Andrew L. Urban
Within the space of a couple of days this week, several voices were heard in the public square ‘resurrecting’ the late Cardinal Pell, dismissing the notion that he was guilty of sexual abuse, a notion that some maintained even after the High Court’s 7-0 decision to quash that conviction.
On the first anniversary of Cardinal Pell’s death in Rome, this extraordinary case continues to make ripples in the law and society. In the law, it is prompting yet another call for the establishment of a Criminal Cases Review Commission. In society it is challenging those whose animosity and antagonism against Pell remain firmly in place, defying the High Court’s decision, referring to the verdict a result of a jury not “acting rationally”. It also brings to the forefront the conviction in December 2023 of Pell’s Vatican adversary, Cardinal Becciu on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.
Former High Court justice Michael Kirby has described a new edition of Gerard Henderson’s book, Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile On & Collective Guilt, as “an important contribution to the efforts to establish a Criminal Cases Review Commission” in Australia.
Mr Kirby said basic evidence in the case showed “a very serious doubt was raised as to cardinal Pell’s guilt”, adding: “Effective protections against miscarriages of justice must be there for all serious cases, even for a cardinal.”
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, marked the first anniversary of Pell’s death in Rome of a heart attack after hip surgery with the strongest church statements yet about the cardinal’s charges, conviction and imprisonment on sexual abuse charges and his later “unanimous High Court exoneration”.
At St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Wednesday, Archbishop Fisher said: “Following a media, political and police witch hunt, cardinal Pell was tried and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Even after he was unanimously exonerated by the High Court he continued to be demonised by some.”
Archbishop Fisher told The Australian: “The Pell case was a serious miscarriage of justice. So far there has been no inquiry into the actions of the police or how the legal system managed to get this so wrong.
“Perhaps worst of all, there seems to be no mood in Victoria for a serious inquiry into the justice system.”
The Australian also reports that “A separate telephone tap has also revealed a conversation in which one person tells another “the highway is open to you” after Pell was charged.
“Vatican investigators have been told money was sent to Australia to adversely affect the case against the cardinal.”
Wrongfully convicted Fr Gordon J. MacRae writes from his prison cell in New Hampshire:
The case against Cardinal George Pell was …. influenced by nefarious machinations, including police and prosecutor corruption. This was at the heart of a curious incident related in Prison Journal (Volume 1, p. 329). At a pretrial hearing on Cardinal Pell’s false sexual abuse charges, among the most difficult charges to defend against, a Melbourne, Australia priest who was present in the court told Pell’s supporters that he prays that the prosecutor will “mess up his presentation.” When that actually happened, the priest reportedly said, “See, my prayers are working!” When Cardinal Pell was told of this he said, “I would have much preferred that he prayed for justice to be done.”
Those were the spontaneous words of an innocent man who believed that justice in this life is possible — even likely. The guilty on the other hand engage in any number of contrived machinations to do an end run around the law. When a defendant is innocent and there is no evidence supporting the charge, it is too often police and prosecutors who resort to machinations to do an end run around the law.
There is a vivid example of this on the same page of Pell’s Prison Journal cited above. Detective Sgt. Kevin Carson of the Ballarat, Australia Police Department produced a report claiming that sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Victoria — where Pell was facing trial — was responsible for forty-three suicides. After the shocking story was leaked to tabloid media, a parliamentary inquiry into the Church’s handling of sexual abuse was launched. An inquiry is similar to a grand jury report in the United States.
The police set up an investigation, but were able to identify only twenty-five of the forty-three named by Detective Carson. Of those twenty-five names, only sixteen had committed suicide. But only one of the sixteen had been assaulted by a member of the clergy. As Pell himself pointed out, “One is one too many, but one is not forty-three.” This tendency to “heighten the hype” lends itself to unfair trials and wrongful convictions, but it also lends itself to career advancement, a shamefully strong force in many of the US grand jury reports on Catholic clergy.
In his analysis of the Cardinal Becciu trial in The Wall Street Journal cited above, Francis X. Rocca included the following paragraph:
“Around that time, Francis made Australian Cardinal George Pell his finance chief and gave him sweeping powers. Pell unveiled new financial guidelines for the Vatican. But he clashed with the secretariat, which opposed his plans for a financial audit by an external auditing firm. Pell considered Becciu his main opponent…. Other Vatican officials also lobbied the Pope against Pell’s changes. The Pope curtailed Pell’s powers and the external audit was cancelled. Pell later returned to Australia to face child sex abuse charges. He was acquitted on appeal and died” [on January 10, 2023].
In an October 15, 2023 published commentary on Mr. Rocca’s account in The Wall Street Journal, I added some further context to the story:
“The part of this nebulous story that most troubles me is the decision of the Pope to listen to Cardinal Becciu and other Vatican officials who lobbied against Cardinal George Pell’s financial reforms even after [ the Pope] had empowered him to reform Vatican finances. Mr. Rocca does not speculate on the source of charges against Cardinal Pell in Australia — charges for which he was exonerated in a unanimous decision of Australia’s High Court. This was after he wrongly spent 400 days in prison. There are many who believe that there may have been a connection between these false charges and Cardinal Pell’s attempted reforms of Vatican finances. Pell himself suspected this.”