Seven judges of the Australia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Cardinal George Pell was wrongly convicted and imprisoned. He and we deserve to know how and why.
Strange things had been happening in the weeks leading up to Holy Week 2020. For the first time in our lifetimes, Catholic churches were inaccessible to most Catholics observing Holy Week and Easter as a community of believers.
Then, in the midst of all the church closures due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, Cyrus Habib, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, announced that he is leaving politics to study for the Catholic priesthood. This was not the sort of hopeful news the news media likes to hype in Holy Week so it was barely noticed. Then the Supreme Court of Australia announced that, on Tuesday of Holy Week, it would release its decision on the final hope for appeal in the case of Cardinal George Pell.
I did not greet this news with a sense of hope. Far back in April of 2010, I wrote a post with the controversial title, “Breaking News: I Got Stoned with the Pope.” It was about how some consistently anti-Catholic news outlets have a tradition of exploiting Catholic scandal during or just prior to Holy Week.
The pope in question back then was Benedict XVI. For full disclosure, neither he nor I inhaled anything illicit. That was not what I meant by getting stoned with the pope. It was meant in the Biblical sense, the same sense found in one of the most popular posts on These Stone Walls, “Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand.”
The type of stoning that brutally took a person’s life in Biblical times is carried out today in another way. Instead of taking a life, a person’s reputation is destroyed. False witness and sensational headlines are now the stones of choice. We have all seen the “gotcha” media at work. You cannot sit through a White House press conference without witnessing firsthand how some in the news media insinuate, inflame, and then exploit the interpretations that too often today pass for real journalism.
A vivid example came during the 2016 Presidential election cycle. A group of 200 noisy white supremacists demonstrated in Virginia using slogans such as “Make America Great Again.” For much of the far left mainstream news media, this was evidence enough to link them with Donald Trump implying falsely that he must support racism because some racists support him.
The real scandal is the news media itself. By giving these marginal racists a spotlight, the news media took their tiny microphone and turned it into a national megaphone. The news media does not even try to justify its viral coverage of 200 white supremacists while turning a blind eye to 200,000 prolife advocates at the annual March for Life in Washington DC.
I admit that I was cynical and suspicious when I learned that the High Court of Australia chose Tuesday of Holy Week to announce its long awaited final verdict on Cardinal Pell. As soon as the decision was announced, victim groups and some in the media went into high gear to denounce the finding and declare that it is not an exoneration or acquittal.
This is nonsense. The unanimous finding that Cardinal Pell’s charges were fatally flawed, his trial unjust, his convictions unsupported by evidence, are in fact an exoneration. He stands convicted of no crime. It exposed for all the world to see the harsh reality that – as for so many other priests facing the cruel tyranny of false witness in the current age – Cardinal Pell was considered guilty merely for being accused.
THE INTEGRITY OF JUSTICE ITSELF IS AT STAKE
Four hundred and five days! That is how long 78-year-old George Cardinal Pell spent in prison before Australian justice woke up. On the day of his exoneration, I marked 9,350 days of wrongful imprisonment. I do not write that as a comparison, but rather as an expression of deepest empathy for what Cardinal Pell endured.
Throughout his ordeal, I believed in his innocence; I supported him with my prayers, and I offered some of my own unjust imprisonment in spiritual alliance with him. I hope this was evident in my series of widely-read posts about his plight that I will link at the end of this one. When I say that those end posts were widely read, the truth is that they were widely read everywhere but in Australia.
The first of these posts was “Cardinal George Pell Is on Trial, and So Is Australia.” Its focus was on the fact that the whole world was watching these charges as they proceeded to trial with no real evidence and much media exploitation. In the end, it is Australia’s justice system that now seems indicted and facing trial in the court of public opinion.
I hope this exoneration brings some much-needed soul searching to the people of Australia, the Australian courts, and the police and prosecutors who ignored much exculpatory evidence to bring these charges. However, evidence for that soul-searching was not reflected in the public statement of Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria State where Cardinal Pell was convicted.
After the unanimous Supreme Court exoneration, the public statement of the Victoria State Premier addressed none of what the Court covered or decided. He instead addressed himself to what the media calls victims and survivors but what the legal system must treat as accusers. His statement to them was: “I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”
On its face, that seems benign, but it isn’t. It is perhaps the most dangerous affront to justice in a case like this. It is grotesquely irresponsible to reduce the application of justice to a set of hashtags instead of evidence. Why have courts and trials at all if the personal beliefs of police, prosecutors and state officials are all that is needed to convict and condemn?
In the United States, the Center for Prosecutor Integrity has joined over 100 legal scholars in a petition to the department of Justice to cease its support for #BelieveSurvivors and guilt-presuming investigations. It is one of the most prolific causes of wrongful convictions and other injustices. When police and prosecutors – and the governments on whose behalf they operate – launch “Victim-Centered Investigations” they begin with a faulty assumption that crimes did occur and that the accused is guilty.
The Prosecutor Integrity website lists hundreds of scholarly articles by legal experts about how innocent defendants like Cardinal Pell are victimized by investigators wearing blinders. Police and prosecutor misconduct were central factors in 42-percent of wrongful convictions. One article at the Wrongful Convictions site is “The Intersection Between Innocence, Expert Witness and Religion: The Case of Rev. Gordon MacRae.”
Victim-Centered instead of fact-centered investigations result in a failure of the justice system to look honestly at itself. The Australian police and prosecutors – and the two judges who upheld a guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell in his first appeal – have some explaining to do.
I know only too well what the trashing of Cardinal Pell’s good name has cost him, but the other damage is to the integrity of the criminal justice system. I also know well the treachery of those – both inside and outside the Church – who disregard a lack of evidence or substantiation, mindlessly poised to believe any lurid tale regarding any priest so accused.
On social media after this exoneration, some in Australia suggested that, innocent or not, Cardinal Pell should have remained in prison in reparation for the sins of other priests. This is nothing more than evidence of the moral panic this story set in motion. It is easy to offer up someone else’s good name and freedom for a politically correct cause.
Minds should not be made up because the media celebrates the fall of Catholic priests and prelates. Minds should be made up by clear and compelling evidence, and there was none. Anything less is to surrender our own personal integrity to the news media and to reduce justice to a lynch mob.
PRIESTLY SCANDAL: A PANDEMIC OF TROPHY JUSTICE
Accusations against a high profile cardinal and member of the curia too easily result in “Trophy Justice,” a term that also has grave implications for the integrity of the justice system. Cardinal Pell spent 405 days in prison because those empowered to impart justice were too reluctant to give up their trophy.
Since his exoneration there has been no shortage of biased treatment in the news. The much needed voice of Bill Donohue at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has been, as usual, on the front lines exposing this. Annual membership in the Catholic League is the best $30 investment I have ever made.
Ironically, in the wake of this exoneration, editorials in The New York Times and The Boston Globe have criticized a lack of transparency in the Australian justice system. Bill Donohue rightly pointed out that neither newspaper ever questioned its transparency when Cardinal Pell was found guilty without evidence, or when he was sentenced to prison, or when a lower court disregarded the shoddy work of prosecutors to uphold an unjust verdict. That was all perfectly transparent.
And it was all front page news. The exoneration did not at all receive anything even close to equal treatment. I am thankful to Bill Donohue for informing us that The Boston Globe reported Cardinal Pell’s exoneration on page 19. Why any thinking, reasonable Catholic is still reading The New York Times or The Boston Globe is a mystery. There are alternatives. In ten years of writing behind These Stone Walls, I have never seen anti-Catholic bias and media distortion in The Wall Street Journal.
I am ashamed to add to the above that some Catholic media have fared little better. After Cardinal Pell’s first appeal to a lower court failed in a two-to-one decision, Our Sunday Visitor reported in its news section that his conviction was upheld by a three-judge panel. In a letter of protest to the editors, I pointed out that this was inaccurate and misleading.
Judge Weinberg the most experienced judge on that Australian three-judge panel, published a blistering dissent against the conclusions of the other two, but Our Sunday Visitor did not publish my letter clarifying this. After Cardinal Pell spent another six months unjustly in prison, the seven judges of Australia’s Supreme Court agreed with Judge Weinberg’s dissent.
Why should we support obviously biased or agenda-driven news outlets? When we know the truth behind a mishandled story, logic requires that we ask how many other stories are misrepresented in the news without our awareness. The Catholic League has never retreated from reporting on the crisis in the Church without sacrificing the rights of priests. In the March 2020 issue of Catalyst, just weeks before the exoneration of Cardinal Pell, Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote of both our cases:
- “Cardinal George Pell, who is in an Australian prison for alleged sexual abuse (awaiting a final appeal) was accused as far back as 1962. The case was dismissed because nothing could be substantiated. His accuser had been convicted 39 times for offenses ranging from assault to drug use. He was a violent drug addict…. There is another priest, Father Gordon MacRae, who is still in prison in New Hampshire for crimes he vehemently denies, and whose accuser, Thomas Grover, has a history of theft, drugs, and violence. Even his former wife and stepson call him a compulsive liar and manipulator. (Catalyst: Accused Priests Deserve Better)
Pope John Paul II once cautioned that the Church must be a mirror of justice to the world. The mirror of justice has since cracked, however, when the American bishops adopted merely “credible” as sufficient evidence to discredit and discard a priest, and then pressed Rome to apply that standard throughout the Church. The result is the treatment that we have just witnessed in the case of Cardinal Pell.
Too many in the media – sadly including some in the Catholic media – simply presumed his guilt just as they presume the guilt of most priests so accused. But there were other, even darker agendas at work in the case of Cardinal Pell, and real transparency will require getting to the bottom of them.
Some in Rome, convinced of his innocence, remained silent while others may have been complicit with getting Cardinal Pell and his financial reforms out of the way. It has been suggested recently by Paul Kelly, an Australian political commentator for The Australian, that “State power had been recruited in an effort to destroy Pell.”
Cardinal Pell was a scapegoat who was targeted by enemies of the Church – enemies perhaps both foreign and domestic. Pope Francis had been careful to withhold any public statement until the Cardinal Pell case had exhausted all appeals. On Tuesday of Holy Week, just hours after Cardinal Pell’s release from prison, Pope Francis released this remarkable statement via Twitter:
- “In these days of Lent, we have been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how He was judged ferociously, even though He was innocent. Let us pray together today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because someone had it in for them.”
Someone had it in for Cardinal Pell. He and we deserve to know who and why. And as for Pope Francis, his summation sure sounds like an exoneration to me.
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please pray for Cardinal Pell, for his restoration from this years-long ordeal, and for a just and honest reckoning about the process that brought it about. You may also wish to read these related posts:
- Cardinal George Pell Is on Trial, and So Is Australia
- Cardinal George Pell and I Are Judged Guilty for Being Accused
- Was Cardinal George Pell Convicted on Copycat Testimony?
- Cardinal Pell, Pornchai Moontri, and the Scales of Justice