Featured Image
Cardinal Pell speaking at the 2015 Rome Life ForumSteve Jalsevac/LifeSite

MELBOURNE, Australia July 14, 2014 (LifeSiteNews): There’s something rotten in the State of Victoria, and Cardinal Pell’s defenders say it is the Police Commissioner’s decision to charge him. Prolific author George Weigel, a friend of Pell’s for fifty years, compares the case  to the Salem witch trials.

Weigel reported in the National Review that the charges against Pell were no surprise to “those familiar with the fantastic campaign of false allegations of sexual abuse conducted against the cardinal.” Cardinal Pell was subjected to such claims in 2002 and stepped aside as Archbishop of Melbourne during an inquiry into the matter. After examining the case, retired Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell cleared Pell.

Weigel notes that the media trial of Pell has created “a thoroughly poisonous public climate” worsened by “poorly sourced but widely disseminated allegations”, a lack of respect for elementary fairness and a “curious relationship between elements of the Australian media and the Victoria police.” One example of this “curious relationship” is the leaking of information by police to the Sydney Morning Herald about their investigation into Pell.

The anti-Pell media hysteria reached a peak in May with the publication of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, which Weigel calls “a hatchet job riddled with inaccuracies and replete with unfounded allegations.” The book is devoted to airing allegations, both old and new, about Pell’s character, career, handling of Australian clerical sex abuse claims, demeanour towards victims and supposed criminal deeds.

Weigel cites an Australian diplomat and Australian legal experts and journalists who are appalled by the media campaign to bring down Pell.  Amanda Vanstone, a former ambassador to Italy, wrote on May 30 in the Sydney Morning Herald that “The media frenzy surrounding Cardinal George Pell is the lowest point in civil discourse in my lifetime. I’m 64. What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages.”  

Vanstone accused Australian media of playing fast and loose with the law, risking libel suits only because the pockets of their employers are so deep. Referring to two years of the media’s anti-Pell campaign, Vanstone stated “This saga has gone on and on. Civilised as we are we’ve discarded the death penalty. Oddly, we seem to condone death by a thousand cuts through public persecution. We allow a career and a reputation to be destroyed because a baying crowd thinks they can be the arbiter of guilt and innocence.”

Journalist Angela Shanahan decried Australian media’s “Get Pell” mentality in her June 11 column in the Weekend Australian. “Pell can never receive a fair trial,” she wrote. “The ‘vibe’ has taken over.” The year-long police investigation, the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton’s granting of several radio interviews and “unprecedented commentary on the process” plus the “sustained efforts” of Australia’s media “have ensured that any real evidence of wrongdoing has long become a secondary consideration to the vibe.”

It may be that this “vibe” needs a scapegoat and, as Australia’s most high profile Catholic, Cardinal Pell smells of the goat. Shanahan cites John Howard, a former Australian Prime Minister, as having observed “It seems as if Cardinal Pell is being singled out to take the rap for the misdeeds of a whole lot of people, and the evidence is that he was more active in trying to do something about it.”

Pell was the pioneer of child protection in the Australian Church, having founded “Melbourne Response” in 1993. This was almost ten years before the American clerical abuse scandal broke.

Robin Speed, the president of the Australian Rule of Law Institute, warned readers of the Australian that prosecutors ought not to act against Cardinal Pell “in response to the baying of a section of the mob.” Meanwhile, the Justice Institute of Victoria has stated that the “lack of regard” for Pell’s rights was “a startling affront” to the Australian justice system.

In his National Review piece, Weigel cites journalist Peter Craven who reviewed Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell for the Sydney Morning Herald and concluded “One can only hope to God than in the present climate people will be capable of realizing this is a case being mounted for a witch hunt.”

Doctor Philippa Martyr, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, has also come to Cardinal Pell’s defense. In the first of two essays for First Things, Martyr explained that, prior to Pell’s promotion to the archbishopric of Melbourne, faithful Catholics in Australia were in despair, thanks to thirty years of doctrinal and liturgical confusion. When they heard that Pell was to become Archbishop, “the rejoicing, underpinned by sheer disbelief in our good fortune, was ecstatic.”

Martyr recounts how Pell was at first courted by the media, who sought his opinion on a myriad of topics. “But then the zeitgeist changed,” she wrote. “It may have been due to Pell’s move to become archbishop of Sydney, followed by journalist Tess Livingston’s effusive biography, and then his elevation of Cardinal.”  However, Martyr concedes that it might also have been “the new evidence about the terrible extent of sexual abuse and corruption in the Church in Australia, unpacked by a government inquiry.”

“More recently,” Martyr added, “it may be the current pope’s apparent dislike of Pell, and Pell’s robust defense of marriage and the family at the second session of the recent synod–during which his microphone was turned off, but Pell continued to speak, rallying marginalized bishops to his side.”

Asserting that Cardinal Pell is “probably the least secretive man in the Australian hierarchy,” Martyr believes that he is innocent of any charges of sexual abuse.

Philippa Martyr underscores Cardinal Pell’s defense of traditional teachings concerning marriage and the family; George Weigel believes the reason for the “witch hunt” has to do with the Cardinal’s perhaps too effective work mucking out the Augean stables of the Vatican finances. Weigel suspects that those who have profited from the corruption “took care to derail Cardinal Pell by fostering more false allegations in Australia.”

Related articles:

The Case Against Cardinal Pell – Julia Yost in First Things

The Persecution of Cardinal George Pell – George Weigel in National Review

Is Cardinal Pell “the quintessential scape-goat”?  – Carl Olson in Catholic World Report

The improbable claims of Cardinal Pell’s accusers – Phil Lawler in Catholic Culture

The Media’s Cardinal Pell Disinformation Campaign – TheMediaReport.com

 Fifty years of Friendship With Cardinal George Pell – George Weigel in First Things