There has been only one topic in Australia that has broken through the Covid-19 eclipse, and that is the exoneration of Cardinal George Pell by the High Court on Tuesday, April 7. By a unanimous decision, 7-0, the court acquitted the cardinal of all charges, saying there should have been “sufficient doubt” in the minds of the jury when they condemned him over a year ago.
This could have marked the end of a bitter episode, yet many Australians – in a mirrored unanimity – voted to ignore the High Court’s decision: in their own minds, the Cardinal remains a guilty man.
Many think that Pell used his influence with the Catholic Church to pervert justice. This is despite the fact that he received no funds from the Church to pay his legal fees, and that no high-profile Catholic bishop or priest publicly advocated on his behalf, with the notable exception of Fr Frank Brennan SJ.
Yet the leader of the Reason Party, Fiona Patten, said: “Australians know the real truth about George Pell. No amount of holy water can wash the stain of child sexual abuse away from the Catholic Church.”
She had articulated Australia’s worst-kept secret – that the trial of Cardinal Pell is the trial of the Catholic Church, or rather the Church as it is understood in public fantasy.
That same night, the doors of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral were vandalised with the message to “go to hell Pell”, while the Carmelite convent in Kew, where Pell spent his first free night, saw locals tying children’s tricycles and ribbons on the gate. At the Cardinal’s next residence, the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney, ten police escorts were required to secure the premise. Sensing a potential rise in vandalism, police began checking in on suburban parishes with no connection to the cardinal other than their mutual Catholicism.
Contra Justice Kidd, the Pell affair has put Catholicism on trial, yet in a strange twist, the Pell affair has also put the state of Victoria on trial.
“I make no comment about today’s High Court decision,” said Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria, “but I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”
This is not the first time that the Victorian Premier has set up a dichotomy between belief in Pell’s innocence and compassion for victims.
It is not also the first time that a victim class has been used as a shield to justify systemic corruption, and in this case there is much cause for alarm.
Victorian Opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, said that “the unanimous High Court verdict was an embarrassment to Victoria’s legal system”. There were also calls from former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett for Chief Justices Ferguson and Maxwell, who rejected the Cardinal’s appeal in December, to resign.
Columnist Andrew Bolt, who advocated for Pell’s innocence, highlighted what he called the Victoria Police’s “witch hunt”, with their 27 accusations ranging from “the highly improbable to the impossibly bizarre” while Vice Chancellor of Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven took public media broadcaster, the ABC, to task for their false and misleading coverage saying: “It is astonishing that an organisation like the ABC which places so much emphasis on its trust is rapidly now trying to divert attention from the fact that you got it hopelessly and totally wrong. Management cannot move on from a failure like that.”
Cardinal Pell’s incarceration and acquittal calls for a choice; either the Cardinal is using the Catholic Church’s political power to gain favours, or the Pell affair calls into question the integrity of public, police and judicial life in the state of Victoria.
On the night of the acquittal, the Tuesday in Holy Week, vandals broke into St Patrick’s Cathedral to spray-paint the words “the law protects the powerful” on the cathedral door.
Australians agree on this point – yet we differ on where we think the power lies.
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