekly with permission.