I hadn’t been following the child abuse charges against Australian Cardinal Pell all that much because I assumed, based on the evidence, that they were somewhat plimsy and would never stick.
But they did — in a series of trials that are as odd as they come. At the heart of the proceedings there was a single witness and what appeared to be “recovered memories” of abuse.
The end result? A cardinal is now in jail and a bunch of journalists have been handed the Aussie equivalent of contempt-of-court charges.
This is a complex story that I’ll do my best to break down, starting with what CruxNow ran in December:
NEW YORK — In a decision that will undoubtedly create shockwaves around the globe, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty on Tuesday by a Melbourne court.
In one of the most closely watched trials in modern Catholic Church history, after nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996.
The trial, which began on November 7, has been subject to a media blackout at the request of the prosecution, and follows a first trial in September ended after a jury failed to reach consensus.
Pell, who is 77 years old, is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy.
In June 2017, Pell was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offences,” forcing him to leave Rome and return home vowing to “clear his name.”
Technically, CruxNow wasn’t supposed to run that story because of this media blackout, aka a suppression order, that media around the world were supposed to follow. Of course, lots of news sources outside of Australia’s borders refused to go along.
The charges concern a claim that Pell sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne and that he did so on several occasions following Sunday Mass.
His lawyers have said that Pell was constantly surrounded by other clergy after Mass and there’s not a chance he could have gotten alone with some altar boys. Also, the sexual acts he’s accused of performing are impossible considering the voluminous, complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing — vestments that require the help of a second cleric to put on and remove.
The Catholic News Agency wondered if Pell was a victim of anti-Catholic media.
Observers also questioned whether some courtroom tactics used by state prosecutors were intended to stoke anti-clerical feelings in jury members.
One priest, a Jesuit, was called as an expert witness by the defense, but was consistently referred to as a “Christian Brother” by prosecutors — a move, the court observer told CNA, that seemed calculated to invoke the religious order at the center of a widely known clerical sexual abuse scandal in the country.
“It was a blatant move, but it sums up the sort of anti-Catholic, anti-clerical drift of the whole trial,” CNA’s courtroom source said. “The jury were being winked at.”
The Sydney-based news.com.au site seems to bear that out. The site dug up an old photo of the cardinal walking alongside Australia’s worst pedophile priest.
The photograph was striking. There was George Pell, then an auxiliary bishop, walking side-by-side into court with Gerald Ridsdale, the man later found to be Australia’s worst paedophile priest after being convicted of sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against 65 children — some as young as four.
The decision by Cardinal Pell, now a Vatican cardinal, to support his former housemate that day in 1993 led to an image that has lived on in infamy in Australia for more than two decades.
It was an image of a man who appeared to be more concerned with protecting the church than its flock. And it made him something of a PR scapegoat for all that was wrong with how the Catholic Church handled the clergy sex abuse crisis.
This news article from the Herald explained the oddities of the case. I’m curious why they don’t use the word “alleged,” though.
Pell’s victims were two 13-year-old St Kevin's College students who were choirboys at St Patrick's Cathedral when they were assaulted in December 1996 and February 1997 after Sunday Mass.
While one of the victims gave evidence about his abuse, the other man died several years ago from an accidental heroin overdose. He never reported the abuse and, the court heard, denied anything had happened to him as a young choirboy when he was asked by his mother.
Through a lawyer, the man's family said they finally understood the torment that led their son to self medicate with drug abuse.
Victorian Bar president Matt Collins said it was highly unusual for a conviction to be made on behalf of a victim who had never reported abuse.
"No one can recall a case where an accused person was convicted of an offence against a deceased person of this kind," he said.
But the other victim, who is still living, apparently gave a convincing testimony to the jury, the article said. Nevertheless, others had doubts. Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter is quoted here, for example.
Much was made in court by Pell's defence team of the evidence given by the living victim, that the boys broke away from the procession after Mass and snuck into the sacristy – a room where priests dress for mass – when they were confronted by Pell and abused.
"The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible to my mind," Father Brennan wrote.
Mr Richter echoed this argument in court. "Only a madman would attempt to rape boys in the priests’ sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass," Mr Richter said.
Since that article was published, Richter came out with some bizarre statements about the case that you can read about here. In terms of courtroom theater, the Aussies are clearly leading the charge in 2019.
NPR ran this piece about the unusual press restrictions in the case and how dozens of media organizations are on the line for contempt of court –- and possible fines -– for breaching a gag order.
In December, a jury convicted Australian Cardinal George Pell, 77, of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys decades ago. But before the verdict was handed down, Judge Peter Kidd in Melbourne's County Court of Victoria forbade details of the trial to be published, out of concern that it could influence the jury in a second trial awaiting Pell.
Not only could reporters not publish their coverage of Pell's trial but a blanket ban prevented them from even reporting that a suppression order existed, Jason Bosland, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne University, tells NPR.
As journalists walked into the open court for the proceedings, they were met at the door with a copy of the suppression rules, according to Reuters.
This week, after additional charges going back to the 1970s were dropped in the second trial, the gag order was lifted.
Some international media, like the Washington Post — which ran with this piece about the trial in December — refused to comply with the judge’s order. CNN, as you can see in the above video, decided to honor it. (I guess it depends whether or not you have staff in Australia or not). Because Australian media were thought to have aided in such reporting, they were still charged with breaching the order.
The whole thing is beyond strange, as gag orders and changes of venue are nearly meaningless in an Internet era. I can’t imagine an American court simply ordering all journalists to not to report on a famous trial.
There are some Australians — secular voices included — who believe the case was rigged and that no one at the Vatican truly believes Pell is guilty.
But the tone of the CNN video implies that the cardinal is definitely guilty and this 60 Minutes Australia video says Pell turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by Australian priests for years, which may be true — but that doesn’t prove the charges that have now put him behind bars. In the media, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of middle ground on this he-said, he-said case.