After a hip replacement surgery in Rome, His Eminence Cardinal George Pell, 81, died unexpectedly on Tuesday of an apparent cardiac arrest. The passing of the Australian Cardinal should serve as a renewed moment of recollection for the Church regarding how the innocent can be punished for the malefactions of evildoers.
Besides being a champion for orthodox Catholicism in an age of liberalism—speaking out often against homosexual “marriage,” abortion, and contraception—and who, as Vatican treasurer, occupied the third highest authority in the Church, Cardinal Pell will be remembered primarily as the Prince of the Church who went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
In a society where truth is dismissed for what the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” there is a similar threat to the existence of justice. Justice cannot thrive without truth, and even in the face of egregious wrongdoing and tremendous injury, truth cannot be rejected to pacify a public cry of blood for blood. The innocent must be safe, and guilt must never be a foregone conclusion, especially when priest victims stand to be created together with the victims of priests. Though he deserves far more than this, Cardinal Pell’s legacy will be laced with this associative and blind victimization.
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The sex-abuse scandal of the Catholic Church has been a series of shocks over the years, and another and new shock occurred on April 7, 2020—but one less terrible, in a certain sense, than the previous ones. After a five-year legal battle and in a truly shocking turn of events, Cardinal George Pell was released from prison after the Australian High Court unanimously overturned his conviction on five counts of child sex abuse allegedly occurring in 1996. Cardinal Pell was an incomprehensible victim of a blind rage bred of victimization which holds the accused as guilty until proven innocent.
Cardinal Pell’s acquittal ended the tragedy caused by a 30-year-old accuser who claimed the now-late Cardinal sexually abused him in 1996, making Pell the most senior church official to be publicly indicted of a child-related sex crime. Many joined the Cardinal in denying the allegations of this lone litigant and his questionable evidence—especially given the preposterous circumstances that described then-Archbishop Pell accosting and abusing two choirboys at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Yet after an initial trial resulted in a hung jury, the second trial found Pell guilty in 2018 and sentenced him to six years in prison.
Cardinal Pell went from the court directly to prison, and there he remained for over a year while his steadfast legal aides appealed the conviction tirelessly, pointing out the unfeasibility of the alleged attack given the conditions and timeline. These lawyers soon brought the case to the Victoria Court of Appeals, giving more than a dozen reasons why reasonable doubt should have been entertained by jury members in the inherently implausible accusations. At last, the High Court’s irreversible ruling upheld that the jury failed to entertain appropriate doubt as to guilt given the evidence for each of the convicted offenses, ordering that the verdicts be replaced with acquittals.
Cardinal Pell was cleared of the crime he never committed and could not have committed as presented, and his name was removed from Australia’s register of child sex offenders. Though this is a painful story, and one that is fraught with the bias of a world that has been damaged by the crimes of monstrous priests, it is a relief for all that an innocent man found justice. The Catholic world should remember Cardinal Pell now in prayer as he goes to his final rest after a tumultuous close to his life a martyr for the errors of deviant priests and vindictive people.
As His Eminence said after his acquittal, “The only basis for long term healing is truth, and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.” But when truth is not the primary goal of attorneys and diocesan settlement organizations—a situation born and bred by decades of disgusting abuse by priests who betrayed their priesthood—the innocent will be taken down with the guilty.
Cardinal Pell stood with grace as he maintained his innocence without rancor or bitterness for his accusers, a victim of an infernal atmosphere of condemnation. The Church should suffer for her shortcomings in allowing the abuse of children by her wayward ministers, but she should not suffer injustices born of injustice.
Cardinal Pell’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice, and his acquittal was a sign of hope that justice—and truth—can still force their way through the hatred and bigotry that influence and even possess the general opinion. That is the hope with which Cardinal Pell’s life should leave us. Though suspicion and contempt have been sadly and shamefully earned in many respects, that is not a reason to level censure at everyone who comes under accusation.
Again, truth must matter, or else the innocent will continue to be crushed under the grinding cogs of a system that is more concerned with the appearance of justice and with payouts and non-disclosure settlements than with the truth. Cardinal Pell wrote that his trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church or the sex-abuse crisis, but it still stands as a challenge for the Church to divorce herself from predisposed policies and penchants, abiding instead by a process conducive to discovering the truth despite optics or outcry.
Though Cardinal Pell was freed, he no doubt lost a great deal in the last years of his life—his reputation, his career, his savings, his dignity, and God knows what else. He was given his freedom back, which he lost for 13 months, but at what price? Perhaps these trials were his salvation. Again, God knows—and we pray.
There should, without doubt, be satisfaction that an innocent and holy man was released from prison and that a Prince of the Church was cleared of unspeakable crimes. Yet, that an innocent man was slandered and imprisoned due to an environment of falsehood and hostility should be of deep cultural concern for Catholics and for all.
Victims should be heard, make no mistake, and the injustices they suffered should be redressed. But the innocent should not fall with the guilty in a wide swathe of indifferent, spiteful mowing among those who have devoted their lives to Jesus Christ.
Though his earthly suffering is over, Catholics must not allow Cardinal Pell’s story to be forgotten and should urge justice officials and politicians to prevent truth from being dethroned in order to maintain allegiance with a cultural prejudice and popular witch-hunts. The life of Cardinal Pell should be a source of healing, courage, and hope. May he have a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ and rest in peace.
[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibañez (CNA)]