His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, is a free man – news that was received with a measure of relief at the Vatican and abroad, even by persons not well disposed to Cardinal Pell or the Church.
The Holy See sounded a cautious note. “The decision of Australia’s high court has only just been communicated,” Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni told the Catholic Herald earlier this week. “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, together with the other competent organisms of the Holy See, shall clearly make their opportune evaluations on the basis of canonical norms currently in force.”
In and around the Vatican, there was general consensus that right process should be followed. “The legal systems in Australia and within the Catholic Church are very different,” said Fr Hans Zollner SJ, who heads the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection and helps supervise the Holy See’s safeguarding task force. “What can be learned is that all parties need to stick to the rules and follow through due process, even if one doesn’t agree with the outcome.”
Transparency: Victoria and Rome
Cardinal Pell’s trial in Victoria was conducted under a gag rule – just one of the many factors contributing to general concerns about the integrity of the process he received. It was meaningfully public nevertheless, and in a way trials at ecclesiastical court are not.
Canonical tribunals do not publish charges. Proceedings are not open to the public – in fact, canonical processes are basically paper affairs – and verdicts are reported, if at all, in nebulous terms. The secrecy undermines public confidence in the Church’s ability to deliver justice. That, in turn can embolden wrongdoers and demoralise those within the Church – especially clerics – who would like to do the right thing.
This is not a new problem.
“[Secrecy] has long undermined that confidence,” Fr Zollner told the Herald on Wednesday, “but, when Pope Francis abolished the application of the Pontifical Secret to cases of abuse, many people realized that serious steps are being taken towards necessary transparency.”
Fr Zollner also told us that other measures are under consideration, which would favour greater transparency. “[The measures under consideration] more clearly define the rights of all parties involved, first and foremost the rights of the victims.” Zollner said, though he did not go into specifics.
Until those measures are in place, general public confidence not only in the Church’s ability to deliver justice, but to create safe environments, will suffer.
“One single case in which justice isn’t done calls into question longstanding and professional safeguarding efforts in the eyes of the public,” Fr Zollner said. “That’s why many of those who work in prevention of abuse suffer from safeguarding fatigue,” he added. “It seems as if every newly discovered case from the past crushes all the strenuous work for a safer Church.”
What Cardinal Pell went home to face in 2017 was a secular process – one far from perfect and rightly subject to the most rigorous public scrutiny – and one that resulted at long last in his acquittal. The “discovery” – so to speak – was that he is not guilty of the things he stood accused of doing. The opacity with which Church conducts her administrative practices, however, has too often protected the guilty.
The secrecy of her judicial processes continues also to hurt the innocent as much as the opacity of her general practices has tended to shield wrongdoers – and that is something Church leaders from Pope Francis on down need to consider urgently and soberly.
The rationale for secrecy in trials is that it safeguards accusers and protects the reputation of the accused, as well as the integrity of the judicial process. In the criminal proceedings against Cardinal Pell, the gag order contributed to the appearance that Victoria was trying to railroad him.
Secrecy undermined public confidence then, as secrecy tends to do. In late 15th century England, the Court of Star Chamber was set up for the secret trial of persons too powerful or highly regarded to be fairly tried in open court. The powerful and influential soon found ways to use the secret court against their enemies. Before long “star chamber” had entered the language as a byword for judicial and para-judicial abuse.
The Church’s legal system will not change overnight. Whatever happens at the CDF now is not likely to cast much more light on the Pell case.
A need for reform
In the end, Cardinal Pell was right about what he said in his statement: the episode was neither a referendum on the Catholic Church, nor a referendum on how Church authorities – in Australia or elsewhere – deal with sexual abuse crimes, especially though by no means only of minors. That wasn’t for a want of trying to make it just that, though, and it is safe to say that the Church’s abysmal record continues to make it easy for her enemies to use the crisis of clerical leadership culture in the Church as a cudgel against her.
The Church does have enemies, in other words, and those enemies do use the sexual abuse crisis as a stick with which to beat her. The point is that churchmen have fashioned the rod and handed it to their enemies. Whatever else it is, the case of Cardinal Pell is illustrative of the way in which Church leadership’s continued failure adequately to address the crisis feeds public anger that is disastrously corrosive to rule of law and civil society, as well as destructive of her own institutions.
Regardless of what will happen now to Cardinal Pell at the Vatican, the very urgent need remains for judicial reform within the Church, as part of her general reform efforts.