Hours before 10am on Wednesday, March 13 a media cloud had gathered over the County Court of Victoria, Melbourne. In a first for Australia, Judge Peter Kidd announced that the sentencing of Cardinal George Pell would be broadcast live on national television.
The mood was thick with an anticipation which too closely resembled excitement. Several journalists took selfies, and some hugged.
Standing in a line in front of the media were demonstrators. Some wore hats with “guilty” emblazoned on the front, while a disturbing placard caught the eye depicting the cardinal with horns over the words “Prisoner 666”. But others held signs that were unconnected with the trial. One referred to “child orphanages”, another “tax exemptions”, while another read, inexplicably, “Redress: No Mass till the nuns opt in”.
Among the flurry stood one young man, alone, quietly praying the rosary. There were a few other faces in the crowd perhaps betraying a hint of sadness or concern, but nothing much to suggest that justice might not have been served in the County Court that day.
After Judge Kidd handed down the sentence – six years in prison with a non-parole period of three years eight months – the Australian media went into what can only be described as a frenzy. Experienced court reporter of the Melbourne newspaper the Age, Adam Cooper, described it as “saturation” coverage.
Much like the protesters standing outside the court, many used the sentencing as a springboard to air broader grievances against the Catholic Church, Christianity and anything the cardinal stood for.
The night before the sentencing, activist group Evo Lens illuminated the gates of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral with the words “Crime Scene”. The group’s aim was “to let the Catholic Church know we are watching them”. The lights were removed just before midnight.
MP Fiona Patten, leader of the Reason Party (formerly known as the Sex Party), seized the opportunity to promote her private bill against tax exemptions for religious institutions. “The Catholic Church has always thought it was above the law and a law unto itself, but this court case has proven that they are not, in the most dramatic way,” she said, posing for photos with the protesters. Pell’s sentencing has galvanised the efforts of Patten and others to remove the exemption clause protecting the confessional seal in mandatory reporting. In Canberra, the new law will come into effect on March 31, and pressure mounts on other states to follow suit.
Anti-Pell statements have became something of a battle cry for any group trying to promote anti-Christian ideals.
At the Day of the Unborn Child, a pro-life march held in Sydney, a protest group of mostly young people stood outside the cathedral chanting: “Christian fascists go to hell. Take Cardinal Pell as well.”
Speaking out against what he described as a “lynch mob” and “witch hunt” mentality, Judge Kidd said: “I utterly condemn such behaviour. That has nothing to do with justice or a civilised society. The courts stand as a bulwark against such irresponsible behaviour.”
While some journalists refused to join in, the vast majority were happy to tweet, re-tweet and publish only that which vilified Pell – ignoring the many references to his “good character” and contributions to Australia which Judge Kidd outlined.
ABC reporter Louise Milligan has earned a great deal of attention thanks to the Pell case. In her 2017 book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, she was the first to describe the crimes that Pell was later charged for.
At the time, the book was criticised by three different reviewers for factual inaccuracies. Republished after Pell’s conviction, it is flying off the bookshelves, with a sequel due on April 2.
The media coverage showed a curious lack of sensitivity by constant repetition of the graphic details of the charges. Andrew Collins, a survivor of sexual abuse based in the country town of Ballarat, Victoria, said there was “no good news in it for anyone”. “I don’t think the survivors will get any great joy out of this,” he said.
The media’s response was captured well by Catholic writer Anna Krohn who observed: “Strategies of sober emotional intelligence and cultural sensitivity which seem to apply – rightly – in many other settings [were] abandoned here.”
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt argued that the cardinal’s conviction was partially driven by a strand of Australian “anti-Catholicism”. “In my opinion, this is our own OJ Simpson case, but in reverse,” Bolt wrote. “A man was found guilty not on the facts but on prejudice.” Cardinal Pell, the plain-speaking, white, male, Aussie ruckman, conservative and cleric to boot, is a super-villain to the “socially progressive” state of Victoria.
Others have joined Bolt in questioning whether Pell was convicted for his Catholicism. If this is so, then the jury’s decision – which saw a man sentenced to six years imprisonment on nothing other than the word of another – is evidence that identity politics has made its way into the highest courts of Australia.
Faithful Australian Catholics now have a difficult path to navigate. Many are not convinced of the cardinal’s guilt but are unable to express these thoughts. Given the nature of the accusation, many fear being insensitive to victims of abuse if they protest his innocence. Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria, criticised commentators who questioned the jury’s verdict, saying: “What’s happened here … is that a victim has been believed.” This created a false dichotomy between care for victims and support for Pell. It is possible to be concerned for both, but people are being dissuaded from saying this, as the few journalists who speak out are vilified.
The Victorian Premier also said: “I would hope that senior leaders in the Catholic Church across the country would take the opportunity to make it really clear that the Catholic Church is much more about victims than it is about itself.” This was clearly directed at Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, who planned to visit the cardinal in prison.
Those who support the cardinal have become the target of vicious verbal attacks. A private Facebook group created by lay Catholics for support and prayers has received hate mail and death threats. The administrator of the group (with nearly 1,500 members) has had to block dozens of infiltrators. After one was blocked, they were sent a message that read: “He will die in a prison … Die in a cage. Funny how you don’t love gays but support child … pedophiles. Sick sick sick demented Brain washed filth.” Another Facebook support group requested anonymity for fear of a public backlash.
This is not restricted to the realm of cyberbullying. A day of prayer privately organised at a suburban chapel in East Melbourne attracted such public backlash that it was cancelled at the last minute by Archbishop Comensoli. Organisers have since received threats and verbal abuse.
On March 20, the University of Sydney student magazine, Honi Soit, distributed thousands of copies which depicted Pell hanging from the gallows, his lower half missing, bloodied and tattered as a crowd watches. The Sydney University Catholic Society criticised the image, but the university has not responded. Justice seems curiously lethargic when it comes to the complaints of Christians.
Cardinal Pell now sits in prison under 23-hour solitary confinement. He is apparently not allowed his breviary and is denied the elements with which he would offer Mass.
The reactions of the Australian press and population are not unlike those of the protesters who stood outside the County Court on the day of the sentencing. For many, there was nothing disturbing about the day. Some rejoiced, while others sincerely grieved over past hurts. Some used it as a platform to protest against the Church, and others to protest on some quite different point.
But a few are following the path of the lone man quietly praying his rosary, coming together online and in life, to be present and to beg God’s graces for those who need it – which is all of us. And in that there is hope.
Natasha Marsh is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne