The conviction of Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne, Australia, recently upheld upon appeal, has legal, political, spiritual and canonical implications.
The legal consequences are most obvious: Cardinal Pell is incarcerated and — if his appeal to Australia’s High Court is not successful — will have to serve as long as six years in prison.
The most important legal consequence is the changing standard of what constitutes the burden of proof in sexual-misconduct trials. Professor Gerard Bradley expertly reviewed that legal issue in the Register recently.
The trial court, upheld 2-1 by the Victorian Court of Appeal, took the position that a testimony of a single witness, entirely uncorroborated, is sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even in the face of vehement denials by the accused and some 20 witnesses giving evidence on the greatly implausible facts of the alleged crime. If the High Court agrees that the Court of Appeal applied the correct standard of weighing evidence, it is hard to see how any accused could be acquitted absent an evidently delusional accuser. The standard for acquittal offered by the Court of Appeal reverses the onus and requires the accused to prove the metaphysical impossibility of the crime being committed.
A third legal consequence is unremarkable, but often goes unremarked. The belief that Cardinal Pell has been wrongly convicted is widespread, reaching far beyond his admirers. This has led some to question the integrity of Australian justice more generally. Others have argued that criminal-justice systems in democratic countries have to be respected, even if the outcome is not as desired.
Neither view acknowledges that wrongful convictions happen more often than we could care to admit: in Australia, in Canada, in the United States. In fact, there are entire institutes that take up the cases of the wrongfully convicted. Usually, they only take murder cases, as their resources are too limited to address the full spectrum of wrongful convictions.
In the United States, there have been men on death row who have been exonerated after sentencing. In Canada, the leading forensic child pathologist in the country provided false testimony over the course of 20 years that wrongfully convicted parents of killing their own children.
And it is not just the poor and defenseless who get wrongfully convicted. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the longest-serving senators in the history of the United States and defended by the top legal team in the country, was falsely convicted of fraud after senior prosecutors at the U.S. Justice Department deliberately suborned false testimony and hid exculpatory evidence.
Cardinal Pell’s conviction will make it clear to a broader public that anyone is liable to being falsely convicted should the police and prosecutors decide to so direct their fearsome powers.
This has a political implication, too. False convictions — in Australia, most notably the “dingo” case, in which parents were falsely convicted of killing their own infant child — can be produced by a heated political environment. Juries, after all, come from the ordinary public, and when the public is whipped up by campaigns of sustained vilification, as was the case with Cardinal Pell, unjust verdicts can be reached. The Pell case has demonstrated that the criminal-justice system can be manipulated to achieve broadly political ends, which is worrisome for any and all who find themselves outside of the reigning political consensus.
The spiritual implications are most straightforward and uncomplicated. It is not a spiritual problem to be falsely accused and convicted; it is, of course, a demanding spiritual challenge. That challenge extends to Cardinal Pell’s fellow disciples, who are called to spiritually share the burden he bears. The Christian faith is historically rooted in men unjustly convicted, beginning with the Lord Jesus and his precursor, John the Baptist, and running right through history to the present day.
Cardinal Pell can now count himself in that number, and there is no doubt that if he had, over his long ecclesial service, been less bold in preaching the faith, he would not be in his current circumstance. Spiritually, the Cardinal Pell case is a stark warning of a new circumstance in which faithful Christians have to reckon with suffering for their beliefs.
Finally, the Pell case highlights that the criminal-justice system in various countries is distinct from the procedures of canon law. An extreme case would demonstrate the point: A priest facing civil penalties for not violating the seal of confession — as was proposed in both Australia and the United States recently — would obviously not face canonical discipline for upholding canon law.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse, the usual practice is for the accused priest to be suspended from ministry until the criminal processes are complete. Though it may seem to the cleric in question as punishment before trial, the Church considers it a “precautionary” decision, not a punishment. Cardinal Pell has been under those restrictions since June 2017, when the charges were first announced.
After the criminal process is concluded — which, in Cardinal Pell’s case, includes his appeal to the High Court of Australia — then the canonical process usually begins. Often the evidence at the criminal proceeding is useful in determining guilt or innocence in a canonical trial. But the two processes are separate, and a criminal conviction is not ipso facto a canonical conviction.
In the case of Cardinal Pell, a canonical process may well come to a different conclusion than the criminal process. Indeed, even though the Church does not require the same standard as criminal trials — proof beyond a reasonable doubt — it would be hard to see how a Church court could reach the same implausible verdict as the Australian courts did.
Such a result would be massively controversial and would thus require an ample amount of courage from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which hears such cases, and the Holy Father himself, given that he alone may judge the case of cardinals. Hanging in the balance would not only be Cardinal Pell’s case, but the independence and integrity of the Church’s own canon law.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.