Cardinal Pell has broken his silence for the first time after having his final appeal upheld and his convictions quashed by a unanimous High Court decision last week. In an hour-long, wide-ranging interview with Andrew Bolt, of Sky News Australia, Pell appears remarkably peaceful for a man who has suffered such a shocking miscarriage of justice. At nearly 79, Pell admitted that he was wounded by this suffering, but not crushed because he knew he was innocent, and that the allegations were impossible for reasonable people to believe.
He also tells Bolt that his financial reforms in the Vatican may have played a part in the story, and that his case exemplifies the attempt “to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations”.
Certainly, those who led the charge against Pell seem to have had little interest in the rule of law, or the use of reason to investigate allegations. Bolt, the interviewer, is not a Christian; but he repeatedly asked Pell whether or not this “witch-hunt” was anti-Christian. The Victoria Police actually invited the public to make allegations against Pell. Every one of the 26 allegations that arose out of those police efforts – save for the one uncorroborated allegation which should never have made it to court – quickly fell apart. Not only did the Victoria Police not follow their own procedures of investigation, but they turned upside-down the presumption of innocence afforded to the accused which is the bedrock for the rule of law.
Bolt raised the question of whether the Church’s own failures are partly to blame. Unquestionably, says Pell. There were decades in which paedophile priests abused and harmed victims, while Church leaders failed to deal with those abuses swiftly, severely, and transparently. But Pell was – through the “Melbourne Response” – one of the bishops who led the Church’s efforts to address these abuses and bring them to an end. It was ironic, as Pell himself observed, that the public chose him as a worthy scapegoat. Which raises the question: How are we to view the public animus towards Pell? Was it not only scapegoating the most senior churchman, but also a personal vendetta by some?
There seem to be a variety of possible answers. When asked whether there could be some connection between his efforts at cleaning up financial corruption in the Vatican, and the witch-hunt in Australia, the cardinal replied: “Most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they [the two events] are [connected].” But he emphasised that this was a possibility rather than a fact.
Pell believes the financial corruption does not touch the Pope or the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but that the financial corruption runs deep throughout the Vatican, and still needs reform. Yet taking on that corruption, he admits, may conceivably have had unintended consequences for his life.
At the most general level, Cardinal Pell sees the origin of the animus which so distorted justice in the culture wars themselves: “The culture wars are real. There is a systematic attempt to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations.” He said that we can see these attempts in the battles over life, marriage, gender, and sexual identity. Some people simply “do not like Christians…who teach Christianity, especially on life and family issues.” He believes the witch hunt is rooted in this anti-Christian animus which extends to the rule of law itself. While not elaborating, it seems clear that he thinks the presumption of innocence in the Western legal tradition owes something to the Judeo-Christian deposit.
Those who oppose this “systematic attempt to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations” are now targets. When asked if he fears the death threats, or the spectre of new allegations, Pell shook his head. He isn’t afraid, he said, and will live out his remaining days in the Australia that he loves.
Andrew Bolt asked the obvious question: “How have you faced all this suffering?” Cardinal Pell was most animated in responding to this question. First of all, he said, “I knew I was innocent.” He revealed that he originally intended to testify in court, but feared he would become too angry. He also believes a clear conscience helped see him through the 13 months in prison.
Yet Pell’s most profound answer to the question of how he faced this unjust suffering was theological: “One of the strangest and most useful teachings of Christianity is that you can offer your suffering.” Christians, in other words, can face suffering because we can unite it to Jesus Christ, and we ourselves can make a redemptive sacrifice for the good of others, ourselves, and the Church.
Cardinal Pell appeared in this interview as a Christian who holds no grudges. He feels deep compassion for his accuser – who he believes may possibly have been abused by someone else. (Memory, he notes, is a strange thing.) Pell also insists that forgiveness and justice must fit together. Undermining one undermines the other.
Pell’s interview showed a man who has suffered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern times. It also showed the importance of upholding “the Judeo-Christian legal foundations” for the common good of all.