News Analysis

For Australian Catholics, it feels like 1st-century Rome

Cardinal George Pell leaves the Supreme Court of Victoria on June 05, 2019 (Getty)

On August 21, after nearly three months of deliberation, Victoria’s Court of Appeal handed down its decision to dismiss Cardinal George Pell’s appeal by a 2-1 vote, sending the 79-year-old back to a high security prison.

The verdict did not spark the same media euphoria as the sentencing in March, the celebrations marred perhaps by the conclusion of the dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, that the appeal should be upheld. The only criminal lawyer on the panel, Weinberg devoted 214 pages outlining why he believed the charges were “implausible”.

“Had the incident occurred in the way that the complainant alleged,” he wrote, “it seems to me highly unlikely that none of those many persons present would have seen what was happening, or reported it in some way.”

Papers ranging from the quasi-conservative Australian to the aggressively secular The Age dwelt on Weinberg’s conclusions. Commentators from across the divide declared it a “difficult” day, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that the cardinal would be stripped of his Order of Australia.

In an interview with the radio station 3AW, Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne insisted that the cardinal was innocent and promised to provide him “pastoral and spiritual support” while in prison.

Other archdiocesan media releases and pastoral letters were sent out offering support to survivors of abuse and renewed commitments to making the Church a safe environment. The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference reminded the faithful that “all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgment accordingly”.

In his pastoral letter, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney had a word for the cardinal’s supporters, saying: “I know that there are many in the Catholic community and beyond who will find it difficult to come to terms with this judgment.” He asked them to persevere in “faith, hope and love”.

There is one element that is seldom acknowledged – and that is the increasing atmosphere of suspense. Last week’s dismissal has exacerbated an already growing sense of uncertainty, especially among those Catholics of the same conservative persuasion as the cardinal. Victoria’s Court of Appeal just upheld a decision to send a man to prison on the uncorroborated word of another. And many are asking: if this was ideologically inspired, will they be next?

This question is especially affecting priests, who cannot help but compare their situation with the cardinal’s. Perhaps spiritual direction should take place in busy cafés, or be avoided entirely? Maybe Confession is a liability? Should priests stay away from
children’s catechesis, altar servers and choir members?

But even this would not be enough. The cardinal was accused of molestation in a busy and open place: the cathedral sacristy after Sunday Mass. Perhaps priests are at risk simply by virtue of their priesthood.

And what about the laity? Lay Catholics who hold similar convictions to Cardinal Pell feel as if they are operating under the Sword of Damocles. This is the largely unexpressed feeling of thousands of Catholics across the country.

And it is not just Catholics. Christians following the case of sports superstar Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia after quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9 on social media, sense that the public square is increasingly unwelcoming.

Over the last year, Parliament has received two bills seeking to remove completely the protection of religious freedom in law, despite promises in 2017 to review and reform religious protection. Now, after a Cabinet meeting on August 20, it seems that religious freedom will not be so much protected as tolerated by discrimination clauses.

However, clauses can be removed, as shown on August 15, with Victoria being the latest state to remove clauses exempting Confessions from mandatory reporting. Now, priests in all states except Western Australia could be fined (or worse) for refusing to report abuse revealed in Confession.

Also adding to the tension is the behaviour of the Victorian police, who set up Task Force Sano and Operation Tethering in 2013 to discover allegations against Pell before he was even accused.

This is just one event in a series of worrying episodes involving the increasingly “woke” Victoria police. In 2007 the Supreme Court Judge Don Stewart called for a Royal Commission into the force, claiming it was “riddled with corruption”. Since then, it has been at the centre of a series of scandals, including the Lawyer X Commission where a lawyer was found leaking information (and other things) to the police.

These incidents have undermined confidence in the ability of politics, law enforcement and the courts to protect Australians who hold views deviating from the progressive consensus.

To some that may sound like alarmism, but for others there is a sense of a tightening net, and those Catholics who reject the zeitgeist are feeling it keenly.

Cardinal Pell will appeal the decision to the High Court. But whatever happens many Australians will tell you they feel a bit like they are in 1st-century Rome.