Two years ago, an Australian Catholic bishop was charged with six counts of gross indecency with boys. The news was reported throughout Australia and around the world. It was alleged that before he became a priest, Bishop Max Davis, the head of Catholics in the Australian Defence Force, had assaulted boys in a remote boarding school in Western Australia.
Last week, Bishop Davis was found innocent on all counts. But his reputation is in tatters; he is not sure whether he can continue to serve as a bishop.
Where was this reported? Almost nowhere. The media crucified him and when the agony was over, they were out to lunch. He had to stumble home alone.
What Bishop Davis endured was the curtain raiser for the noisiest lynch mob in the history of the Australian media. Cardinal George Pell, the number three man in the Vatican, the former Archbishop of both Sydney and Melbourne, and the country’s best-known Catholic, is having a very penitential Lent.
Pell has become the lightning rod for all the accumulated outrage and disgust over child sex abuse over the past decades in Australia, not just by Catholics but all institutions. The Federal government has set up a Royal Commission to investigate abuse to allow victims to air their grievances, to establish the facts, and to learn lessons about how to protect children.
Media coverage has focused on the Catholic Church, although no institution has emerged unsullied, including the Anglican Church and the Salvation Army. The stories are horrific and numerous.
When reports of abuse emerged in the 1990s, it was Pell who reacted decisively. As soon as he was made archbishop in 1996, he set up the first protocols in Australasia, Europe or North America for dealing with child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
He has been summoned before the Royal Commission three times, more than anyone else. He has also appeared before a parliamentary inquiry in the state of Victoria.
In 2014 Pope Francis appointed Pell as the first head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, charged with putting order in the Vatican’s chaotic finances. So he now works in Rome. When he was summoned to appear before the Royal Commission, he agreed, but asked to appear by video link because his doctors had told the 74-year-old that the long trip back to Sydney would be dangerous to his health.
At that point, he was subjected to an unprecedented torrent of abuse on social media. Two TV networks broadcast a song by comedian Tim Minchin, who called him “scum”, a “pompous buffoon”, a hypocrite, and “a goddam coward”. It has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. More than A$200,000 has been raised on a crowd-funding site to fly about 15 sex-abuse survivors to Rome to attend the hearing on February 29.
And to increase the pitch of hysteria, a Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun, published a leak from the Victorian police on Saturday. It was alleged that the police were investigating Pell over decades of abuse of boys, even during the time he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The police refused to comment.
Ministers in the Victorian government have declined to investigate the leak.
Politicians were silent, although the former Premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, a prominent Catholic with a theology degree, said that she enjoyed the video.
Cardinal Pell is being hung out to dry. His reputation has been trashed. The atmosphere at his hearing will be toxic and hostile.
Pell has vehemently denied the allegations and has called for an investigation into the illegal leak. He said:
“The purported allegations have never been put to me by police. They are scandalous and utterly false. To learn of the existence of these false allegations through a journalist, following what must be a clear and deliberate leaking from official sources, is deeply troubling.
“The leak was clearly designed to cause damage to me as a witness ahead of my evidence in the Royal Commission next week. It undermines the work of the Royal Commission – particularly in a case study where the actions of Victoria Police are under scrutiny”.
There are several lessons to be drawn from this atrocious smear campaign.
When it comes to the Catholic Church, the media loses its marbles. The allegations of abuse by the Cardinal are barely credible. What is the probability that abuse by the Archbishop of Melbourne went undetected for more than a decade when sex abuse cases were in the headlines nearly every day?
When it comes to the Catholic Church, the media is gullible. Cardinal Pell has many friends, but he also has many enemies. Some organisations of sex abuse survivors hate him. The gay lobby hates him. Because he has been a stern reformer in Melbourne and Sydney, there are clerics who do not wish him well. In Vatican there are whispering campaigns to undermine his reforms. Any of them could be responsible for this leak. Why did the Herald Sun repeat anonymous, completely unverifiable allegations?
Cui bono? Who benefits from this campaign of intimidation? This is the first question that a journalist should ask about anonymous, unproven allegations. With same-sex marriage looming as one of the most controversial political issues of the year, a decline in Cardinal Pell’s fortunes will probably mean a boost for same-sex marriage.
The leak will discourage reporting of abuse to the police. As a Vatican source told Newsweek recently, in some countries the governments and the police are so hostile that clergy are reluctant to report suspicions of abuse; they know that there will be no presumption of innocence and no fair trial. This is exactly what is happening with Cardinal Pell. In the future people may be reluctant to drag possible abusers into a media witch-hunt.
This is High Noon all over again. In the classic 1950s Western Gary Cooper plays a sheriff who pleads for help when four vengeful outlaws come gunning for him. Cowards all, his deputy, a judge, his friends in the tavern and at church, decline. The sheriff has to fight alone. It has often been interpreted as a parable of the McCarthy hearings, when suspected left-wingers were abandoned by their despicable friends in Hollywood.
In the film, the four bad guys are left sprawling dead in the dust as Gary Cooper leaves town. Hopefully the story will repeat itself and Cardinal Pell will vindicate his reputation.
“Hang ’em first and try ’em later,” the motto of a judge in another famous Western, is no way to achieve justice for the victims of sexual abuse.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.