“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.” These words, issued by George Cardinal Pell upon his acquittal on Tuesday, should both heal and haunt the Catholic Church.
There can be no justice if there is no truth. And, even in the wake of inexcusable abuse by Catholic bishops, the truth cannot be sacrificed to appease a mass demand of blood for blood. The victims of priests will not find restitution by victimizing priests.
After a five-year legal battle, and in a surprising turn, Cardinal Pell was released from prison after the Australian High Court unanimously overturned his conviction on five counts of historical child sex abuse. In a statement after the ruling, His Eminence said: “I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.” That hurt, and that bitterness, run all too deep, as Cardinal Pell knows all too well.
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At last, His Eminence has been vindicated of the preposterous charge of sexually abusing two boys in 1996—decades before he was ever brought to court. As the Vatican Treasurer and senior adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell was the most senior church official to be publicly indicted of a child-related sex crime. Yet Catholics and non-Catholics around the world joined him in vehemently denying the allegations of his sole accuser—especially given their outlandish description of the crime and impossible timeline given by the alleged victim, whose testimony comprised the prosecution’s only shred of “evidence.”
The accuser claimed that Pell had cornered the boys in the sacristy immediately after Mass in the sacristy and forced them to perform sexual acts upon him. There were no witnesses or any physical evidence, and the second “victim” died by suicide in 2014 after denying that he was sexually abused. Nevertheless, the accuser’s testimony was found so credible that the jury found Pell guilty, and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Cardinal Pell’s dedicated legal team continued to fight the accusations strenuously, pointing out the sheer impossibility of such an attack given the logistics of the situation. Meanwhile, His Eminence spent over a year in prison for a crime he most certainly did not commit. Now, thank God, the truth is out. The High Court’s ruling—which cannot be overturned—declares that the jury did indeed fail to entertain reasonable doubt as to the Cardinal’s guilt, given the evidence (or lack thereof) for each of the convicted offenses. The original verdict has been quashed, and his name will be removed from Australia’s registry of sex offenders.
This is a painful story, though it has a rare happy ending. At the end of the day, an innocent man has found justice.
When truth is not the concern of diocesan lawyers and Church bureaucrats, the innocent will be swallowed up with the guilty. As the Cardinal said in his statement,
My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not. The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.
Yet his initial conviction is a referendum on public opinion, which no longer holds Catholic priests to be innocent until proven guilty. The Australian media condemned Cardinal Pell long before the courts had a chance to do so. Our joy at his release should be mingled with a recognition that one of our own—a Prince of the Church—was thrown into jail without a shred of real evidence. He is not the first victim of these barbaric priest-hunts, as history attests, and we can be certain he’s far from the last.
So, we mustn’t allow Cardinal Pell’s travails to be wasted. We have a duty to pressure our political and legal classes to explain how such a gross miscarriage of justice could have occurred. We must demand to know how they intend to ensure it will never happen again.
But, first, we should celebrate Cardinal Pell’s victory with him, and give thanks to God for his deliverance. Following his release from prison, His Eminence told Catholic News Agency that “Holy Week is obviously the most important time in our Church, so I am especially pleased this decision came when it did. The Easter Triduum, so central to our faith, will be even more special for me this year.” It ought to be even more special for us, too. Cardinal Pell’s vindication is a light which shines in the darkness of our self-quarantine—a whisper of “Peace be upon you” as we hide in our upper rooms.
For those of us who have prayed ceaselessly for justice, our prayers have been answered. Thank God.
Photo credit: Getty Images