Pell Case Reminds the World Why Cardinals Wear Red

“This is what the red color of their habits means: the color of blood and love.” —Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 26, 2019.
Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 26, 2019. (photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Lent is a time in which we relive spiritually the events of Jesus’ sham trials for the crimes of blasphemy and sedition and his crucifixion.

It’s also a time in which we ponder his words from the Last Supper, “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Jesus sends us out “like sheep in the midst of wolves” promising that people, including those closest to us, will hand us over to courts, scourge us in places of worship, and lead us before civil leaders to give witness. He says that we will be “hated by all” because of his name and some of us will, like him, even be put to death (Matthew 10:16-22). But he assured us, “Blessed are you when they revile you … and utter every kind of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

For me, these reminders provide the proper context to try to comprehend the unbelievable injustice that is happening to Cardinal George Pell in Australia, who March 12 was sentenced to six years in prison after having been found “guilty” Dec. 11 of five charges that he sexually abused two choristers of the Melbourne cathedral choir in 1996.

False accusations of sexual abuse against clergy, we know, are relatively rare. In the United States, historically less than 10% of accusations have been demonstrated to be false.

The just response to the Church’s failure adequately to protect and help sexual abuse victims in the past, however, is not to allow innocent clerics or other personnel to become victims of character assassination through false accusations — or worse, to be convicted of crimes by perhaps the worst of all calumnies. We must defend the innocent cleric with a zeal similar to that with which we protect innocent children and hold accountable those who hurt them.

That’s why it’s important for all Catholics to be praying for Cardinal Pell and for those who seek justice to raise up our voices as strongly as the young prophet Daniel when Susanna was falsely accused by two corrupt judges for refusing their advances (Daniel 13).

It’s impossible, of course, for anyone who was not present to have absolute certainty that something did not occur; but it is possible for anyone who studies the facts of the Pell case with a fair mind not only to have reasonable doubt that he didn’t do what he is accused of, but moral certainty that he in fact could not have done it.

The accusation is that on Dec. 15 or 22, 1996 (records show it could have happened on one of these dates), in one of the first two Masses in the newly renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral of Melbourne, the 6’3” Archbishop Pell ditched his master of ceremonies, miter bearer, crozier bearer and everyone else, to leave the highly formal recessional procession and follow two 13-year-old choir boys — who were supposed to be processing directly to a Christmas concert rehearsal — into the sacristy behind the altar. There, after busting the singers for gulping red sacramental wine, he abused both boys over the course of six minutes while the sacristy door remained open.

One of the supposed victims died in 2014 before testifying, but told his mother on two separate occasions that he had never been abused by anyone. The other supposed victim said that Cardinal Pell forced him to perform a sex act on him while the archbishop was still fully vested in pants, a shoe-length cassock, a shoe-length alb, a tight belt-like cincture, a stole and chasuble (even though any priest will tell you that it is supremely cumbersome even to go to the restroom fully vested in that way).

All of this happened with no one intruding, in a sacristy that on any given Sunday is ordinarily as busy as Grand Central Station. But according to testimony, on this particular Sunday, it was as deserted as a ghost town. The sacristan had disappeared. The lectors had disappeared. The concelebrating priests had disappeared. The altar servers had disappeared.

After the abuse occurred, the choirboys supposedly returned to choir rehearsal without their director or any of their several dozen fellow choristers noticing that they (and their voices) had been missing — the director, in fact, said that they had not been missing — and the archbishop returned fully vested to the entrance of the Cathedral to greet exiting Mass-goers who were excited to meet their new archbishop and apparently had waited patiently the whole time.

During trial, there was no corroboration of the accusations at all, including by witnesses called by the prosecution, whereas Cardinal Pell provided 20 alibis. Moreover, the supposed victims never told anyone about the putative abuse for more than 20 years. The victim who testified said that Cardinal Pell had parted his episcopal garments down the middle to facilitate the abuse, despite a few salient  facts: 1) Albs are not designed to part in this manner, 2) the cassock would have to be unbuttoned one button at a time underneath the alb, and 3) the pants and belt the archbishop was wearing beneath these other cumbersome layers would somehow need to be accessed (only God knows how). Each of these steps is itself time-consuming, but taken together would certainly have eaten up more clock than the supposed six minutes in which the alleged crime took place.

Furthermore, employees of the Cathedral testified that those in the sacristy had no access to wine — it was locked in a vault — and that the wine used was always white, not red as was reported during the trial. The victim’s memory of the layout of the Cathedral also did not align at all with the accusations made.

Beyond this, in 1996, upon becoming the archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell had created the Church in Australia’s foremost response to the sexual abuse crisis, by insisting upon safe environment requirements that would only be instituted in the United States six years later.

Cardinal Pell would have known intricately what would have given even the appearance of scandal — and conspicuously leaving a procession to follow boys into a sacristy alone would surely have qualified. Moreover, if someone was so desperate to commit sexual crimes against minors that he would do so on one of his first Sundays in his newly renovated cathedral, in a public place, while others were waiting for him, would not common sense tell us that he would have left a whole string of victims abused in far less cavalier ways? And yet there are none. 

So how was such a 12-0 guilty jury verdict possible? Evidently, because the jury pool had been tainted by unrelenting attacks on the Church as a whole as well as on Cardinal Pell as a highly visible representative of that Church in Australia.

The 2013-17 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse focused much of its attention on the failures of the Church in the United Kingdom and associated commonwealths such as Australia, creating the impression that the Church was almost like a crime syndicate protecting its own from prosecution for crimes against minors.

With regard to Cardinal Pell, he was by far the most notable face of Australian Catholicism for a generation as the archbishop of Melbourne, then of Sydney, then as Cardinal, and finally as the one chosen in 2013 by Pope Francis to fix Vatican finances. He was a regular newspaper columnist, and television and radio commentator, who was very happy to debate — with the toughness that befits a former Australian rules football player — people who attacked Church teaching on abortion, gay rights, women’s ordination, or various other progressive issues (and he even engaged in scientific debates on such issues as climate change). He was the focal point of anti-Catholicism, anti-clericalism and anti-conservatism in a highly secular country.

Three examples of the poisoning of the well in Australia can suffice.

  • In 2016, singer Tim Minchin released Come Home (Cardinal Pell), which rose to No. 11 on the Australian Singles Chart. It was nominated for Song of the Year by the Australasian Performing Rights Association and has 3.3 million views on YouTube. Among the lyrics: “I want to be transparent here, George: I’m not the greatest fan of your religion and I personally believe that those who cover up abuse should go to prison. … Come home, Cardinal Pell, I’ve got a nice spot in hell with your name on it. … If you don’t feel compelled to come home by a sense of moral duty perhaps you will come home and … sue me.”
  • In the same year, Cardinal Pell critic and journalist Louise Milligan published Cardinal: The Rise and the Fall of George Pell, which tried to make a case against him, putting together rumors and innuendo back to his days as a young priest.
  • And in 2013, the State of Victoria launched a task force entitled Operation Tethering to search for complaints against him before they had ever received any, taking out newspaper ads asking whether anyone had ever been abused at the Melbourne Cathedral. Considering this fishing expedition and the other attempts at character assassination the cardinal suffered, many prominent Australian legal commentators have questioned before, during and after the jury proceedings, whether a fair trial for Cardinal Pell was possible.

Imagine you were seated on a jury in which the accused was characterized as the head of a powerful mafia; that you believed he was guilty of a whole series of most serious crimes, but the prosecutors didn’t do a great job on the particular case they were making, the witnesses for the prosecution had various inconsistencies, and the hotshot defense attorney had done everything and more to give reasonable doubt as to the accusations. Would it really be easy to acquit?

Even if it wasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the mafioso had committed the crimes in question, wouldn’t it be likely that he had committed some other crimes somewhere and that society would be better off, and justice better served, with him behind bars, minimally to teach everyone a lesson?

U.S. journalist John Allen recently wrote, “Due to negative media coverage and his own combative disposition, Pell occupies roughly the same spot in public opinion as Osama bin Laden did in the United States post 9/11.” If you were on the jury, would you  acquit bin Laden even if the prosecution’s case had holes?

It would be similarly hard for a jury in Melbourne, as well, to let Cardinal Pell walk free. And yet in the first trial, 10 of the 12 jurors found him not guilty. In Australia, 11 jury members are needed to acquit, which meant that Cardinal Pell’s case resulted in a mistrial.

That first trial raises the possibility that the second jury, which convicted Pell 12-0, might have not given the same weight to the exonerating evidence as the first and might have chosen to overlook the many inconsistencies and impossibilities in the testimony of the accuser.

Cardinal Pell has appealed to a panel of senior judges, who have the option of declaring an “unsafe verdict,” one that pronounces that the jury could not have rationally reached the conclusion it did based on the evidence, and thereby making Cardinal Pell’s conviction null and void. That’s what we all should be praying for now.

In the meantime, Cardinal Pell is in a solitary confinement jail cell prevented from celebrating Mass, as he enters in the Passion of the Lord and helps lead the reparation of the Church for the sins of clerical sexual abuse, even though he is as guilty of those sins as Jesus was of blasphemy and sedition.