Calling Cardinal Pell’s Prosecution What It Is: Religious Persecution

COMMENTARY: Now that the suppression order has been lifted, we are free to state what has been evident for several years now.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court Feb. 27 in Melbourne, Australia. Cardinal Pell was found guilty Dec. 11, but the result was subject to a suppression order and was only able to be reported since Tuesday.
Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court Feb. 27 in Melbourne, Australia. Cardinal Pell was found guilty Dec. 11, but the result was subject to a suppression order and was only able to be reported since Tuesday. (photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Cardinal George Pell was exactly where he should have been Wednesday night in Melbourne: in jail.

Let Henry David Thoreau explain: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (Civil Disobedience).

Now that the peculiar “suppression order” in Australia has been lifted, we are free to state what has been evident for several years now. The prosecution of Cardinal Pell has been a monstrous miscarriage of justice, a religious persecution carried out by prosecutorial means.

Cardinal Pell was convicted last December for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old boys in 1996. The process that led to the convictions was, from the start, a sustained and calculated strategy to corrupt the criminal-justice system toward politically motivated ends.

And now Cardinal Pell is in jail, awaiting his sentencing next month. There is no shame that Cardinal Pell is in jail; the shame is sufficiently abundant to be worn by all those who put him there.


False Accusations

Miscarriages of justice do take place. Cardinal Pell himself was falsely accused in 2002, and, before him, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was falsely accused in 1993. Both those accusations were resolved with recourse to the police or courts.

The case of Cardinal Pell, though, was not a miscarriage akin to a mistake. It was done with police and prosecutorial malice aforethought.

Americans ought not be surprised by this, for the list of wrongfully convicted is very long indeed. Even some on death row have been exonerated before their executions could be carried out.


Malicious Prosecution of Prominent People

The most famous recent case in the U.S. is the 2008 conviction of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who lost a narrow re-election bid after a conviction for not reporting an alleged gift. Only after an FBI whistleblower revealed the grievous prosecutorial misconduct was Stevens exonerated. It came too late for his re-election, but his good name was restored. Stevens died in 2010.

If a Republican-led Justice Department can deliberately, maliciously and wrongfully convict the longest-serving Republic senator in the land, still popular in his home state, it would be relative child’s play for prosecutors in Victoria (Cardinal Pell’s home state in Australia) to deliberately, maliciously and wrongfully convict Cardinal Pell, who has been subject to a yearslong campaign of media defamation in Australia. Such was the intensity of the vilification that it would likely be possible to find a jury of 12 people in Melbourne who would believe that Cardinal Pell had sexually abused the boys, too.

Still, the case against Cardinal Pell was so grotesquely fantastical that it took the prosecutors two tries to get the convictions. The first trial, in September, ended in a hung jury, with jurors reportedly voting 10-2 to acquit. A retrial followed, with the jury reaching the necessary unanimity to convict in December.


The Supposed Facts of the Case

It is important for Catholics to know the specifics of the case, not just summary statements that it was “weak.” It was impossible.

The prosecution charged that Cardinal Pell, instead of greeting people after Mass, as was his custom, immediately left everyone in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and went unaccompanied to the sacristy. Arriving alone in the sacristy, he found two choirboys who had somehow left the procession of the other five dozen choirboys and were swigging altar wine.

Having caught them in the act, he then quickly decided to sexually assault them — “oral penetration,” to be unpleasantly precise.

This he accomplished immediately after Mass, with the sacristy door open, despite having all his vestments on and with the reasonable expectation that the sacristan, the master of ceremonies, the servers or concelebrants might come in and out or even pass by the open door, as would be customary after Mass.

Meanwhile, there were dozens and dozens of people in the cathedral, praying or milling about.

The whole affair took place within six minutes, after which the boys went off to choir practice and never spoke about it to anyone for 20 years, not even to each other. Indeed, one of the boys, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, explicitly told his mother before he died that he had never been sexually abused.

The supposed facts are virtually impossible to complete. Ask any priest of a normal-sized parish — let alone a cathedral — if it would be possible to rape choirboys in the sacristy immediately after Mass. Sixty seconds — let alone six minutes — would not pass without someone, or several people, coming in and out, or at least passing by the open door. Ask any priest if he is customarily alone in the sacristy immediately after Mass, while there are still people in the church and the sanctuary has not yet been cleared.

Furthermore — again, with apologies for being graphic — it is not possible to perform the alleged penetration when fully vested for Mass. Again, ask any priest — let alone an archbishop, who is more heavily vested — about the awkwardness of having to visit the bathroom, if necessary, after vesting. It requires divesting, at least in part, or engaging in an awkward handling of the various vestments, which makes using the washroom difficult, to say nothing of a sexual assault.

The complainant said that Cardinal Pell had just moved his vestments aside, an impossibility, given that the alb has no such openings.

What Cardinal Pell was accused of doing is simply impossible, even if he had somehow been mad enough to attempt it. Moreover, any man who attempts raping boys in a public place with people about is the kind of reckless offender about whom there would be a long history of such behavior. There is, of course, no such history.


The Corruption of the Police

It is not astonishing that a jury of 12 ordinary citizens might be convinced, contrary to evidence and common sense, that Cardinal Pell was guilty. After all, dozens and dozens of highly trained and experienced police officers and prosecutors decided that the former archbishop of Sydney was guilty even before any charges were brought whatsoever. Such is the Australian hatred for the Catholic Church in general and George Pell in particular.

In 2013, the Victoria police launched “Operation Tethering” to investigate Cardinal Pell, even though there had been no complaints against him. There followed a four-year campaign to find people willing to allege sexual abuse, a campaign that included the Victoria police taking out newspaper ads asking for complaints about sexual abuse at the Melbourne cathedral — before there had been any.

The police had their man and just needed a victim.

With Australia going through the agony of a royal commission investigation into sexual abuse — with the Catholic Church garnering the lion’s share of the attention — it was only a matter of time before someone could be found to say something, or remember something, or, if necessary, fabricate it altogether. That, after all those efforts, the Victoria police could only pull together such a flimsy case is itself a powerful indication that Cardinal Pell is not a sexual abuser.


Testimony — or Not — of the Complainants

In Victoria sexual-abuse cases, the victim testifies in closed court, so the public does not know, and cannot evaluate, the credibility of what was said.

In the first trial, the complainant testified before the jury. They voted not to convict. In the second trial, the complainant did not testify at all, but the records of his testimony in the first trial were entered instead. It appears that the first jury, who heard the complainant live, found him less credible than the second jury, which did not encounter him live.

Cardinal Pell was thus convicted on the testimony of a single witness who presented an incredible story, without corroboration, without any physical evidence and without any previous pattern of behavior, over the strenuous insistence by the alleged perpetrator that nothing of the sort ever took place. That, almost by definition, meets the standard of reasonable doubt.

Even more astonishing, the jury convicted Cardinal Pell of assaulting the second boy, even though he had denied to his own family ever being molested. The second supposed victim died in 2014. He never made a complaint, was never interviewed by the police and was never examined in court.

Absent the public hatred for Cardinal Pell, such a case would never have even been brought to court. But just as the police had their man before they had any allegations or evidence, the prosecutors knew that they had a good chance of getting a jury that was so determined to get Cardinal Pell that they only had to give them a chance.


A Secret Trial

Under Victoria law, a judge can issue a “suppression order” that bans any and all reporting on a case if it is thought necessary to protect a trial from undue public pressure. The “suppression order,” which meant that even the charges against Cardinal Pell were not revealed until this week, more than two months after his conviction, was ostensibly to protect Cardinal Pell’s right to a fair trial.

In effect, it protected the prosecutors from having to defend the weakness of their case in the court of public opinion. If, almost two years ago, the prosecutors had had to argue in public that Cardinal Pell had raped two choirboys in a crowded cathedral immediately after Sunday Mass, there would have been at least some pressure on the Victoria attorney general to review whether mob justice was afoot, as it was last year in Australia, where Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide was convicted of covering up a sexual-abuse case. He was convicted, and though he did not want to resign before his appeal was heard, pressure from the Vatican, his brother bishops and the Australian prime minister forced him out.

Only months later, he was acquitted on appeal, with the appellate court judge ruling that the jury who convicted him was likely swayed by the public fury at the Catholic Church.

It happened again.

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


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