Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was already investigated and exonerated from sex abuse charges in 2002, is once more being tried for similar charges by a Melbourne court.
“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,” said former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, referring to Pell’s well-documented efforts to root out sex abuse.
There seems to be a “get Pell” mentality in “some sections of the media,” Howard said.
Pell, who was made a cardinal by Saint John Paul II in 2003 and tapped by Pope Francis to sort out the Vatican banks finances, has been the bane of liberal reformers because of his strong stands on marriage, homosexuality, abortion, bioethics and the environment. His unapologetically traditional views have won him the undying odium and hostility of progressives seeking to bring Catholic teaching into line with modern secularism.
In July 2002, then-Archbishop George Pell was accused of sexually abusing an altar boy more than 40 years prior. Pell strenuously denied the claims, but immediately offered to step down from his position until his name could be cleared.
“The allegations against me are lies and I deny them totally and utterly,” Pell said in a statement. “The alleged events never happened. I repeat, emphatically, that the allegations are false.”
In October of that year, former Victorian Supreme Court justice Alec Southwell ruled that allegations of sex abuse against Pell were unsubstantiated, citing “valid criticism of the complainant’s credibility” as well as “the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent.”
At the time, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald eerily prophesied that animosity against Pell for his strong stands suggested “he is unlikely to be free from attempted slurs upon his character and even further allegations against him for long.”
Now, the 76-year-old prelate has been summoned to appear before the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18, to face multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offenses,” including alleged abuse dating back to the 1970s.
On Thursday morning, Cardinal Pell told reporters in Rome that he was “innocent of these charges” and that he would travel to Australia to clear his name in court. He also said that Pope Francis, with whom he had discussed the matter a day earlier, had granted him a leave of absence for that purpose.
Nonetheless, the ongoing media battle against the conservative cardinal has worried many that a fair trial may not even be possible at this point.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Amanda Vanstone said that the “media frenzy surrounding Cardinal George Pell is the lowest point in civil discourse in my lifetime.”
“What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages,” Vanstone (an avowed skeptic of organized religion) said, insisting that Pell has been treated by the media “as guilty from the start,” with no presumption of innocence or sober assessment of the facts of the case.
“What we are seeing now is far worse than a simple assessment of guilt,” Vanstone added. “The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial.”
This opinion was echoed by Angela Shanahan in a similar piece in The Australian.
“Pell can never receive a fair trial,” Shanahan wrote, because “the ‘vibe’ has taken over.” Ongoing commentary on the process, even by Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton, “have ensured that any real evidence of wrongdoing has long become a secondary consideration to the vibe.”
The Justice Institute of Victoria has said the “lack of regard” for the cardinal’s rights was “a startling affront” to the cornerstone of the legal system, while Aboriginial Australian lawyer Noel Pearson (a non-Catholic) has described the vigilante journalists out for Pell’s head as “latter-day Robespierres.”
Despite the allegations against him, in point of fact, Cardinal Pell has been one of the most active and effective opponents of sex abuse both inside and outside the church.
In 1996, just three months after becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell created the Melbourne Response to help victims of sex abuse. In doing so, he became the first leader in Australia—whether in church or in government—to seriously confront the plague of sexual abuse of children.
For now, the Cardinal will fly back to his native Australia to once again face his accusers.
As Andrew Bolt wrote in the Herald Sun, as of now there is proof of only one thing: “a witch hunt to destroy an innocent man for the sins of others.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome