Across the world, Cardinal George Pell’s trial is seen as a victory for an epidemic of anti-Church sentiment. As we near Holy Week, this seems all too familiar.
Introduction by Father Gordon MacRae: It is a privilege this week to present this exclusive guest post for These Stone Walls by Australian Attorney Malcolm Farr. His analysis and commentary on the trial of Cardinal George Pell is an eye-opener that begs to be widely read and shared.
Malcolm’s most recent guest post in these pages was “The Pain of Suffering & the Power of Forgiveness.” He holds advanced degrees in law, physics and mathematics and is currently completing a Master of Theology degree at the University of Notre Dame in Freemantle, Australia. He is the principal attorney in the Intellectual Property Law Firm of Farr-IP in Western Australia.
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Cardinal Pell’s life could have been very different. In 1959, when he was only 19 years old, he signed with one of Australia’s premier football clubs, the Richmond Tigers, and then appeared to be on a path that might have headed him toward recognition as one of the Australian sporting greats of his time. But something else took hold of him: “To put it crudely,” he said, “I feared and suspected and eventually became convinced that God wanted me to do His work, and I was never able to successfully escape that conviction.” In God’s work he rose spectacularly through priestly ranks, becoming bishop, then archbishop, and finally cardinal. In 2014 he was appointed to head the newly formed Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, occupying the third most powerful position in the Vatican, and even before this he had been spoken of as papabile – someone who could be considered a real candidate for election to the throne of Saint Peter.
And now Cardinal Pell has been convicted of sexual abuse crimes. [See: The Media Report – The Witch Hunt Against Australia’s Cardinal George Pell: Five Facts You Need To Know]
The immediate frenzy about Cardinal Pell’s conviction has died down, and things here in Australia have returned to (relative) normality. As seems only right, given the Australian mindset, sport – that other area in which he might have made his name – once again seems to dominate our news. So now is a good time to take stock, and to look at issues surrounding his conviction with, I hope, greater balance than seemed to be on show in the immediate aftermath of the news of his conviction being released. I’d like to look at a few aspects of the conviction itself, and the changing social attitudes which surround it, and may to some extent have informed it. Cardinal Pell is one who reveals very little of his inner self in public, and I hope you will forgive me if, in the absence of something from the man himself, I express some tentative conjectures about his motivations.
I’ll state at the outset that I do not know, as a matter of simple fact, whether Cardinal Pell actually committed the abominable acts upon a former choir boy of which he was accused and found guilty. How could I? What I do know is that:
- he held a Vatican passport and, because there was no extradition treaty in force between Australia and the Vatican, his return to Australia to stand trial was necessarily of his own free will;
- a first trial was held, resulting in a hung jury which voted 10 for acquittal, and two for conviction. In these circumstances (when thoughts of further prosecution would normally be dismissed as being unlikely to produce a guilty verdict) a re-trial was nonetheless ordered;
- at his re-trial, Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a jury of twelve, yet continues to maintain his innocence and is appealing his conviction; and
- some aspects of the case have raised serious questions amongst legal commentators, while simultaneously the reaction from much of the public here (or at least that of its more vocal elements) has seemed quite extraordinary.
A FEW ASPECTS OF CARDINAL PELL’S TRIAL
Cases of “historical sexual abuse” have become something of a norm in legal systems around the world, including Australia. And the further back in time they reach, with rare exceptions, the less they are able to rely on forensic evidence. On the contrary, they can become more a contest in credibility, accuser versus accused – and this, while the standard for conviction remains “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
This standard ultimately derives from the encounter between God and Abraham in Genesis 18:16-32, where Abraham pleads for Sodom to be spared. He starts his bargaining with 50 people: what if there are 50 good people in the city? Surely God would not destroy it if 50 good people are to be found there? No, for the sake of those 50, God will spare it. But what if there are only 45? Or 40? Or 30? Or only 20? No, God will still spare it if just 20 good people can be found there. Finally, Abraham brings the number down to 10: will God spare Sodom for the sake of a mere 10 people? Yes, God will spare it for the sake of only 10 good people. (In fact, God destroys Sodom in the following chapter – Gen 19- but not before interceding through two angels who urge the one good man, Lot, to flee with his family.)
In Gen 18:25, Abraham issues a challenge to God: “Do not think of doing such a thing: to put the upright to death with the guilty, so that upright and guilty fare alike! Is the Judge of the world not to act justly?” This has ultimately formed a cornerstone of human justice: that innocent people should not be punished for crimes that they have not committed. Thus in the 1760s, English judge Sir William Blackstone wrote that “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer;” and Benjamin Franklin, writing about 20 years later, went even further: “it is better that 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer.”
It is therefore surprising, to say the least, that the jury at Cardinal Pell’s retrial must have dismissed a number of things – a number of things which were quite out of the ordinary – as not raising any reasonable doubt. From the evidence which was obtained from the prosecution’s own witnesses, these included the following departures from the norm, every one of which must have happened on that fateful day of the alleged abuse in the sacristy of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. And all of these departures from the norm must have happened within a short space of time, less than a quarter of an hour. During this short space of time:
- The two former choirboys who accused Cardinal Pell (one of whom has since died, and whose accusation thus did not form part of the trial) left the post-Mass procession, with their absence going unnoticed by even one amongst the cathedral’s music ministry numbering some forty-or-so people, including the choir director, his assistant, the accuser’s fellow choirboys, and the choir’s adult members. Instead, the two accusers headed for the sacristy to indulge in the pleasures of illicit altar wine;
- Contrary to his long-standing practice, Cardinal Pell must have decided for this one time only not to greet worshippers after Mass, but instead to go directly to the sacristy to remove the vestments used for Mass. (In fact, the evidence showed that he was never alone in vesting before Mass or removing his Mass vestments afterwards.) There, seeing the young choirboys drinking, he revealed himself to be already in a state of sexual excitement, and assaulted the boys while the sacristy door supposedly remained open for anyone to freely enter;
- Contrary to their usual practice, neither the sacristan nor any of the altar servers can have been moving about between the cathedral sanctuary and sacristy, attending to their usual post-Mass duties such as returning the liturgical books and vessels to the sacristy. Not one of them happened to look through the apparently-open sacristy door and see the assault taking place;
- Not one of the priests who concelebrated Mass with Cardinal Pell returned to the sacristy to take their Mass vestments off. Again, not one of them happened to look through the apparently open sacristy door and see the assault taking place; and
- After the alleged assault, the two choirboys returned to the choir room, joining a post- Mass rehearsal. None of their fellows realized that they had been absent, or noted their late arrival. And no one at all noticed that the boys were distressed in any way.
Despite all of these factors, the jury at Cardinal Pell’s re-trial nevertheless decided that there was no reasonable doubt as to the commission of the crime alleged, and returned a unanimous verdict finding him guilty nearly thirty years later.
I must stress that I am not suggesting in any way whatsoever that the jury members, or indeed any of them, have been involved in a conspiracy against Cardinal Pell. I expect that they will have been twelve quite ordinary members of the Australian community. But I do wonder if they were infected with biases which are on the one hand anti-Church, and on the other in favour of anyone who alleges to be a victim. Together they are becoming a form of hysteria. Also relevant are public perceptions of Cardinal Pell and his demeanour which may have counted against him.
Before moving to note a couple of the phenomena which underlie this, I’d like to mention that there was, for me, nothing which gave more extraordinary evidence of these biases than what happened on an Australian morning television program in the wake of Cardinal Pell’s conviction. Typical of such shows throughout the world, it features news and current affairs segments, as well as sections of chit-chat and entertainment. In no segment of the show that I saw, did its reporting of the case offer any analysis of the court’s decision. Instead, its two presenters berated one of its (normally favourite) former politicians-turned-commentators because he did not condemn others from the political sphere who had spoken words in favour of Cardinal Pell.
WHAT IS TRUTH?
In John 18:38, Pilate responds to Jesus’ statement that he came to bear witness to the truth by asking, “Truth? What is that?” Indeed, now more than ever, we must ask, “What is truth?” And now, more than ever, we must fight to regain it.
There is a wonderful word, “truthiness,” which I understand to have been coined by American television host Stephen Colbert for the pilot episode of his show, The Colbert Report. It refers not to actual truth, but to what people choose to believe because it fits in with their worldviews, regardless of facts or evidence to the contrary, and no matter how illogical it may be. It depends upon emotional responses rather than clear-thinking. And there can be, I fear, too much truthiness, too much reliance upon emotional responses rather than clear-thinking, when it comes to issues of historical sexual abuse.
One issue that has been constantly in the public mind in Australia has been that of priestly celibacy; and it is an issue which is being debated even now within various sections of the Church. (There is to be a plenary council of Australian bishops in 2019, at which I understand this issue will be raised by lay attendees for official consideration in the local synod, for possible movement “upstairs”.) One of the past priests of my own parish, who was both very effective and well loved, had previously been a married minister in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church before being received into the Catholic Church and ordained as a priest. He was thus necessarily a married priest, given dispensation accordingly. With this history, many in my parish see no reason why priests shouldn’t be permitted to marry.
Now, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss the question of priests being permitted to marry. Rather, what concerns me here is societal attitudes – the thinking that seemed at first to creep into society, pushed by vocal anti-Church extremists, but which has spread to the point where it is the norm, that there is something wrong, something inherently abnormal, about the Catholic Church and priestly celibacy. Thus there has developed the idea, increasingly widespread, that no priest can really remain celibate. They’re men, they have to receive sexual gratification, don’t they? And as claims of sexual abuse of children by priests (and other religious) have multiplied, some say that their normal sexual outlet must be something very abnormal indeed. Perhaps the worst I have heard is that Catholic seminaries are nothing more than “schools for paedophiles”. This is fuelled by the undoubted fact that there have been truly appalling paedophiles amongst Australian priests, such as the imprisoned, laicized Gerald Ridsdale. His prolific career as a child-molester cannot see him classified as anything less than an absolute monster. What he and others like him have done should never be minimized or glossed over.
The problem is that the views of the vocal anti-Church extremists have been pushed to such an extent that all priests are now considered fundamentally untrustworthy in regard to sexual matters. The “Red under the bed” has become the priest in the bed, or the sacristy, or wherever. So whenever there is a claim of priestly sexual abuse, there is now more than a mere inclination to accept it at face value, without real questioning. There is now an inherent bias against the Church and its priests in this regard.
In their defence, I note that Australians are far from unique in accepting such thinking and, from what I gather, there is a similar “truthiness” anti-Church bias throughout the Western world. But I do wonder if it is but one of a number of factors which counted, even if subconsciously, against Cardinal Pell.
The second bias is toward people claiming to be victims. Now, please do not get me wrong: I am not in any way against victims – that is, genuine victims. Every genuine victim of sexual abuse, whether by a priest or anyone else, for that matter, deserves and should receive our utmost sympathy, and whatever assistance we can offer and provide. The victims of Gerald Ridsdale, mentioned above, suffered frightfully, and we should never, ever lose sight of this.
The difficulty lies in distinguishing genuine complainants from those who are trying to play the “victim card” falsely – and anyone who reads These Stone Walls will be very aware that not all people claiming to be victims are in fact genuine victims.
Although it does not relate to sexual assault, let alone abuse, everyone who has read or seen recent news reports will be aware of the case of actor Jussie Smollett. Appearing at first to have been the victim of a hate-crime relating to both his sexuality and his ethnicity, there was initially an outpouring of support for him, both from other celebrities and from the public at large. But, following up on various leads, Chicago police turned the tables on him, alleging that it was in fact he who planned the attack and paid two extras from his television show Empire to carry it out. And why would an attack like this be staged? The police case is that it was done so that he could be seen as a victim, and from this leverage better roles and higher pay. Smollett is now facing some 16 felony counts, and I am sure his trial will be watched with great interest.
It must be acknowledged that, overall, studies have shown that false claims of sexual assault seem to have been far less common than genuine complaints, typically said to run at about 5%. That said, however, there is concern that false claims are becoming more common. This may be associated with a number of factors which work together synergistically, including: wanting to attain the status of a victim (as in the accusations now made against Jussie Smollett, noted above); the fact that historical claims of assault, particularly, can be decided on issues of credibility; the fact that some groups are subject to biases which may make their members more vulnerable to claims; and the increasing availability of victims’ compensation payments. Following the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, the Justice Department had to open a Special Fraud Task Force to weed out the fraudulent claims.
There is also a real issue in the use of social media to provide a groundswell of support for complainants and against persons accused. To backtrack for a moment, although I mentioned above an Australian morning television show which failed (at least in so much of it as I saw) to treat Cardinal Pell’s conviction objectively, to be fair it should be acknowledged that it was merely doing what all such shows seem to do, throughout the world: taking a populist view in order to pander to its viewers. And where do viewers nowadays get most of their opinions? Partly from the shows they watch – this can’t be denied. But increasingly the greatest influence over people’s opinions is social media, which (considered generally, and not specifically in regard to matters of sexual abuse) has been shown, on the one hand, to outstrip traditional outlets in getting news – genuine news – into the public arena, while, on the other hand, feeding misinformation as much as fact.
The problem with social media is that there are few, if any, real constraints on it. Whether through Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter or any other social media platform, comments most often seem to spread fastest when they support populist agendas, regardless of truth or falsehood, or when they are, to put it simply, purely inflammatory or salacious.
In the latter regard, a case which is now in the news in Australia concerns images from a “sex tape” video which were posted on a particular social media platform. These images showed a well known footballer having sexual relations with a young woman who was identified by a social media user as a particular person. This identification spread through the platform like wildfire. The problem was that it was actually a case of misidentification, and the woman’s life has since become a nightmare, and there is a real risk that many will forever regard her as the woman in the images. Her denials, her proofs to the contrary, may count for very little.
The use of social media to advance a pro-victim mentality is well attested by the #MeToo and #BelieveWomen campaigns. In keeping with the vast majority of reported sexual assaults which are considered to be genuine, I do not doubt that the vast majority of people noting assaults against them in these campaigns will be equally genuine. But there will be some stories that are false. And these will be treated in exactly the same way as those that are genuine. Social media has no way of distinguishing the two. And so some will gain recognition as a victim, which they see in some sense as a prized status, unfairly.
Social media is used no less heavily in relation to cases of alleged priestly sexual abuse than in any other context. And it is equally unconstrained. As soon as so much as a hint of a sexual abuse allegation appears, comments appear, are liked, are spread, and “go viral”. There is no question of objectivity, of determining the genuine from the false. Allegations are necessarily taken at face value. And it is through this that we see hashtags such as #PaedophilePell – yes, it exists – being spread through social media.
And this all occurs even before the case goes to court…
A PUBLICIST’S NIGHTMARE
I suspect that Cardinal Pell might always have been considered a publicist’s nightmare.
Whereas Pope Francis exudes warmth and genuine pastoral care, Cardinal Pell nearly always seems to have had exactly the opposite effect on those whom he encounters. His persona has always been reported to be cold, calculating and clinical rather than warm or sympathetic. And as the former footballer I noted at the beginning of this post, he has always been a very big man, tall, broad, and imposing. With his razor-sharp intellect and physical presence, the best single-word description for him could well be “intimidating” – and this word certainly seems to have been used quite regularly to describe him.
Australians tend to resent “tall poppies” – not all tall poppies, mind you, but those in particular who have received great rewards in this life, but are neither appreciative nor humble. On the one hand, actor / singer Hugh Jackman is well loved across the land because, despite all his success, he has remained grounded, and is approachable and modest. Another such is actor Chris Hemsworth. These are the types of tall poppies in whose successes Australians rejoice. On the other hand, the boastful, ungrateful antics of tennis player Bernard Tomic have turned him into a consistent target for “boos” by Australian crowds, no matter how unsporting this might be. Unfortunately, he is regarded at present as a tall poppy of the worst kind. (I hope – and I believe most Australians likewise hope – that he can mature and change.)
Having attained a cardinalate and a very senior position in the Vatican, Cardinal Pell is undoubtedly one of the tallest of tall poppies. But of what sort? Despite his demeanour, I expect that his interior disposition is both genuinely thankful and very humble. However, it is his aloof and seemingly disinterested exterior that has been on display to Australians for decades, and unfortunately it is not an exterior they like. It is again possible that this is a factor which may have disposed the members of the jury against him, even if only subconsciously. Unfortunately, Cardinal Pell does not seem to be concerned with anything so superficial as public perception.
It has been suggested that Cardinal Pell’s apparent lack of sympathy for complainants in this area – and such a manner of conducting himself seems well attested – may derive from a “gatekeeper” mentality, wanting to defend the Church – his Church – from all attacks against it unless there is clear and convincing proof of wrongdoing on its part. If this is the case, he might perhaps have been adopting the standard that he himself would come to expect from the court when it came to his own trial. And if this were the case, this would be something on which he could properly be faulted. But I do not know, and suggestions that have been made in this regard are only conjecture.
A last point that might be added on the issue of Cardinal Pell’s dealings with complainants – and again I wonder if it may possibly have been something which subconsciously influenced the members of the jury – is the popular feeling that a person who does not overtly display empathy for those who complain of sexual abuse, might be the very person who is capable of such an act. Again, in the public mind, Cardinal Pell’s aloof and uncompromising demeanour may have counted against him.
One other issue might be mentioned. Having been ordained as a priest in 1966 while studying in Rome, Cardinal Pell then completed his doctorate at England’s prestigious Oxford University. Returning to Australia in 1971, he was appointed as assistant priest to Victoria’s Swan Hill parish, serving there for two years. This was the same parish where self-confessed child abuser Gerald Ridsdale, whom I mentioned above, had served between 1966 and 1969 – that is, leaving some two years before Cardinal Pell’s appointment there.
Did Cardinal Pell know, and do nothing? Certainly, this is the feeling of a good friend of mine, a very devout Catholic who was in fact quite vehement about it. “He knew! He knew!!” Apart from the fact that Ridsdale had already left Swan Hill parish two years before Cardinal Pell’s appointment, I did not have the heart to remind her of recent circumstances in her own family, where she had only realized that all was not well in her daughter’s marriage a short while before her son-in-law walked away from it. She didn’t know; and if she didn’t, can we really expect that Cardinal Pell did?
Both his status as Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric and the public’s negative perception of him seem to have undone Cardinal Pell, such that he has become the scapegoat and public face of all the sins – and unfortunately, there have been many – of the Church in Australia. And, when combined with the anti-Church and pro-alleged victim biases of which I spoke above, perhaps the wonder is not so much that he was convicted at his re-trial, but that his first trial resulted in a hung jury rather than a conviction.
CARDINAL PELL’S APPEAL
There has been much criticism of Cardinal Pell’s conviction in overseas media, which has been presented, in some instances, as a sad indictment on Australia’s legal system. One such indictment was Father Gordon MacRae’s post, “Cardinal Pell Is on Trial, and So Is Australia.”
That said, Australia’s Justice System is fundamentally sound. Cardinal Pell is appealing his conviction, and the appeal will be heard before a panel of judges alone who will be expected to put aside all prejudices in a way that “ordinary” people may not. The appellate court will consider whether his conviction was unsafe, looking, among other things, to the list of factors I gave earlier which meant that so many things out of the ordinary course needed to have happened for the abuse to have occurred, or rather for it to be beyond a reasonable doubt that this was so.
Yet if Cardinal Pell’s conviction is overturned on appeal, as is not unlikely, there will still be many who say that he “got away with it”, or even that he “got off on a technicality”. Here in Australia – as is indeed the case all around the world – it is ultimately the “court of public opinion” which will rule the day. For he would still be a pariah in many people’s eyes, forever #PaedophilePell.
On the contrary, Cardinal Pell should be recognized as having taken a lead role in erecting structures in the Church here in Australia which have enabled it to move forward from what might, sadly, be termed an era of abuse, and into a new era of openness and security. In my own Perth archdiocese, for example, every parish has a lay safeguarding committee which keeps a general oversight on interactions and to whom any infractions may immediately be reported. There are no circumstances in which a priest will be alone with any child. Although this is quite properly aimed at protecting youngsters, it is a sad fact that it will also help protect our priests.
I expect that, in days gone by, some young men, no doubt devout, presented themselves to our seminaries as candidates for the priesthood, knowing that they were afflicted by deviant thoughts. I find it hard to think (as many do) that they deliberately used the priesthood as a means to gain access to children. On the contrary, I believe that they will have presented themselves, undergone their priestly formation, and been ordained confident in the hope that a vocation in God’s service would help them overcome their thoughts, and certainly guard them against turning thoughts into acts. Unfortunately, evil overcame them.
Under our new arrangements, I am told that intending seminarians are scrutinized very carefully before being granted admission. The aim is to ensure, so far as possible, that potential abusers no longer find entry through the seminary gates. And I further understand that candidates may be dismissed if anything untoward is found against them. While these things are in place to protect our children, it is another sad fact that I was told by a senior priest that intending seminarians are cautioned as to the possibility of false claims against them. Yet still they move forward in their vocations…
Editor’s Note: Please share this important post and keep Cadinal Pell, Father MacRae and all the wrongfully imprisoned in your prayers. You may also want to read and share these related posts from These Stone Walls:
- Cardinal George Pell Is on Trial and So Is Australia
- Cardinal George Pell and Other Martyrs for a Nefarious Cause
- A Weapon of Mass Destruction: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused
- The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek