One of the strange constants of the tumultuous persecution/prosecution of Cardinal George Pell was that, no matter the latest fantastical development, the Holy See Press Office would always express its “utmost respect” for the Australian justice system.
At first, this seemed like the routine lies that press offices tell. During the recent visit of the new president of Argentina, for example, the Holy See Press Office said that the Holy Father had discussed abortion with the president, who advocates liberalizing the nation’s abortion law. But they hadn’t discussed it. Pope Francis hadn’t raised it. It was clumsy spin, a bit of easily corrected dishonesty. Embarrassing, but business as usual.
But after nearly three years, the “utmost respect” was more difficult to understand. Across the depth and breadth of the Roman Curia how many people are there who have anything approaching even passing familiarity with Australian criminal justice? In what was this “utmost respect” rooted?
I would hazard that the only Australian criminal case most curialists have even heard of would be that of Lindy Chamberlain – the “dingo” case. That was a massive miscarriage of justice which saw an innocent mother falsely imprisoned for three years for the murder of her child. The Australian justice system finally got around to fully exonerating her in 2012, thirty-two years after the death.
It is a false and dangerous thing for the Holy See to express “utmost respect” for judicial systems in regard to particular cases. What the Holy See likely means is that the Australian – or Italian, or British, or American – system at least aims at justice, unlike that of China or Saudi Arabia.
But no matter how fine a criminal justice system may be in theory, it can be bent to unjust ends in a particular case. Italians should know this more than most, given that for decades accusations that the criminal justice has been corrupted for partisan ends have been made at the highest levels. It’s enough to recall that former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was convicted of complicity in murder in 2002 even as the actual alleged killer was acquitted. The Italian supreme court acquitted him in 2003.
Thus to repeatedly express “utmost respect” for any system in relation to a particular case is to create confusion. This is not just harmless diplomatic blather. If a particular case treats a particular defendant unjustly, repeated assertions of “utmost respect” make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Church’s canonical process to arrive at a different, honest result. And that would be the situation for any defendant who did not have the capacity to appeal his convictions, as Cardinal Pell did, to the High Court.
In the Pell case the professions of “utmost respect” became absurd bordering on the grotesque, given that it would be hard to find a single curial cardinal or bishop who did not think a monstrous injustice was taking place in Melbourne. Despite what the Holy See said, there was precious little respect for Australian justice across the curia in this case.
Another Australian archbishop, Philip Wilson of Adelaide, was convicted of covering up sexual abuse only to be acquitted on appeal in 2018. The appellate judge said flatly that Wilson could not be convicted as a scapegoat for the sexual abuse crisis. Not much respectable there.
And not just Australia. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons was convicted of covering up sexual abuse while all of his many co-defendants on the same charge in the same case were acquitted. Barbarin’s conviction was quashed on appeal and it was clear that if he wasn’t a cardinal he would never have been charged. He resigned anyway.
“Respectable” criminal justice systems routinely convict the innocent, especially when involving alleged crimes against children. In Canada, for more than twenty years innocent people were falsely accused and convicted of assaulting and killing children. Parents were falsely convicted of killing their own children due to the malfeasance of the Ontario coroner’s office. It would be hard to imagine a more profound abuse of state power: innocent people sent to jail, reputations destroyed, families sundered, children traumatized and guilty parties going free. Is Canadian criminal justice worthy of “utmost respect”?
In America, the right to a fair trial has practically disappeared. So fearsome is the power of the prosecutorial state that fewer than 3% of criminal charges end up in a trial. Almost all are concluded by plea bargains with defendants at a vast disadvantage against the state; there is even a “trial penalty” – more severe sentences for those who insist on their right to a trial.
There are venerable American institutions – not to mention an entire subgenre of Hollywood films – dedicated to exposing wrongful convictions, including those on death row. At the highest levels of both parties, it is routinely charged – credibly so – that the FBI and Department of Justice subjugate criminal justice to political ends. Only a fool would express “utmost respect” for American criminal justice.
In Britain, being a former prime minister is no protection from a highly injurious and unfounded police action. Even being dead is no protection. Wiltshire Police staged a press conference outside the late Ted Heath’s home, soliciting charges of pedophilia against the late prime minister. It was a gross calumny resulting only in the prosecution of the supposed victim who hoodwinked the police force.
Justice can be perverted in any case, especially so with high profile defendants in crimes against minors. In fact, justice often is so perverted, even in supposedly respectable countries. The Holy See, whose justice system is older than any other states, ought to have the wit to see that, and the courage to say so.
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