Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed - The Curious Case of Cardinal Pell: "The Power of the State was Recruited to Destroy Pell"

by Fr Glen Tattersall
Melbourne, Victoria
Special for Rorate Caeli

“State power has been recruited in an effort to destroy Pell. This situation cannot be swept under the carpet.’’

So wrote Paul Kelly, Australia’s pre-eminent political commentator, in The Australian newspaper on Spy Wednesday. A day earlier, the full bench of the nation’s High Court, by a 7-nil margin, quashed five convictions of child abuse for which Cardinal George Pell spent 13 months and 10 days in jail in Melbourne, almost all of it in solitary confinement. There, he was denied the opportunity to celebrate Mass, and had no access to the Sacraments, for months on end.

At the eleventh hour, the nation’s highest court redeemed some of the credibility the Australian justice system had lost, reminding the nation and the world that the rule of law is not yet dead. That assertion, however, remains doubtful in Victoria (Australia’s second largest state in terms of population). There, the conduct of the Pell case routinely violated principles of justice recognised as sacrosanct in every civilised society.

His Eminence’s conviction, on the unsupported testimony of a single complainant, without any forensic or documentary evidence and with no supporting witnesses, was more reminiscent of the judicial processes of totalitarian states, where trial results normally accord with the political and cultural mores of the state, and the expectations of the ruling elite.

In the Pell case, everything hinged on the credibility of the complainant, whose name remains suppressed in Australia. Nor was he even required to appear in person - even in a closed court. In the first trial, he gave evidence via video link from a remote location, comforted by a “support’’ dog! In the second trial, held after the jury in the first trial failed to reach a verdict, the complainant’s cross-examination was replayed to a fresh jury. In both trials, the Cardinal’s defence team -- and therefore the jury – was denied access to vital evidence: specifically, that the complainant had a history of serious psychological problems that required treatment.

Shortcomings in the conduct of both trials were manifold, including the failure to take the jury to St Patrick’s Cathedral on a busy Sunday morning to see the atmosphere in which the offences allegedly occurred. The Victorian Court of Appeal’s shameful decision, by a 2-1 margin, to reject the Cardinal’s appeal in August 2019, compounded the injustice. The judges in the majority based their decision on the credibility of the complainant. Only the dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, one of Australia’s most experienced jurists in criminal matters, was ‘quite unconvinced’ by the complainant’s evidence. In a 204-page judgement, he argued Pell’s conviction “cannot be permitted to stand’’ because there was a significant possibility that the Cardinal was innocent.

In its verdict delivered in Holy Week 2020, the High Court of Australia agreed.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, the state’s political leader, clearly did not. He released a brief statement after the High Court decision: “I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you.’’

In that extraordinary and dangerous statement, he effectively declared a “presumption of guilt’’ on anyone accused of child sexual abuse. The people who mean the most, Andrews said, were “the victims’’.

But this is to beg the question. There was no such “victim’’ in the Pell case – only a complainant whose complaint was wrong. In this case, the only victim was Cardinal Pell, who was wrongly convicted and jailed.

Andrews’ Victoria leads the nation in encouraging so-called “gender fluidity’’ among children and teenagers, boasts Australia’s worst abortion laws -– which other states have copied -- and put liberal euthanasia laws into effect last year, causing the deaths of 52 people in the first six months. The Premier was also responsible for mandatory reporting legislation that requires priests to violate the Seal of Confession. Incredibly, Andrews, a Catholic who has opposed Catholic teaching and discipline at every opportunity, and whose children attend Catholic schools, has never been rebuked – let alone placed under any canonical penalty – by the Bishop of any Victorian Diocese. Andrews also signed his state up to the Chinese Communist Party’s Belt and Road initiative. The Wuhan virus does not seem to have led to any misgivings about this policy.

Far from repudiating Andrews’ reaction to the High Court decision on Pell, some of our Bishops made the mistake of adopting the same language and approach, albeit slightly watered down. There is a time and place to acknowledge the damage done to minors by sinful sexual abusers. This was not such an occasion. In this gross miscarriage of justice there was no “victim’’ of sexual abuse, only a complainant.

Brisbane’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, issued a fence sitting statement:

“Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process,’’ he said. “We also recognise that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion.”

Curiously, Coleridge, normally a garrulous tweeter, ignored the issue on his Twitter feed, despite its significance to the Church, and the case’s being one of the most controversial criminal matters in the nation’s history. Such an omission seems incomprehensible from the President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference who, in welcoming the Year of the Rat earlier this year, tweeted that he was “optimistic, energetic, clever, adaptable’’.

Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous was braver, praising the High Court’s “professional and exacting legal review of the convictions’’. And the Cardinal’s Successor as Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, a qualified lawyer, pointed out obvious issues that were missed by most of his colleagues. The High Court’s deliberations, had led them to believe that “an innocent person has been convicted”. The case, Archbishop Fisher said, “has not just been a trial of Cardinal Pell, but also of our legal system and culture.’’

Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter Comensoli affirmed “Cardinal Pell was wrongly convicted and imprisoned.” Cardinal Pell, he said, had steadfastly maintained his innocence “and he is now free to live his life peaceably within the community.”

Prominent social justice campaigner Fr Frank Brennan SJ (also a lawyer) focused on the legal detail.

Writing in The Australian, Fr Brennan noted the prosecution in the original trial had called 23 witnesses “who were involved in the conduct of solemn mass at the cathedral or who were members of the choir in 1996 and/or 1997”.

“Many of these witnesses were also thoroughly credible and reliable, though their reliability faltered at times given that they were trying to recall what they would have been doing after Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral on a particular Sunday 22 years before. The honesty of these witnesses was not questioned by the prosecution,’’ he wrote.

“The High Court found many of these witnesses had given consistent evidence that placed Pell on the steps of the cathedral for at least 10 minutes after mass on December 15 and 22, 1996, the only possible dates when the first four offences could have been committed. The prosecution “conceded that the offences alleged in the first incident could not have been committed if, following mass, (Pell) had stood on the cathedral steps greeting congregants for 10 minutes”. The court also found there was unquestioned evidence by honest witnesses that placed Pell in company with his Master of Ceremonies when he returned to the priests’ sacristy to disrobe. Furthermore, there was abundant evidence of “continuous traffic into and out of the priests’ sacristy for 10 to 15 minutes” after the altar servers returned to the sacristy at the end of the procession at the conclusion of mass. There was no five-to-six-minute hiatus for the offences to occur with Pell, the complainant and his companion in the sacristy alone, together and uninterrupted, straight after mass.’’

Astonishingly, not one Australian Bishop (as far as I know) has publicly demanded a public inquiry into the conduct of the Pell case by Victoria Police and the state’s justice system

Police began their witch hunt against Pell in 2013. With no complaint in front of them they launched the bizarrely named “Operation Tethering”. It was a “get Pell’’ operation, the first trial heard. Shortly before Christmas 2015 the police went on a fishing expedition. As The Age reported: “The Catholic Church in Melbourne has been hit with child sexual abuse claims just two days before Christmas as police target allegations that fall directly under the leadership of George Pell. In a rare public statement, taskforce detectives investigating historic allegations of abuse have made an appeal for information about sexual assaults at St Patrick's Cathedral between 1996 and 2001’’ (the period of Pell’s reign as Archbishop of Melbourne). There are questions about this that must be answered. A free society under the rule of law investigates crimes – not people.

Former Chief Executive of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, reflected the views of many in the modernist Church establishment when he said the High Court decision would leave some people relieved, some confused and some angry. Cardinal Pell, he claimed, “is a divisive personality, not particularly popular, a bit of an ideological warrior and a lightning rod for discontent for a long time’’.

Ungracious as Sullivan’s comments were, they had an element of truth. His Eminence, while not personally a liturgical traditionalist, was generous to Traditionalists while being a central figure in the conservative reform of the post-Conciliar liturgy (especially in his role as Chairman of the Vox Clara committee). As Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, he was brave, clear and forthright in defending central Catholic teaching in faith and morals, and a stout and visible defender of the Faith in the culture wars. As such, he was too conservative for the majority of Australian bishops and members of the Church establishment, many of whom either sympathised with the enemy, or who wanted a quiet life. That is the main reason the Bishops never elected Pell as President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference.

The people in the pews were more discerning. In Australia, as around the world, prayers, Masses, novenas, vigils and devotions have helped Cardinal Pell through his ordeal. In jail, he often received 50 letters a day from well-wishers. They liked him as an Archbishop, remembering his strong leadership. They are overjoyed that a gross injustice has been righted. Many non-Catholic Australians – not members of the chattering class – share our relief and joy.

This painful fiasco, however, has exposed the vast chasm between the Church’s progressive and timid leaders, and the sensus fidelium…

--Fr Glen Tattersall is Parish Priest of the Parish of St John Henry Newman in Melbourne, Victoria, the city’s traditional Latin Mass parish.--