Cardinal George Pell with his barrister Robert Richter QC

From Australian friends, national and international news services, and sundry columnists, I have tried to keep up with saga of the accusations against and trials of Cardinal George Pell.

Something is going on here that is eerily similar to the hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court. Alleged victims on shaky grounds testified to the man’s guilt. Many who do not like the views of the accused line up in support of the victim. But real evidence was lacking. It did not matter much. Once a man is accused of anything today by a victim, he is guilty until proven innocent.

It is most difficult to prove that something did not take place when many people are less concerned with getting at the facts of the case than at the reputation of the accused.

We should not forget, however, that, in fundamental ways, a person’s honour and dignity are more important than his life. This view seems to me to characterize Pell’s overall conduct. The glee on hearing the 12-0 verdict of the jury (after a previous trial ended with a hung jury, 10-2 in Pell’s favour) was mostly confined to leftist or well-attested anti-Catholic elements in the state of Victoria.

That Pell’s verdict is played out against a Vatican synod and its bureaucracy which was reluctant to face the issue of homosexuality only makes Pell’s case more agonizing. He did much to face up to this issue in Australia during his episcopal tenure there. No doubt this principled stand, whose criteria he himself abided by, caused him much opposition. Pell was not afraid of this issue, which explains part of the clamour raised against him. 

Pell’s own conduct has been remarkable. When the accusations first surfaced, he denied any knowledge of or truth in them. But as a man of honour, he wanted legally to clear his name. He returned to Australia.

He assumed that the court system was fair and would judge him on his word and on the evidence. But the result was that an Australian court found him guilty. Now he is in jail awaiting sentencing and an appeal to a higher court panel.

He seems calm enough. Someday, hopefully, he will provide an account of his experiences. Scripture has warned us that in latter days, Christians would be brought before judges for no other reason than that they are Christians. His honourable witness shines by contrast with the lack of trials in the Vatican of bishops and cardinals who do seem guilty, with evidence.

The evidence submitted to the court was carefully examined by Fr Frank Brennan SJ, a noted legal scholar in Australia. He could find no justification for the 12-0 verdict. Several other journalists have come to the same conclusion. The accuser’s testimony seemed quite improbable as far as those close to Pell the day the crime was supposed to have taken place.

Indeed, the evidence is so slim that George Weigel, writing in First Things, is correct to see this trial to be a trial, not of Pell, but of the justice system of Australia, and particularly of the state of Victoria, before the world. Perhaps this trial will prompt a rethinking and reconfiguration of the justice procedures there.

From what I understand, a rather virulent anti-Catholic bias can be found in Victoria, and especially in its capital, Melbourne. The local police began to investigate Pell a year before any accusations were made.

In all countries, it is hoped that the justice system is not corrupted by passions and opinions that arise outside the criteria of proven guilt. In today’s world, especially in abuse cases, almost anyone even named or accused of a crime has his reputation compromised or destroyed. The protection of minors is a great good. But so too is the long-fought-for principle that one is innocent until proved guilty. We have here a delicate case of conflicting principles.

From this distance, Cardinal Pell seems determined to stick to his original position, namely, that the Australian justice system, in the end, will arrive at the truth that he had nothing to do with the sordid accusations against him. To prove this, he is willing to stand trial after trial, and even a stint in jail.

This case raises a question, though, which is larger than Pell’s good name. How should a government act when its citizens are so overwrought with passion that they forget or neglect the principles that ought to animate good laws?

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. Last year he published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.