A Tale of Two Cardinals — One Past, One Present

COMMENTARY: The twin cases raise questions about the course of justice, both civil and canonical, and how the two coincide, or come into conflict.

Cardinal George Pell (l) and Theodore McCarrick (r)
Cardinal George Pell (l) and Theodore McCarrick (r) (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/Catholic News Agency and CNA file photo)

At year-end, two cardinals were confined to quarters, unable to celebrate Holy Mass. The stories of Cardinal George Pell and now Mr. Theodore McCarrick are the dominant Catholic news stories of 2019, at least in the English-speaking world, but with universal implications.

Cardinal Pell is incarcerated in a Melbourne jail, having been sentenced in March to a six-year term after being convicted of sexual assaults in the Melbourne cathedral in 1996. His appeal at Australia’s highest court will be heard in March 2020.

Cardinal McCarrick was laicized in February after being found guilty in a Church trial of sexual abuse of minors, abuse of power and solicitation in the sacrament of confession. He lives in seclusion in a Kansas friary with no public contact. No longer a cleric, McCarrick cannot celebrate Mass or exercise any priestly ministry.

Both situations are astonishing, both in their own ways unprecedented. And both raise questions about the course of justice, both civil and canonical, and how the two coincide, or come into conflict.

Cardinal Pell is widely believed to be innocent but was convicted on charges brought by a police department that launched a “get Pell” operation long before there were any complaints about him. That the cardinal sits in jail, not in China, not in Venezuela, but in Australia, demonstrates a chilling new reality: Sexual-abuse allegations, even those totally uncorroborated and fantastic, can be weaponized to persecute Catholic figures who run afoul of a new intolerant secularist extremism.

The failings of justice in the Australian state of Victoria during Cardinal Pell’s prosecution have been well documented. At year’s end, a royal commission into massive corruption within the Victoria police has shown that the police used the Cardinal Pell case to distract from their own scandals. This police corruption in Victoria means that an innocent man is in jail.

Despite the circumstances, Cardinal Pell remains there awaiting a decision of his final appeal. Meanwhile, the Australian bishops and the Vatican express their respect for the Australian justice system. Those boilerplate statements will be tested in 2020.

Regardless of what the Australian high court rules, a canonical investigation will have to be conducted. After all, conviction by a court, upheld on appeal, would qualify for the “credible accusation” standard that requires abuse allegations to be investigated by a canonical procedure. For bishops and cardinals, that means by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

The Holy See has already opened an investigation but will wait until after the high-court judgment to proceed. It is common in such cases for the canonical process to wait until after the civil process is concluded. The Church will thus have to weigh the merits of the matter and come to its own conclusion. At that point, both the Vatican and Australia’s bishops will have to declare themselves on the merits of the matter.

It will be a time of testing. Will the Church, cowed by its own failings and loss of credibility in sexual-abuse cases, accommodate itself to a manifest injustice, offering up Cardinal Pell as a literal scapegoat? Or will it witness to the truth and suffer the consequences of saying that the alleged victim, the police and the courts got it wrong?

The trial of Cardinal Pell was never only about him. It was about the integrity of Australian justice at a time of anti-clerical frenzy. To date, Australian justice has failed the test.

In 2020, the Church will face its own Cardinal Pell trial, about its own commitment to truth and justice. It too may fail; the stakes are high.

The McCarrick case began the other way around.

Though there are now civil cases filed against him, no complaint about the former cardinal and bishop had spurred criminal charges from civil authorities. Only in 2017 did a complaint come to the Archdiocese of New York’s voluntary compensation program. It was handled by the lay investigators of that program and the local district attorney; and, in 2018, it was announced that the complaint was found “substantiated.”

Twelve years after Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation as archbishop, McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July 2018, and the canonical investigation in Rome continued. In January 2019, an administrative procedure was used at the CDF, which found him guilty and imposed the ecclesiastical “death penalty,” namely removal from the clerical state. Pope Francis confirmed the penalty.

This “defrocking” of a cardinal was unthinkable, until it became expected. Two months before the decision, Vatican sources began leaking that McCarrick would be laicized before the February sexual-abuse summit in Rome, as a reforming sign before the meeting.

That, too, was troublesome from the perspective of justice. McCarrick was the opposite of Cardinal Pell. No one thought him innocent. To the contrary, it was widely assumed that he was guilty and that “everyone” had known that for generations.

The latter was not true — rumors were heard, but the existence of concrete complaints of sexual misconduct appears to have been unknown to the majority of Church leaders, until his final years as archbishop of Washington. The forthcoming report into McCarrick’s career, expected in early 2020, will shed much light on that aspect of the case.

Still, that the outcome of the case was widely known in Rome before it was heard does not enhance the reputation of canonical justice. Evidence was still being gathered in New York in the last days of December 2018. Less than three weeks later, the process, sentence, appeal and final judgment were completed in Rome, in order to conform to the public-relations preparation for the February summit. With Cardinal Pell’s case pending before the CDF, the McCarrick case did not bolster the congregation’s reputation for impartial justice.

The year past brought the dramatic fall of two cardinals. The power and prestige that they once had, in both ecclesial and secular circles, is gone. To the good, in the case of McCarrick, who put that influence to wicked purposes.

In the case of Cardinal Pell, it was precisely his power and prestige that attracted enemies who wished to bring him down.

In 2020, both cases, with the McCarrick report and Cardinal Pell’s appeal to be heard, will continue to reverberate.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

A Look Back at 2019 and Ahead to 2020 (Jan. 4)

Catholics bid farewell to 2019 and many look to the New Year with a mixture of anticipation and high suspense. It was a tumultuous 12 months. What were the biggest stories of the last year? This week on Register Radio we talk to Register Managing Editor Tom Wehner. And then we found out what might lie ahead in 2020 for the pro-life movement with Lauretta Brown, Register staff writer.