Comment Opinion & Features

First they came for Pell…

Cardinal Pell arrives at court in Melbourne in February (Getty)

Why do so many Catholics refuse to believe that the Australian cardinal George Pell is guilty of child abuse? The cynical answer is “tribal loyalty”: he’s one of us, so we’ll defend him. But Catholics have had plenty of opportunity to get used to the idea of clerics abusing children and we’d gladly condemn the guilty to prison.

No, part of the Catholic objection is an old-fashioned, non-sectarian concern for justice – that if you’re going to convict a man for such an awful crime, you should be pretty damn sure he’s guilty.

His accusers would say that they are. They say that after a Sunday Mass in December 1996, the archbishop found two boys drinking communion wine in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Allegedly, he then raped them. Later that year, or in early 1997, it is said that he groped one of them in a hallway. A jury found him guilty last year and two judges in a court of appeal have upheld the verdict. One of the appeal judges, however, dissented – and his opinion contains some interesting observations about how the verdict was reached.

The cardinal was convicted solely on the testimony of one of the boys who was allegedly attacked. The other boy, who denied he had been assaulted, is now dead. Justice Mark Weinberg puts it like this: “These convictions were based upon the jury’s assessment of the complainant as a witness, and nothing more.”

Some readers might be surprised that it’s possible to convict purely on the basis of one person’s testimony more than 20 years after an event, but, according to Justice Weinberg, “The prosecution argued that the complainant’s evidence was so obviously truthful, and reliable, so compelling, that no matter what the rest of the evidence led in the trial might suggest, there could be no reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt.”

This could be a fair basis upon which to convict, given that abuse cases often take years to come to light and are perpetrated by clever men more than capable of covering their tracks. But the defence tried to lay down a number of obstacles that made the alleged attack simply impossible to perform.

Here’s where there actually is a distinctly Catholic perspective on this case: the more you understand how a cathedral works or what an archbishop does, the less credible the prosecution’s version of events seems. The defence brought forward witnesses who said that after Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the archbishop was almost never left alone while vested; that he would usually spend time with parishioners; that the wine would have been locked in a safe; and that the vestments Cardinal Pell wore would have made it very difficult to assault someone.

Difficult but perhaps not impossible. The court was shown the vestments and the jury must have been satisfied that they could have been manipulated, just as the prosecution managed to find exceptions or contradictions that suggested the defence’s witnesses might have been wrong.

Even so, to the ear of sceptics, the prosecution’s case relied upon an extraordinary combination of precise events – clearing every hurdle, one by one. That the boys happened to be drinking the wine; that the cardinal happened to go into the sacristy alone; that he managed to expose himself and rape them both within only a few minutes. Given that the cardinal has never been found guilty of any other sex crime, this would presumably have been a moment of utter madness and yet conscious opportunism.

Catholics have other reasons for entertaining reasonable doubts. Our history is littered with clerics going to jail for crimes of conscience or for things they simply didn’t do, and it’s very easy for some Catholics to put Cardinal Pell in that tradition. He was regarded as a force for social conservatism in Australia, a country where liberals seem to be waging a war against the Church. There’s even a campaign to compel priests to break the seal of Confession in abuse cases.

The cardinal’s defenders see him as a scalp and the accusation of rape as an attempt to discredit his brand of religion. They fear that if the state can bring down such a powerful, apparently holy man, then it’s a warning to Christians everywhere.

It would be simple to say, “a court has found him guilty and that is that”. But the Catholic conscience never stops there: if you believe something is wrong, regardless of what the rest of society thinks, you have to say so. We don’t outsource our principles to courts and judges, a fact that truly vexes the secular mind. The Catholic conscience is like a morsel of food in a corner of a shell that the state can’t quite reach. We are hated for it.

If Cardinal Pell was indeed a “scalp” then his persecutors should know that there is a quiet army of opinion in his favour, that many people dissent from this verdict, and that their trust in the cleric’s innocence is as strong as ever.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor