The Pell Case – how question about a trial unite Catholics

It is quite remarkable. In a time when we are all learning to take up a zero-tolerance position against sexual abuse within our ranks (and, subsequently, outside our ranks as well), Catholics of all stripes are coming together in their opinions on one particular case. But on the side of the alleged abuser.

cardinalAustralian Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney and, it turned out yesterday, retired Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy as well (his mandate, which ended this month, was quietly allowed to end), has been convicted of the sexual abuse of two boys in late 1996. But, while official statements from the Australian bishops and the Vatican underline their respect for the legal establishment and their hope that the victims find some form of consolation and peace, manny commentators have expressed their doubts. Looking at the evidence available to the public (which, it has to be said, is not a complete picture as not all evidence and statements have been released by the court) many wonder if the events for which Cardinal Pell has been convicted could really have happened.

Father Frank Brennan, who attended part of the court proceedings, has an excellent article about his questions on the case. In short, he wonders not just how the alleged abuse could have taken place when and where they did, but also why some of the very convincing arguments regarding location and the liturgical vestments said to have been worn by Cardinal Pell when he is said to have abused the two boys, were not taken into consideration. A least, they seemed not to have been.

Again, we do not known everything about the court proceedings. But what we do know has been enough reasons for Catholics on both sides of the spectrum – both those who think an orthodox cardinal like Pell can do no wrong, and those who automatically suspect him for being conservative – to wonder at the truth behind the conviction. The facts as we know them remain very hard to reconcile with the details of the allegations.

It is important to ask in how far a recollection of 20-year-old events by people who were teenagers at the time can ever be wholly accurate, and the jury must have taken this into account, reaching a verdict based on facts as well as the victims’ situation. In the end, a verdict must take their emotional involvement and the passage of time into account as well.

In the meantime, Cardinal Pell has been barred from exercising any form of ministry by the archbishop of Melbourne, where the trial took place – a standard precautionary measure – and remains in custody awaiting his sentencing, currently scheduled for 13 March. The cardinal’s legal team is appealing the verdict.

Photo credit: AAP Image/Erik Anderson via Reuters

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Holy See before the UN – a leading role unrecognised

tomasi scicluna“Church slammed by UN, grilled about sexual abuse, heavily criticised…”

Just a sample of some of the headlines I came across yesterday and today. All because of the regular report that the Holy See has to make to the United Nations because it signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990. The Holy See joined such countries as Germany, the Congo and Yemen in reporting yesterday, but was the single signatory singled out in the media. In a way that is understandable. After all, no country or international body has been so heavily scrutinised for its sexual abuse record in recent years, and no country or international body has been so open about it or active in fighting this horrible crime and sin. Not even the United Nations itself can boast about that.

As Archbishop Silvano Tomasi (pictured above at left), the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, explained in his opening statement yesterday, recent years have seen a major effort on the part of the Holy See to fight the scourge of sexual abuse. This has happened in sharpening laws, but also in continuous reminders by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis (the latter did so as recently as yesterday). Local Churches have also been called to strengthen their efforts and create extensive programs to root out the evil of sexual abuse and to assist the victims. A good example mentioned by Archbishop Tomasi is the one of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (this week, the Diocese of Stockton became the tenth American diocese to file for bankruptcy because of financial compensation to victims of abuse – an example of how far they are going to aid the victims). Other bishops’ conferences, among them the Dutch, are also undertaking unprecedented efforts to address the problem. This indicates where the fight is taking place: not in the higher echelons of the Vatican, but primarily on the ground, in the local communities, where the victims and perpetrators may be found. And also the place, as Bishop Charles J. Scicluna (pictured above at right), also present at the meeting yesterday, says, where the laws of specific countries must be enacted and followed.

The question of the efficiency of these measures, as John L. Allen Jr. explains, is a matter of debate. It will take time to find that out. But the fact that steps are being taken is a clear sign that the Holy See is taking its obligations seriously.

What we see in the criticism, however, is that it generally wants to change the past. Time and again we hear about serious mistakes that the Holy See made in dealing with past abuse cases, mistakes the Holy See fully acknowledges and regrets. We see little to no recognition or understanding of the current efforts, in which the Holy See is leading the way for many other countries and international institutions. The past can’t be changed, but how we relate to people today and in the future can.

Sexual abuse of minors by clergy and members of the Church is an enormously painful and shameful affair for all Catholics. Pope Francis has rightly said we should be ashamed as a Church. We owe it to the victims to recognise their pain and to do our utmost to prevent it from ever happening again. I think that that is now being undertaken on the various levels of the Church. But in considering pain and attempting prevention we must always adhere to the truth. The truth that the past can’t be changed, that for a good number of years already the Church is taking her responsibility and taking effective steps in rooting out the evil of sexual abuse.