Joseph Shaw

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Cardinal George Pell Patrick Craine / LifeSiteNews

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Why Cardinal Pell is another victim of Catholic sex abuse scandal

March 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – George Cardinal Pell is, according to reports, spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. He is unable to celebrate Mass. He is due to be sentenced this week and is likely to receive a term of ten years. He has appealed against his conviction, but this appeal may not be heard for a year. It is impossible to say how long a further trial will last. And because of the peculiarities of the legal system, an eventual acquittal could well look like he was being released on a technicality, rather than being fully vindicated. 

His name is being removed from buildings named after him. Media articles about him, even those reporting doubts about his conviction, say ‘he molested’ his accuser, ‘he committed the crime’, following the convention that, once convicted, one should assume a man is guilty. It is a reasonable convention that a criminal conviction, in a country with a functioning, western legal system, is definitive.

But I am not going to follow that convention here. 

For, as has been pointed out in many places, this conviction looks, in the legal sense, ‘unsafe’: likely to be overturned on appeal. The evidence against Cardinal Pell came exclusively from the two putative victims, and numerous others testified that Pell was never alone with them in the sacristy or in some corridor, as alleged, and was in any case outside the front of the Cathedral greeting Mass-goers during the time in question. Perhaps the accusers’ testimony was very convincing, and perhaps the other witnesses were unconvincing, but in the absence of any evidence of some huge conspiracy of perjury to cover up for him, or any pattern of abusive behavior on Pell’s part, it is hard to see how the case against Pell stacks up. 

What we seem to be looking at is a conviction based on a jury’s prejudices. Such things are not unknown and are dealt with, usually, through appeals. The level of anger and hatred necessary to explain this conviction, in the teeth of the evidence, is very worrying. 

By way of explanation, we are told that Pell has become something of a hate figure among Australian liberals for his theological conservatism, notably displayed in his opposition to same-sex "marriage." That explanation, if correct, would be from reassuring. It implies that those with socially conservative views cannot expect a fair trial, especially when charged with an emotionally-loaded crime like the sexual abuse of a minor.

However, I am not convinced. Same-sex "marriage" is a deeply divisive issue in Australia as elsewhere, and the jury, which was unanimous, was unlikely to have been made up entirely of same-sex marriage "fanatics." It is surely more probable that the trial of Cardinal Pell gave jury-members an outlet for their frustration and outrage about the issue of the trial itself: clerical sex abuse. 

That is not to say Pell’s unpopular theological views were irrelevant. Pell has powerful opponents in the Australian press and political establishment, who no doubt felt more comfortable about his facing such a trial than they would have about some other Catholic figures. But he also has powerful friends—a former Prime Minister has been his character witness—and to their credit, some liberal media outlets, such as The Age, have reported the grave concerns of senior Australian legal figures about the fairness of the outcome. 

I think it is too soon, in the process of the West’s descent into the post-Christian abyss, to say that Cardinal Pell has been imprisoned out of hatred of the Faith, like the martyrs of old. No: I believe that he is the victim of a gross injustice, but an injustice of misdirected hatred of clerical pedophiles.

This may be more understandable, but as the present case makes clear, it is still very dangerous. In England, where we have so far got off relatively lightly as far as clerical abuse, considered as a public scandal, is concerned, priests have for years now experienced verbal abuse by random members of the public. It is worse in France. Would people who shout ‘pedophile!’ at priests in the street form a fair-minded jury when a priest is accused of this crime? It doesn’t seem very likely.

The dynamics of popular outrage are complex, but it doesn’t need any special expertise to recognize that it is stoked, in this case, by the perception that the Catholic hierarchy has not done enough to deal with the problem internally: a perception which, in outline if not in detail, is perfectly justified. If Catholic bishops around the world want to avoid Cardinal Pell’s fate, they need to do more to get their houses in order and make it publicly clear that they have done so. As they go about this task, they should be less concerned about the worries of the liberal elite, than about the outrage of ordinary people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.