Leading article Australia
14 January 2023
At six feet, four inches, Cardinal George Pell was a man who towered above his peers, literally as well as metaphorically. A gifted scholar and a first-class athlete, he was a fearless defender of the Catholic Church, who lived his life by his motto, ‘Be Not Afraid’. These qualities made him the quintessential tall poppy. As a result, he was cut down at the pinnacle of his glittering career because of his steadfast commitment to conservative values.
Early in his vocation, it was Pell’s great misfortune to share the presbytery in Ballarat for 12 months with notorious pedophile Gerald Ridsdale, who was jailed for his crimes in 1994.
Perhaps it was this that drove Pell, within weeks of his promotion to Archbishop of Melbourne, in 1996, to establish the Melbourne Response, one of the first formal church processes in the world to appoint an independent Queen’s Counsel to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse within the Church.
Yet the crimes of pedophilia continued to dog him. From August to October 2002, when he was Archbishop of Sydney, Pell stood aside while a retired Victorian Supreme Court judge investigated a complaint that in 1961, when he was a 19 year-old seminarian, Pell had abused a young boy at a church camp on Phillip Island. The judge cleared Pell although he said he believed both the accuser and the accused.
This was only a prelude to an appalling campaign of persecution waged by Victorian police, judiciary, lawyers, and journalists, particularly those at the national broadcaster. The lynch mob claimed that twenty years earlier, in 1996 Cardinal Pell had sexually abused two 13-year-old choirboys after Sunday morning Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Only one of the boys claimed to have been abused. The other told his mother that nothing had happened. Yet when the man who said Pell was innocent passed away, the Cardinal was charged with child abuse, despite a notable dearth of evidence.
In pursuit of their quarry, his tormentors rode roughshod over Australia’s most important legal principles, in particular, the presumption of innocence and the need for the prosecution to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The goal of his adversaries appeared to be not only to destroy the reputation of Australia’s leading conservative Catholic, but to drag the Catholic Church through the mire.
The first jury could not reach a verdict, but the second found him guilty and he was sentenced to six years in prison. That equivocal pattern was repeated in the Victorian Court of Appeal which ruled, two to one, against him. He was forced to serve 13 months – 400 days – of his sentence until the High Court overturned his five convictions – 7-nil – in the weeks before Easter in April 2020. In bringing the five-year legal saga to an end, the High Court ruled that ‘the jury ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted’.
The miscarriage of justice against Pell has barely been acknowledged by his accusers. Instead it has established an appalling new precedent in which the burden of proof is transferred from the prosecutor to the accused in cases involving conservative men.
The full story behind the charges against Pell, and others that were subsequently dropped by the Victorian legal system, has still not been revealed but some say it was not a coincidence that at the time of his arrest, Pell was well advanced in exposing corruption in the Vatican’s financial affairs, a job he was given by Pope Francis. Pell did not flinch in this dangerous and unsavoury task, exposing 4,000 Vatican bank accounts to which the owners were not entitled of which 200 were investigated under suspicion of money laundering. He also identified millions of euros that had been siphoned off from charities, and 80 valuable properties around Rome that had ‘fallen off the list’ and were not earning rent.
Pell’s three, candid prison diaries testify to his fortitude and faith in the face of adversity. Their message of forgiveness and forbearance stands in contrast to the spiteful prejudice of his enemies.
Having cleared his name after his release from prison, Pell rebuilt his life, and was following with great interest the trial of the century of those alleged to have engaged in financial crimes within the Vatican.
Pell lived for Christ and the Church. His long career took him from the back-blocks of Ballarat to the Vatican. Nothing prepared him better for the trials visited on him in his old age than his lifelong study of the suffering of Christ and he was equally happy sharing his daily bread with prisoners or popes. As he begins his journey home to his Maker, all those who admired his courage and compassion will pray for the repose of his soul.
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