Cardinal George Pell is seen in a car after being released from Barwon prison in Geelong, Australia, April 7, 2020. (CNS photo/James Ross, AAP Image via Reuters)

In setting aside the guilty verdict against Cardinal George Pell on sexual-assault charges, Australia’s High Court effectively concluded the criminal-justice aspect of a case that has consumed the nation and the Catholic Church for years. But the April 7 ruling doesn’t really settle anything in the relationship between the church and the Australian state, nor is it likely to resolve the clash between the different “kinds” of Catholicism in Australia and elsewhere. In fact, the decision will probably keep the contentious debates alive, perhaps for a long time to come. 

Pell had been charged with assaulting two thirteen-year-old boys in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996. From the beginning, there was nothing normal about the way the proceedings against him unfolded. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In a second trial, he was found guilty by unanimous ruling. Then, in an appeal heard by three judges, two found him guilty while the third, Justice Mark Weinberg, dissented in a lengthy 204-page opinion. Meanwhile, a “suppression order” applying to cases involving sexual abuse resulted in what amounted to secret trials that in countries like the United States would be considered unconstitutional. The proceedings were kept under wraps from the public as they happened, and only a handful of people were permitted to hear testimony. The media was not allowed to report on the details of the trials until the verdicts were publicly announced. 

Now Pell has been acquitted. In their unanimous ruling, the seven High Court judges pointed to egregious mistakes in the police investigation, and legal errors in the decisions of previous courts. But that does not mean the cardinal has been found innocent. Australia’s High Court can’t declare guilt or innocence; it issues decisions based only on the rules of evidence, and in the case of Pell, it found insufficient evidence to support the guilty verdict. As Jeremy Gans, a professor at Melbourne Law School, noted: “The High Court’s key ruling—that there is a ‘significant possibility’ that Pell is innocent of the charges against him—isn’t a conclusion that he is innocent; it is a conclusion that the prosecution failed to prove that he isn’t.” 

While Pell may yet face further criminal charges and civil lawsuits, the likelihood of this happening is uncertain, given the now diminished standing of those who handled the initial allegations. In fact, the handling of the Pell case has prompted a wider discussion on the criminal-justice system in the state of Victoria. The role of the media in all of this—particularly, reporting and coverage by the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation—is also under scrutiny. Pell and his supporters are not alone in the opinion that the ABC actively cooperated with the police in attempting to convict Pell in the court of public opinion and thus secure a conviction in the courtroom. Further, an investigative reporter for the ABC attacked Pell in a 2017 book published by the publicly funded Melbourne University Press. Yet at the same time, commentators in some prominent newspapers and hosts on Sky News television were just as vocal in their efforts to see Pell found innocent. 

Cardinal Pell remains a significant figure in global Catholicism, and different people will have different responses to his acquittal.

So the Pell case in many ways remains Australia’s biggest story, dividing the media, the nation, and the church. (When former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott—Catholic and Jesuit-educated—visited Pell in jail, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews publicly slammed him.) The cardinal and his supporters view the allegations, the investigations, and the trials as an integral part of Australia’s culture wars. In his post-acquittal interview, Pell said that his trial was part of an attempt “to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations” and that “culture wars are real.” Indeed, they are. Any discussion of the Pell case seems to devolve quickly into heated emotional argument: he is either a monster or a martyr. Interesting, however, is how measured the Holy See’s press office and the Australian bishops’ conference have been in their statements on the acquittal. “Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process,” said ACBC President Mark Coleridge. “We also recognize that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion. The result today does not change the church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.” Neither the Vatican nor the Australian bishops’ conference seems eager to publicly cast Pell as a martyr, no matter how he was treated by the police and justice system. Their reasoning probably hinges on the fact that there is still a lot that remains unknown, and it’s not clear what may ever become known, or when. In the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (December 2017), the information about Cardinal Pell remains redacted.

And at any rate, since the culture wars in some countries reflect intra-Catholic conflict, it’s not likely there will be any settled “conclusion” to the Pell matter in any public forum—whether a courtroom or the media. Those who support Pell (including some of his fellow cardinals) may loudly condemn Australian law enforcement and the justice system, and they might have a reason to do so. But they would also be wise to consider the controversial matter of George Pell in a larger context, as something to be discussed more deeply than as a pitting of personal theologies against each other. The fact is that there has to be a historical and moral reckoning for the Australian Church as a system, and for the most powerful Catholic Australian cleric, in terms of how both have handled the sexual-abuse crisis. 

However the Pell matter continues to unfold, it will likely have wide-scale effects. It’s a critical moment for the Catholic Church in Australia, which is preparing for its 2020–2021 Plenary Council (the first since 1937, though scheduling is uncertain because of the pandemic). In his post-acquittal interview, Cardinal Pell said that he does not want to have a voice in the Catholic debate in Australia; he also mentioned that the archbishops of Melbourne and Sydney, with whom he is close, need not be overshadowed by him. But Pell’s influence remains strong in the part of the Australian episcopate that does not want to see any profound changes in the church, and his acquittal could very well reshape the politics of the Plenary Council.

In Rome, it remains to be seen whether there will be a canonical investigation and trial of Cardinal Pell, a decision that was being held up until after the criminal proceedings in Australia. One of the most provocative things Pell said in the post-acquittal interview pertained to his belief that the case against him in Australia may have been connected to Vatican financial corruption. (In April 2013, Francis appointed him a member of the “council of cardinals”; in February 2014, Francis named him as the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. In July 2017, Pell left the Vatican to face the charges in Australia.) Pell said that his accuser could have been in some ways “used” by someone: “Most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they [the two events] are [connected].” Pell also suggested that corruption in the Vatican goes nearly to the top. “Just how high is an interesting hypothesis,” he said, though he made it clear that it doesn’t extend to Pope Francis or to Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin. Pell also released a post-acquittal video message in Italian, clearly not aimed at Italian Catholics in the pews but at prelates in the Vatican, which suggests that he still hopes to recover his standing in Rome or have some sway in shaping the political alignment in the college of cardinals.

Cardinal Pell remains a significant figure in global Catholicism, and different people will have different responses to his acquittal. There are the victims and survivors of sexual abuse who might view it as a traumatic setback. And there are Catholics who, feeling or experiencing persecution in their own countries, might have identified with Pell in being targeted, and now feel rightly vindicated. There is little doubt that the legal case of George Pell was mishandled. But at the same time this should not be used as a reason for taking the focus off what remains the primary challenge for the church: the global dimension of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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Published in the May 2020 issue: View Contents
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