Australian Cardinal George Pell is seen after leaving the Melbourne Magistrates' Court in Australia July 26, 2017. CNS photo/Mark Dadswell, Reuters

Editorial: Justice isn’t easy

  • March 6, 2019

The immediate reaction to the mid-February news that Australian Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys was that, in addition to any sentence the courts pronounce, the Vatican should move quickly to expel him from the priesthood.

Expulsion is what happened recently when Pope Francis approved a recommendation to laicize former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Found guilty by a Vatican inquiry of abusing minors, the American prelate received the most severe punishment in modern times meted out to a cardinal. 

But the Pell case is turning out to be a more complicated affair and it illustrates the challenge the Vatican will face in enforcing a one-size-fits all, zero-tolerance abuse policy. 

Pell, who has always maintained his innocence, has launched an appeal that some Australian legal experts believe is likely to succeed. The evidence, they say, does not support Pell’s jury conviction. Other commentators are more blunt. They say Pell was railroaded due to an anti-Church storm unleashed by a recent four-year Australian royal commission on sex abuse. The commission, which heard three times from Pell, slammed the Church for years of covering up crimes by priests.

Pell relinquished senior Vatican positions to return home to face the charges, becoming the highest ranking Church official to stand trial for sex crimes. It took two trials to get a conviction after the first ended with a hung jury.

He is appealing on several grounds, but central to his case are claims the allegations are simply implausible. He was accused of abusing the boys minutes after Sunday Mass in a busy cathedral while wearing full vestments in a sacristy with the door open. Witnesses said he was never alone with anyone after Mass, let alone the boys. One of the alleged victims died in 2014, the other gave testimony without any corroborating evidence or witnesses.

As his appeal began, the Vatican launched its own investigation of Pell. Typically, investigators would rely heavily on court findings, but doing so in this case has become problematic. Yet ignoring or discounting the Australian verdict would likely invite derision in a world disgusted by coverups and insistent that the Church rid itself of clerics convicted of sexual abuse.

Is Pell an abuser or a scapegoat? It’s unclear. What is apparent, though, is that even if the Australian verdict was entirely above board, there are many countries around the world hostile to the Church, and in many of these the rule of law is as rare as a fair trial. 

This creates a real quandary should the Vatican be expected in some countries to distinguish between legitimate abuse claims and trumped-up charges. 

The Church needs a zero-tolerance abuse policy, but it also needs a zero chance of reaching wrongful conclusions. Pell’s case illustrates why always getting it right won’t be easy.

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