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, and the developments pose a major and immediate new obstacle for Francis as he works to reform the Vatican.

However, this wave of coverage makes it clear that the Pell case hinges on a painful question: Can this popular pope (especially with the press) apply his progressive "reform" instincts to the alleged sins of a shepherd at the highest levels of his team?

Back to the AP report. It notes that Francis won "won cautious praise from victims' advocacy groups" in 2014 with the creation of a commission of independent, outside experts to advise him, and thus the church, on the "best practices" for use in the battle against the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. However:

... The commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left. Francis also scrapped the commission's signature proposal -- a tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse -- after Vatican officials objected.
In addition, Francis drew heated criticism for his 2015 appointment of a Chilean bishop accused by victims of helping cover up for Chile's most notorious pedophile. The pope was later caught on videotape labeling the parishioners who opposed the nomination "leftists" and "stupid."

This information is pushed to the end of the report, so I fear that it will be cut in many smaller and middle-sized daily newspapers. However, it's important that these tough details made it into the wire-service story in the first place.

Try to imagine the media circus that would result if this detail comes into play:

The Vatican has clear-cut guidelines about initiating a canonical investigation if there is a semblance of truth to sex abuse accusations against a cleric. In the case of a cardinal, it would fall to Francis himself to judge.

Here's another sample of the painful, even hellish, details reporters are finding linked to this story. The Washington Post reported the following, noting facts linked to an alleged cover-up by Pell:

In Ballarat, Pell’s hometown, dozens of children were abused by priests. After the abuse came to light, priests testified under oath that Pell knew about the abuse while it was occurring.
The scale of the abuse in Ballarat was staggering: In one fourth-grade class of 33 boys, 12 committed suicide, the Post reported in 2015. Five priests who worked in the parish were convicted of crimes, including one who was found guilty of abusing more than 50 children.
Two years ago, Peter Saunders, a survivor of sexual abuse on the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke out against Pell, calling him “almost sociopathic” in his lack of concern for the victims of abuse in an interview with Australia’s television program “60 Minutes.

Finally, I would like to make one observation about the early coverage of this massive, complex story. So, who are the victims?

At this point, few details are known. However, it does appear that journalists have decided to make this story gender neutral, in terms of reporting about the alleged victims. Also, journalists -- perhaps because of a lack of public information -- are using vague language about the victims' ages (at the time of alleged attacks).

Once again, journalists face a crucial question linked to accurate language. Are we dealing with "pedophilia," the abuse of prepubescent children, or "ephebophilia," the abuse of teens -- usually boys?

Note the language in this New York Times story:

Cardinal Pell, the Vatican’s de facto finance chief, had been accused in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Then allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused minors himself beginning early in his priesthood and continuing until he became archbishop of Melbourne.

Contrast that with the details in the Religion News Service story:

Pell had been accused in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while serving as bishop of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Later it emerged he too was accused of sexually abusing boys as a priest earlier in his life.

Do these details matter? To be blunt, in the past Catholic leaders have struggled to apply the same standards in "ephebophilia" cases as in those involving "pedophilia."

FIRST IMAGE: A screen shot from an ABC News report on the case.

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