Because he has a weak heart and must build strength in his chest muscles, the seventy-seven-year-old Australian cardinal asks for a broom he can push around the jail’s exercise yard each day. The remaining twenty-three hours of his solitary confinement in Melbourne Assessment Prison George Pell reads and writes, when not sleeping and praying. He is not allowed to say Mass.
He tells some that his prison sentence is a retreat; to others he describes it as a martyrdom. Never exactly the contemplative sort—as archbishop of Melbourne, Pell used to tell his priests he liked to get his prayers over and done with in the morning, to leave more time for the day—the second rings more true, especially for his supporters. They say that Pell, who tells it how it is, has always been a lightning rod, and is now a scapegoat, the victim of a monstrous injustice.
The former Vatican finance chief will next week learn whether he is to serve the remainder of a non-parole minimum sentence of three years and eight months for the rape of two choirboys in Melbourne Cathedral in 1996. These are charges that he has always vigorously denied and that many find frankly incredible. They strained the credulity of the first jury at his trial last year, which was reliably rumored to be deadlocked ten to two in his favor.
But then a second jury last December went unanimously the other way, shocking a respected Jesuit human-rights lawyer who sat in on the hearing. Because he is so obviously not part of “Team Pell,” the article Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, later wrote has colored many people’s view of the trial. His amazement that the jury could have convicted on the basis of a single complainant’s “improbable if not impossible” evidence has persuaded many that a major injustice has been committed.
That was a common view among dozens of knowledgeable Catholics I spoke with during a week of talks and lectures in Sydney and Melbourne in March. Among them was Fr. Brennan. When we shared a panel at Melbourne’s Newman College he had just emerged from his spiritual exercises to learn that, because of his article on Pell’s conviction, the city’s university had decided not to award him an honorary doctorate in divinity.
But I also met Catholics who took a different view. They weren’t concerned so much with the details of the case as with the wider principle: Hadn’t the church learned, after all this time, that victims are almost always telling the truth, that abusers brazenly lie? Some drew my attention to a cogent riposte to Brennan by a Dominican friar in Melbourne who warned against assuming that the jury had got it wrong.
Yet what struck me most was how, whatever their view of Pell as a man and church leader—and many are highly critical of his impact on the Australian Church over the past twenty-five years—so many leading Catholics I spoke with just didn’t think it possible that Pell could have committed such a brazenly violent, wanton act in such a public place, so soon after being appointed archbishop of Melbourne, and at the same time as he was setting up a legal redress scheme to cope with claims from clerical-abuse victims. It just didn’t square with the man they knew. “If Pell’s a pedophile,” one priest who had lived with him for three years told me, “I’m a Dutchman.”
But therein lies the difficulty. People find it difficult to accept that someone they know—especially a well-known person they have respected—has performed vile acts on children. They look for evidence that confirms it can’t be true, and see everything through that lens. Many pointed, for example, to the way the case eventually made it to trial, after a two-year trawling operation by Victoria police that became personal. If ever a movie comes to be made, it will surely feature the intense mutual loathing of Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton and Cardinal Pell, each the strongman of their powerful institutions, jousting through media communiqués.
Was there a police stitch-up? Or was the cardinal’s sole living accuser—who everyone agrees is credible—suffering from mistaken identity, compounded by years of drug addiction? Team Pell points out that the accuser’s account to police in June 2015 of sex abuse in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 bears an uncanny resemblance to a case in Philadelphia written up in Rolling Stone in 2011 concerning a Father Engelhardt and a boy called Billy Doe. The two accounts are so similar, says Keith Windschuttle, editor of Quadrant magazine—a key outlet for Team Pell—that “the likelihood of the Australian version being original is most implausible.”
The lawyers I spoke with in Sydney and Melbourne agreed that the verdict is sufficiently shaky for there to be a strong chance of Pell’s appeal succeeding. If a majority of the three judges conclude that the jury could not have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt he was guilty, Pell will walk. Yet if the appeal succeeds on the second or third grounds, which concern the conduct of the trial itself (the trial judge refused to allow a video graphic to be used in the defense’s closing speech, for example), then the appellate judges could still order yet another trial.
But will either of those outcomes settle the matter? I went to Australia thinking they would; I came away thinking the contrary. Because while the Pell controversy is superficially about whether or not he is guilty of particular acts of sexual abuse, in reality it is about so much more.