Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal Pell gets sentenced, but reporters leave out some inconvenient facts -- again

Cardinal Pell gets sentenced, but reporters leave out some inconvenient facts -- again

The last shoe dropped in the Cardinal Pell case yesterday with Australia’s highest prelate getting a six-year prison sentence. Reading the New York Times piece on this, one realizes that important parts of this story haven’t been told. Again.

We hear of allegations of misconduct 20 years ago involving children in a scenario that asks you to believe that a cardinal would have taken the time to molest two boys right after a busy church service in a sacristy where anyone could have walked in at any moment. No one caught him in the act. He was wearing four layers of complex, heavy vestments that usually require the assistance of another person to remove. There is one living witness/victim. It’s a classic he said, he said.

So what did the jury hear that caused them to believe the victim?

We have not seen the accuser’s evidence and we have no access to a transcript or videotape of his testimony. Something the accuser said was awfully compelling to cause them to throw the book at Pell. It’s obvious the journalists don’t know, either. From the Times:

MELBOURNE, Australia — George Pell, an Australian cardinal who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison on Wednesday, with no chance for parole for three years and eight months, for molesting two boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.

The cardinal was convicted on five counts in December, making him the most senior Catholic official — and the first bishop — to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

“I would characterize these breaches and abuses as grave,” the chief judge in the case, Peter Kidd said during the sentencing. Speaking directly to Cardinal Pell, he added: “You had time to reflect on your behavior as you offended, yet you refused to desist.”

The sentence, which by law could be up to 50 years, was closely watched around the world.

I read more than once in the comments section that accusations against Pell date back several decades and that “recovered memories” may be involved.

Really? And why are they all coming out now? With former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, his doom was set in motion two years ago when the Archdiocese of New York established a “Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program” as a new outreach to sexual abuse survivors. To the shock of the two people administering the program, a very big fish turned up in their net.

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Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Ever since Australia’s Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child abuse, the journalism folks Down Under have been split on if he’s actually guilty or whether he’s the target of a vicious anti-Catholic campaign.

Reaction to his conviction and jailing (the sentencing isn’t until March 13), has rippled across the Pacific, prompting Ethics and Public Policy scholar George Weigel (writing at First Things) to call the Pell affair “our Dreyfus case.”

(Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew and a military man who was wrongly pilloried and imprisoned in 1894 on charges of selling secrets to the Germans. He was declared innocent in 1906, but the matter was considered as barbaric anti-Semitism on the part of the French. The conflict tore at the heart of French society.)

I’ll get back to Weigel in a moment but first I want to quote from a piece BBC recently ran on all this.

Cardinal George Pell is awaiting sentencing for sexually abusing two boys in 1996. The verdict, which he is appealing against, has stunned and divided Australia in the past week.

It has sparked strong reactions from the cardinal's most prominent supporters, some of whom have cast doubt on his conviction in a wider attack on Australia's legal system.

The largely conservative backlash features some of Australia's most prominent media figures, a university vice-chancellor and a leading Jesuit academic, among others.

Former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott also continue to maintain their public support for the ex-Vatican treasurer.

The reporter then reports on her visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Sydney where the parishioners predictably claimed that Pell is innocent. The reporter then interviews another journalist who has an obvious vested interest in Pell (notice the book title) being guilty.

Such stances have caused profound hurt to survivors, says ABC journalist Louise Milligan, author of the book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell.

"I've been contacted by many, many Australian Catholics who are devastated by the way the Church is handling this issue," Milligan told the BBC.

"They are also greatly upset that political leaders continue to side with a convicted paedophile — and that is what Pell is, a convicted paedophile — over his vulnerable victim and the grieving family of his other victim." (One victim died of a drug overdose in 2014.)

The article then swings back to Pell’s defense.

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Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

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.

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Pounding George Pell in the press: The cardinal takes a hit from the Gray Lady

Pounding George Pell in the press: The cardinal takes a hit from the Gray Lady

The “trial of the century” of Cardinal George Pell -- the Vatican’s “number 3” man and head of its finances - on sexual abuse charges has been passed by a Melbourne Magistrate to the Victoria County Court for adjudication. On April 30, Magistrate Belinda Wallington found there was sufficient evidence to justify a trial for the 76-year old former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, who has been placed on leave by Pope Francis to respond to the charges.

The case has been closely followed by the Australian and Italian press for the past three years, while the US and British press has also covered the spectacle. The coverage has been all over the map. 

Some outlets, like The Australian, have done a thorough balanced job -- others like the New York Times have fallen short in their professional standards. Conservative Catholic blogs have long criticized the coverage of the Pell case as  against the cardinal -- and part of the larger battle of doctrine being waged between progressives and traditionalists within the church.

Not unexpectedly, the Italian press has viewed the Pell case on advocacy-journalism lines - the anti-clerical or liberal papers have already found him guilty, the Catholic papers see him as a martyr to police misconduct, media bias and anti-Catholic sentiment, while the center plays it down the middle with a ‘too soon to tell’ what to think about George Pell approach.

When the charges surfaced last year, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) observed:

The centrist Corriere Della Sera newspaper noted the cardinal was "the highest representative of the Catholic Church every involved in such a case". The liberal La Repubblica warned "the shadow of pedophilia and rape returns to obscure the church". It described the cardinal as the "controversial kangaroo" and branded Australia as "a paradise of the orcs", saying in the past seven per cent of priests had been accused of sexual assault.

Today’s headlines from Italy follow this pattern. The lede in La Repubblica’s story “Abusi sessuali e pedofilia, il cardinale Pell rinviato a giudizio in Australia” (Sexual abuse and paedophilia -- Cardinal Pell indicted in Australia) states: 

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Cardinal Pell coverage: Is the vast, hellish, agonizing Catholic sex crisis all about pedophilia?

Cardinal Pell coverage: Is the vast, hellish, agonizing Catholic sex crisis all about pedophilia?

Significant, if somewhat muted, coverage continues of Vatican debates surrounding the sexual-assault charges against Cardinal George Pell -- one of the current pope's closest advisors.

If you look at this as a religion-beat case study, there are several issues to consider, building on my earlier post: "Bad day for Pope Francis: Sexual-assault charges against Cardinal Pell fuel media firestorm."

First, Pope Francis is a media superstar because of his reputation among journalists as a progressive on sexuality issues. Yes, it does help if one quotes only selected parts of what this pope says on issues of sin, confession, repentance and mercy.

Then there is the problem of how much to say about Pell's alleged victims. In practice, this boils down to two questions: (1) What should American journalists report about the controversial books (especially “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell,” by Louise Milligan) emerging that reference the Pell accusations? Also, (2) should journalists continue to describe this as a story about pedophilia, alone, avoiding evidence that these crimes -- statistically speaking -- usually involve ephebophilia (illegal sex with under-aged boys and girls, in their teens)?

Why keep mentioning this rather technical point? I do so because I have interviewed experts on this topic (on the Catholic left and right) who stress that, in the past, many bishops were convinced it was more important to remove pedophiles from altars (because they rarely responded to therapy), while they held out hope for recovery among the far greater number of priests who had sex with teens.

Is there really a difference? Here is how one very blunt expert described the situation to me:

A 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears is sick and disturbed and being tempted to commit a crime. But this man is not sick, disturbed and a criminal in precisely the same way as a 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears.

The same would be true of a gay adult priest (click here for background). Discussing this fact leads to heated debates on both the Catholic left and right.

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Bad day for Pope Francis: Sexual-assault charges against Cardinal Pell fuel media firestorm

Bad day for Pope Francis: Sexual-assault charges against Cardinal Pell fuel media firestorm

This answers the question that, behind the scenes, some Catholic church insiders have been asking in recent years.

That question: What will it take to get tough-as-nails, straightforward coverage of a news story closely linked to Pope Francis?

Clearly, the historic criminal sexual-assault charges against Cardinal George Pell of Australia is such a story. As the Vatican's "financial czar," Pell is one of the most powerful men in the Catholic hierarchy. Some rank him No. 2 in terms of clout, a notch behind the pope. He is also a member the pope's nine-member special advisory council.

The announcement was made on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul -- a highly symbolic day at the Vatican. Did that make it into many news reports? Not that I saw.

However, there are strong news stories everywhere. However, the strong, blunt nature of the coverage -- with quotes from Pell defenders and critics -- can be seen in a lengthy Associated Press report that will be seen in thousands of daily newspapers around the world.

The cardinal's voice, appropriately enough, is placed up top, just after the lede:

Pell appeared before reporters in the Vatican press office to forcefully deny the accusations, denounce what he called a "relentless character assassination" in the media and announce he would return to Australia to clear his name.
"I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," Pell said.
The Vatican said the leave takes effect immediately and that Pell will not participate in any public liturgical event while it is in place. Pell said he intends to eventually return to Rome to resume his work as prefect of the Vatican's economy ministry.
Pell, 76, is the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal. ...

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