The trial of Cardinal George Pell for “historic” sexual abuse claims is underway in Australia, but the state of Australian justice also has the world’s attention.
“Trial by Media.” The ominous term has already been a part of the public record in regard to Australia’s Cardinal George Pell. I used the term myself in a post two years ago entitled, “Peter Saunders and Cardinal Pell: A Trial by Media.”
The concern for the poisoning of justice through leaks to a toxic and predatory news media is nothing new, but “Trial by Media” hangs like the burial shroud of justice itself over the trial of Cardinal Pell on 40-year-old claims of sexual abuse.
Lest anyone doubt the power of the media to both generate such claims and shape justice and due process in a case like this, consider a recent issue of The Week, a popular weekly news magazine. The Week presents itself as “The Best of the U.S. and International Media.” It selects excerpts from online media and newspapers throughout the world and presents them as the best written accounts of the week’s top stories.
In its July 21, 2017 issue, The Week chose as the best of the media from Australia a column by Barney Zwartz in The Age entitled, “The Nation’s Top Catholic in the Dock.” It should raise the alarm for anyone concerned for the media’s role in all this, and the slant it presents. Here is an excerpt:
“After decades of rumors, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is finally facing trial for child sexual abuse. At this point, Australians are numb to the horror, having endured years of parliamentary reports that produced damning evidence against so many priests…”
We can only hope that Australians are not so “numb” that they don’t see through this language. It is an open invitation to a lynch mob. The phrase, “after decades of rumors” should alarm everyone from the start. For any objective observer of this story, the only “damning evidence” is the accusations themselves and the fact that there has been a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Australia.
This is the state of the evidence thus far presented against Cardinal Pell as this “Trial by Media” gets underway. To incite a community to forego due process in favor of emotion is the very foundation of all witch hunts. An “availability bias” has been built that places Catholic priests in a suspect class. I described its momentum in “How SNAP Brought McCarthyism to American Catholics.”
Conditioned by a predatory media, Australians are now invited to ignore the abyss that is empty of evidence, and weigh the claims against Cardinal Pell with nothing of substance except “decades of rumors” that left Australians “numb to the horror.” The same media-fueled moral panic swept America and spread like a virus.
Now some of those who used it for profit are themselves before the bar of justice – (See “David Clohessy Resigns SNAP in Alleged Kickback Scheme”). But Mr. Zwartz and The Week present other “evidence” as well, and it is a central but unspoken feature in the indictment of Cardinal Pell:
“A combative participant in Australia’s culture wars,” the ultraconservative Pell had long been a divisive figure in Australia because of his `relentless, overbearing’ style. He was ruthless in punishing priests who deviated from doctrine by advocating changes to Mass or supporting ordination of women.”
Actual evidence of any offense from forty years ago does not exist in the Pell case, but for too many about the business of news and fake news, it need not exist. His Eminence is guilty of “other things”: fidelity to Catholic teaching, a conservative mindset, and an insistence that priests support orthodoxy. This is enough for the Trial by Media to rush to judgment.
Whether it is enough for the people of Australia remains to be seen. I think not. Even after my own experience of justice, I remain open to the hope that the better nature of thoughtful people will prevail. I know many Australians, and they are neither unjust nor “numb” as some in the news media suggests.
WHERE ARE YOUR ACCUSERS? (John 8:10)
Who are the current accusers in the trial of Cardinal Pell? It strikes me as bizarre that so many in the news media have focused this story only on the wider scandal and Cardinal Pell’s conservative mindset without much inquiry into the rest of the equation. Most in the media have said nothing about Pell’s accusers except to freely identify them as “victims,” and to insinuate that unnamed others contemplate coming forward.
There’s just enough smoke to create the impression of a raging fire Down Under. On June 30, The Media Report, an ever vigilant source of the rest of the sobering story, posted “Now This: The Media’s Cardinal Pell Disinformation Campaign.”
David F. Pierre, Jr. at The Media Report focused on a sobering fact that most other reports have omitted or downplayed. These accusations are from forty years ago. Much of the news media will not identify the accusers because of politically correct policies to withhold the identities of sexual abuse victims, but these accusers are not children; they are men in their fifties.
They have criminal records of their own. Although that in itself does not discredit their claims, it should be sufficient enough for a closer look. The Media Report pointed out (with supportive links) that one of the accusers, Lyndon Monument, is an “admitted drug addict” who served a term in prison for criminal assault stemming from a drug debt. He also previously accused a childhood teacher of sexual abuse.
The other accuser, Damian Dignan, “has a criminal history for assault and drunk driving.” He has a history of alcohol abuse, and also previously accused a childhood teacher of assault. Both men are raising their claims against Cardinal Pell for the first time, forty years later, and only when the climate would lend itself to less scrutiny over financial settlements.
Experience tells me that both the justice system and the news media should be especially cautious in forming judgments in such a case. In 2005, during the height of the priesthood scandal in America, I wrote an article for Catalyst entitled “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud.”
The article details multiple cases of men with criminal records who concocted schemes to obtain financial settlements through fraudulent claims about Catholic priests. They took advantage of the very climate now smoldering behind the Pell case.
Then there was the story of Shamont Lyle Sapp that I exposed in “Catholic Priests and the Perversions of Predators.” Before he was investigated and exposed by a vigilant U.S. Attorney, Mr. Sapp, from his prison cell, accused several priests in multiple states using details and “evidence” gathered from Internet accounts of other accusations against priests. It was only a fluke that Sapp was investigated and caught in the scam.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
The Media Report also reminded us that back in 2002, Cardinal Pell was previously accused by a “career criminal” who had been convicted of tax evasion, narcotics charges, illegal gambling operations, and organized crime with “an impressive 39 court convictions under his belt.” He accused Cardinal Pell of abusing him in 1962, but Pell was exonerated and cleared of the charge.
“Cardinal George Pell and Other Martyrs for a Nefarious Cause” raised the specter that claims like these 40-year-old charges are used by some as “weapons of mass destruction” in order to bolster other agendas. At the popular site, Whispers in the Loggia (“For the Cardinal Prefect, ‘My Day in Court’” June 29), Rocco Palmo raised the same “historical” abuse case from the 1960s in which Pell had been cleared, but he attributed its momentum, and its treatment in Rome, to other agendas:
“Two decades of revelations of abuse and cover-up have been treated as a political football among the Church’s ideological camps.”
There is no evidence or reason for treating the current forty-year-old “historical abuse” case as any different. The mere fact that charges were brought in such a case could have a lot more to do with Pell being a target for political factions that are happy to see him in the dock of justice knowing that, regardless of the outcome, Pell is permanently maligned and out of the way.
But among all the toxic press, there are many sounding the alarm that “Trial by Media” in Australia is itself facing trial. In National Review (“The Persecution of Cardinal George Pell,” June 29, 2017) author George Weigel described the campaign against Pell in Australia as…
“…a thoroughly poisonous public climate exacerbated by poorly sourced but widely disseminated allegations, no respect for elementary fairness, and a curious relationship between elements of the Australian media and the Victoria police…”
George Weigel cited comments from several Australians who have refused to become caught up in the climate of moral panic and nefarious agendas. These voices are worth hearing out. Attorney Robin Speed, President of the Australian Rule of Law Institute warned against prosecutors acting against Pell “in response to the baying of a section of the mob.”
Angela Shanahan in The Australian summarized the trajectory of the case:
“Conspiracy and rumor reign, logic and fact have gone out the window in the case of Cardinal Pell…. In all this sound and fury, the Cardinal has acted impeccably. He has said nothing except to state his innocence.”
Columnist Peter Craven, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (June 9) concluded,
“One can only hope to God that in the present climate people will be capable of realizing this is a case being mounted for a witch trial.”
Voices of dissent against the blind orthodoxy of victimhood are a minority in Australia just as they are a minority in America. Some of these voices have been courageous in their defense, not only of Cardinal Pell, but of justice as an ideal that is now itself under indictment. Australian political commentator Amanda Vanstone, a former Ambassador to Italy and “no fan of organized religion,” wrote,
“George Pell’s trial by media has to stop. What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages… The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial.”
Andrew Halphen, co-chairman of criminal law at the Law Institute of Victoria addressed the leaks to the media about Pell as a startling affront to the legal system. He expressed grave concern over whether Pell could now have a fair trial. He added that he could not think of any other case in which a charge against a public figure “finds its way to the front page of a major news publication before a person is actually charged.”
After I posted “Cardinal George Pell and Other Martyrs for a Nefarious Cause,” a first-time reader in Ballarat, Australia sent a comment that I want to post here because it speaks volumes about the climate in which Cardinal Pell faces trial. It begins with a quote from the above post:
“‘This nonsense continues because of the clamor of a few and the silence of many.’ Ahh, the irony of your comment. I am a Ballarat resident. My childhood bore witness to the culture of pedophilia that thrived here. And as an adult, the impact of the sexual abuse that happened to so many in my community continues.
I am appalled by your lack of compassion for victims. Your want to dismiss the validity of these crimes because of the delay in victims coming forward and/or charges laid, and your implied belief that our Australian justice system is flawed.
Our community knows its truths. The Catholic Church cannot conceal this truth as it once did. Your comments are just “clamor.” Hurtful clamor. Pell and the rest of “your fellow sufferers” [quoted from Cardinal Avery Dulles on TSW’s “About” page] cannot demand the silence of so many impacted because it doesn’t fit your narrative. – (a resident of Ballarat, Australia)
The defense rests its case. My heart goes out to Australians who have suffered the unspeakable, but the above comment makes the case for me. If what other priests did to other victims is now sufficient “evidence” to indict and convict Cardinal Pell then why have a trial at all? If it is too late to salvage justice from vengeance, then just take the man into the Outback and shoot him.