As Cardinal Pell goes on trial, the Australian Church must hold its nerve

Cardinal Pell: clear and combative (CNS)

The sexual abuse charges against Cardinal George Pell by the Victoria police are a test for Australian criminal justice, the Australian Church and for the cardinal himself.

We already know the result of the first and the third tests. Australian criminal justice has already failed, and the cardinal, even if wrongfully convicted, will further demonstrate the character and virtue that have marked his years of dealing with public vilification. How the Church in Australia will fare is the great unknown.

I first met George Pell when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1998, interviewing him in the context of the Synod of Oceania then taking place in Rome. After that synod, the Holy See convened all the bishops of Australia in an attempt to fashion some doctrinal and pastoral unity in a local Church that seemed unable to escape the 1970s. Pell welcomed it, many of his brother bishops did not.

It was then that I discovered what Aussie Catholics long knew, that George Pell was a singular force. The most outstanding Australian churchman of his generation, he has also been a force for good in the universal Church, long before his current posting in Rome, most notably in his chairmanship of the Vox Clara commission on liturgical translations.

More than his official assignments, his clarity and courage have been an indispensable inspiration to tens of thousands of priests and lay leaders. In a certain sense, he assumed the mantle of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York as the most prominent voice in the English-speaking Catholic world. Cardinal O’Connor had, in fact, been an inspiration for Pell himself, a model of the bishop in a hostile culture.

For almost 20 years, I have benefitted from Cardinal Pell’s guidance and friendship. He has hosted me in Sydney and, more remarkably, was my guest in Kingston and my rural parish. I have not a scintilla of doubt in his innocence of the odious charges brought against him.

The anti-Catholic climate in Australia is hard to appreciate without visiting the country or being in regular contact with locals. The royal commission on sexual abuse has made no secret of its intention to put the suffering caused by the sins of the Catholic clergy to good use, namely to fatally discredit the Church’s public witness. Because Cardinal Pell refused to cooperate in the Church’s marginalisation, he has been the target of a nefarious campaign that has brought shame upon Australians, who otherwise are quick to tell you of their sense of fairness, that everyone is entitled to a “fair go”.

Cardinal Pell was subject to an accusation of sexual abuse in 2002. He was exonerated after subjecting himself to the investigative procedures that he had put in place for any priest so accused. Australian society accepted that result. That was 15 years ago. It is different today.

The Vatican press statement on the Pell charges expressed its “esteem” for the Australian criminal justice system now responsible for finding out the truth. There is no reason for confidence that the Victoria courts will do any better than Victoria prosecutors or the royal commission itself, both of which have compromised their own procedures to discredit Pell.

The Victoria police insisted that Cardinal Pell has been treated “no differently” from anyone else. That is only the most recent of their lies. The police have spent two years searching for characters who are willing to “remember” assaults from 40 years ago. There will be more lies to come, and a wrongful conviction cannot be excluded. It has happened in Canada and the United States in a climate of public opinion far less fevered.

Not every prosecution of clerical sexual abuse is a persecution. To the contrary, often it is a necessary purification for the Church. But I am not alone in believing this to be a persecution, plain and simple. Had Pell not been so clear, so courageous and so combative in the cause of Christ and His Church, these false accusations would never have been so assiduously courted by the police.

Thus this becomes a test for the Church in Australia. The bishops will come under enormous pressure to distance themselves from Pell, as if somehow they could insulate themselves from the fiery mob. They would be mistaken. The Church’s enemies are thirsty for blood, and that thirst will not be slaked by Pell’s alone.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney knows what is at stake; his statement was respectful of the authorities but made it clear where he stood. A rather anaemic statement came from the Australian bishops’ conference in the name of its vice-president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane. A far more vigorous response is needed from the conference president, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, in whose diocese the charges will be prosecuted.

A failure of nerve now will be catastrophic for the Catholic future in Australia.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the July 7 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here