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.

Aspects of the pro-Pell supporters' arguments have found some weight with law experts, however. Prof Jeremy Gans, a University of Melbourne criminal appeals and procedure expert, says Pell's lawyers have a chance of winning an appeal on the basis of unreasonableness.

This argument says the jury delivered a verdict that was not supported by the evidence.

Meanwhile Pell's barrister, Robert Richter, said on Tuesday that he was too emotional and angry about the verdict to continue representing the cardinal, but would still help the defence team.

The lead lawyer usually does not drop out of his case, but Richter has committed several blunders. The National Catholic Reporter sums them up here:

Prominent Sydney lawyer Bret Walker will replace Pell's original defense counsel, Robert Richter, who has been criticized for mismanaging the cardinal's defense and drew criticism for remarks at the sentencing hearing Feb. 28. The following day, Richter issued a lengthy written apology after he appeared to denigrate the severity of the abuse that saw one victim commit suicide at 35.

Others have called the Pell affair a reverse O.J. Simpson case, where an innocent man was found guilty only because of religious prejudice.

There are two issues here that seem to be getting mixed up in the coverage.

One is the sexual abuse charges against Pell for allegedly molesting two boys. The other is Pell’s alleged cover-up of rampant abuses by other priests. One gets the feeling that the public is incensed about the latter, but are powerless to do anything about it. The only chance for revenge is to charge Pell himself with abuse. Some examples from BBC:

An online petition by writer Amy Gray — which aims to strip Pell of his Australian honours — has now attracted 40,000 signatures. Gray said she wanted to highlight the "rampant under-reporting, undercharging, and under-conviction" of sexual abuse in Australia and elsewhere.

Across Pell's native state of Victoria, there have been celebrations but also fresh pain. One survivor of abuse by another priest said the support for Pell had "ripped off the scabs on our wounds".

Leonie Sheedy, co-founder of survivor advocacy group Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN), told the BBC that it was a welcome vindication for many who had suffered abuse, but noted that many had died without seeing justice. Her brother, Anthony, died in 2011 after being raped by multiple abusers in a boys' home as a child.

Weigel accepts the scenario I’ve outlined. He says about Pell’s trial:

The cardinal’s first trial last fall ended in a hung jury that voted 10-2 for acquittal (the jury foreman wept on reporting the deadlock). The second trial, amazingly, ended with a 12-0 verdict for conviction: even though the accuser’s charges were never corroborated by anyone; even though police incompetence in investigating the alleged scene of the crime was fully demonstrated; and even though the cardinal’s defense showed that 10 implausible things would have had to occur simultaneously, within a carefully controlled space of Melbourne’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, for the charges to be true.

Weigel believes that Pell is innocent not only of abuse, but of prior cover-ups.

Cardinal Pell embodies what the cultural and political left in Australia fears and hates: Christian doctrinal and moral orthodoxy, including the robust defense of the right to life from conception until natural death and a commitment to marriage rightly understood. Further, Pell compounded his offenses in the eyes of his enemies by relishing public debates in which he challenged the shibboleths of the politically correct on everything from climate change to the New Atheism.

So where are we on this?

Is Pell a victim of Australia’s cultural left for his Catholic orthodoxy or is he the target of peoples’ anger for decades of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy that have hardly been dealt with? What are the basic journalism issues here, the essential facts about the facts in the case — as presented by experts on both sides — that must be included in news coverage?

NCR did an explainer on the history behind the public’s fury against Pell that gives one a sense of why people are so angry. One segment:

After moving to Sydney, he became very tough with abuse claimants who stepped outside church-established systems and sued the archdiocese. An infamous example was the John Ellis case when Pell's lawyers claimed that the church could not be sued because its assets were held in trust. It turned out the lawyers were right, but the consequences of this decision for the church were far more disastrous than any financial payout. Ellis, who had been seriously abused by a priest, was tossed aside and utterly crushed without the slightest attempt at pastoral care or empathy. All the lawyers and Pell cared about was negative publicity, but as knowledge of the Ellis case spread, that is precisely what the church got.

It was this type of behaviour that is at the root of the public fury about Pell and Catholicism. …

Nearly a week ago, Leon Podles, the American author of the stunningly detailed 2008 book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,” noted in the comment field of my previous piece on Cardinal Pell that:

Pell seems to have been convicted of the one crime he did not commit, as in Kind Hearts and Coronets. The jury was furious at Pell for his enabling and covering up abusers, and they seized the chance to put him in jail. Pell deserves to be in jail, but the way the jury handled it is not the way the system is supposed to work.

So, as the above video asserts, Pell is the fall guy for an angry public, but he’s hardly a Don Quixote riding to the defense of preyed-upon Catholic children.

This is a tough case to report on and I applaud the media who are trying to do it right. There are some parts of the Aussie media that are keeping up a constant anti-Pell drumbeat without allowing that he may be innocent of some of these crimes. Some journalists do not appear interested in the actual debates about the facts in the case. Who needs facts and physical evidence?

These days, innocence is a luxury that Pell no longer can afford.

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