Pell verdict: What will the Holy See do now?


When they begin the canonical trial, it will have to be public and transparent

Rome is letting things fully unfold in the civil sphere before taking up the matter of Cardinal George Pell, after an Australian court on Wednesday rejected Pell’s appeal of a conviction on five separate sex abuse counts against minors.

“As in other cases,” the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni told journalists on Wednesday, “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the Holy See issued a statement regarding the appeals court’s decision to uphold Cardinal Pell’s conviction on one count of sexual assault of a minor under the age of sixteen, and four others of gross indecency with a minor under age sixteen. The statement made note of Cardinal Pell’s rights and stressed both the Holy See’s respect for Australia’s judicial system, and the Holy See’s commitment to prosecuting clerical abusers within the Church’s own justice system.

“While reiterating its respect for the Australian judicial system, as stated on 26 February after the first instance verdict was announced,” the statement read, “the Holy See acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal.”

The statement went on to say, “As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”

“At this time, together with the Church in Australia,” the statement continued, “the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse.”

Cardinal Pell issued a statement through a spokesperson, in which he maintains his innocence and says his defence attorneys, “will thoroughly examine the judgement in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court.” Meanwhile, he will continue to serve his six-year sentence, to three years, eight months of which he is bound.

Two separate juries heard the evidence at first instance. The first jury could not reach a verdict. The second convicted unanimously.

Cardinal Pell appealed the verdict, impugning the reasonability of any conviction on the evidence presented in court, and citing two technical reasons: the trial judge’s refusal to allow the jury to see a 19-minute video animation of the Cathedral where the crimes of which Pell was accused were alleged to have taken place; a procedural irregularity regarding Pell’s arraignment, which did not take place before a jury.

The appellate judges unanimously rejected the technical reasons, but heard the appeal on grounds of reasonability. They decided, in a 2-1 vote, that the evidence presented in court made a guilty verdict reasonably available to the jury. Now, Cardinal Pell must decide whether to take his case to Australia’s highest court, and if so, on what grounds.

Certain decisions of the trial court — most notably the decision to impose a gag order on the trial — inevitably led to concerns over the integrity of the proceedings. The trial court said it was particularly concerned with the gag order, to guarantee fair treatment to the accused in a second, separate trial. That second case, however, was eventually dismissed.

Australia’s trial of Cardinal Pell was meaningfully public despite the questionable and contentious gag order, which the court eventually lifted.

Urging Australians “to maintain calm and civility,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney noted in his statement following the appeal verdict, “[T]he split decision amongst the judges is consistent with the differing views of the juries in the first and second trials, as well as the divided opinion amongst legal commentators and the general public.” He went on to say, “Reasonable people have taken different views when presented with the same evidence.”

The President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, said, “The Catholic Bishops of Australia believe all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgement accordingly.” The current Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Peter Comensoli, issued his own statement, saying, “I respectfully receive the Court’s decision, and I encourage everyone to do the same.”

Noting “that there have been two trials, and now today’s decision in the Court of Appeal,” Archbishop Comensoli said, “the complexity of the search for the truth in this matter has tested many, and may very well continue to do so.”

That questions and doubts will persist regarding whether justice has been done upon Cardinal Pell, was also inevitable.

Many of those convinced the Church is thoroughly and irretrievably corrupt not only with respect to her leadership corporately considered, but also singly, consider Cardinal Pell guilty for that reason. Others — ever fewer and ever more vociferous — are convinced the Church’s current circumstances are largely if not almost entirely contrived by enemies of the Church, and therefore are convinced of Pell’s innocence. Excluding those voices, there remain many people across the spectrum of ecclesiastical opinion, who have looked at the evidence as well as they could, and even when they are not unassailably convinced of his innocence, have come away not entirely satisfied of Pell’s guilt.

A jury in Victoria was satisfied, though, as were two of three appellate judges, and here we are — with the position of the Holy See become more delicate. The decision to let the appeals process exhaust itself, before beginning an ecclesiastical investigation or initiating canonical proceedings, is consistent with Pope Francis’s preferred modus procedendi. Justice in the ecclesiastical sphere, however, cannot be postponed indefinitely.

“Justice,” according to a maxim often quoted in critical address of ecclesiastical conduct in matters of right, “must be seen to be done.” If Cardinal Pell does come to face ecclesiastical justice, and if Church leadership really desire that any eventual proceedings against Pell should enjoy even a modicum of credibility, then those proceedings must be not only meaningfully public, but also reasonably transparent. A secret process will not do justice: not to the accused, nor to the accuser, nor to the broad society of the Church, in whose name the tribunal would act.