This morning’s announcement that Australian authorities are bringing charges of “historic sexual assault” against Cardinal Pell has made international headlines. Any allegation of sexual abuse, of any kind, involving the Catholic Church understandably commands a considerable media reaction; when it involves a senior member of the curia, even more so.
It is almost impossible to know what to think of the decision to charge Cardinal Pell. Victoria Police, who are bringing the charges, have not specified the number or nature of the accusations. It is not known who the accusers are, or when the alleged incidents are meant to have taken place. Consequently, snap reactions which jump to a conclusion of guilt, of the kind sadly experienced by many clerics and secular public figures, are beyond premature. As Victoria Police noted in their public announcement of the charges, they are as yet completely untested in any court.
Cardinal Pell made a statement to the press this morning in which he categorically denied any truth to any allegations of sexual abuse made against him. He also observed that the announcement has come at the end of years of investigation into him personally, and an ongoing series of “leaks and relentless character assassination” against him. Anyone familiar with the Australian press’s coverage of Cardinal Pell would find it difficult to dispute these observations. The level of speculation, commentary and prejudgment which descends upon any public figure linked to accusations of this kind can be overwhelming and can have an immediate impact upon integrity of the judicial process, civil or canonical.
It is only right to ask: what legitimate purpose of public interest is served by authorities announcing that a globally prominent figure is being charged with an unknown number of unspecified crimes? The results this morning are nothing short of Kafkaesque.
The manner in which public figures are forced to defend themselves against a tide of negative publicity, without the ability to speak to the specifics of what one is accused of, before they even reach the courtroom, should give serious pause for thought about what this does to our supposedly sacrosanct judicial presumption of innocence.
The balance between public and private handling of these matters is even more sensitive when it concerns clergy. The Church is rightly held to a higher moral standard, and the real crimes committed against children by some clerics in some places is a stain upon her credibility which may never wash out. Survivors of abuse (and, just as terribly, the covering up of their abuse) rightly want to see justice done, and to see that such crimes are given no scope for repetition. But in matters as emotive as these, there can be a very thin line between public justice and the court of public opinion.
The strong public desire to see justice being done regarding sexual abuse of minors cannot be allowed to tip further into a public presumption of truth for any accusation, or of guilt against anyone accused. This would serve only to prevent the very justice being sought.