Law & Order

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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The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

We have some real, live news coming out of the Vatican conference that is focusing on clergy sexual abuse of “children,” and maybe a few other kinds of victims.

It’s big news. But one or two of the most important facts in this story are still missing.

Looking at the coverage, it would appear that these holes are probably not the result of bad or shallow reporting. The holes may be intentional, in terms of a German cardinal’s remarks that were stunning, but also rather vague.

Let’s look at the top of a report in the National Catholic Reporter, which — as I typed this post at mid-day — had the most information in it. You can see the big hole right in the headline: "

Cardinal admits to Vatican summit that Catholic Church destroyed abuse files.

What, precisely, is the “Catholic Church”?

I realize that the Church of Rome is one church, with one leader in the Chair of St. Peter, but — at the level of administration and the supervision of priests — it is actually a complex network of ecclesiastic bureaucracies at the local, national and global levels. Let’s look at the overture in that story. This is long, but essential as journalists look forward:

VATICAN CITY — A top cardinal has admitted that the global Catholic Church destroyed files to prevent documentation of decades of sexual abuse of children, telling the prelates attending Pope Francis' clergy abuse summit Feb. 23 that such maladministration led "in no small measure" to more children being harmed.

In a frank speech to the 190 cardinals, bishops and heads of religious orders taking part in the four-day summit, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church's administration had left victims' rights "trampled underfoot" and "made it impossible" for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.

"Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created," said Marx, beginning a list of a number of practices that survivors have documented for years but church officials have long kept under secret.

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Think piece on SBC sex abuse scandal: What Baptists and Catholics can learn from each other

Think piece on SBC sex abuse scandal: What Baptists and Catholics can learn from each other

In today’s San Antonio Express-News, there’s a front-page story on Southern Baptist leaders promising reforms after a bombshell newspaper investigation into sex abuse within that denomination.

In a three-part series last week, the Express-News and its sister newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, revealed that more than 700 people had been molested by Southern Baptist pastors, church employees and volunteers over a span of two decades. (See our previous analysis of the Texas papers’ reporting here, here and here.)

Sadly, the Baptists aren’t the only religious group making sex abuse headlines this weekend: On the same Express-News front page, there’s the breaking news — via the New York Times — of Pope Francis’ decision to expel Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., from the priesthood.

As noted by the Times, the decision announced by the Vatican on Saturday “came after the Catholic Church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades.” My GetReligion colleagues Terry Mattingly and Julia Duin have been following the McCarrick story for months. Look for additional commentary this week.

But since this is Sunday, when we like to delve into think-piece territory, I wanted to call attention to a Religion News Service column by Jesuit priest Thomas Reese that seems especially timely in light of today’s headlines.

In the column, Reese writes about “What Catholics and Southern Baptists can learn from each other about sex abuse crisis.”

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse

'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse

Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Some might be asking that question after the first part of a bombshell investigative project by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News was published Sunday.

The opening installment of the “Abuse of Faith” series filled almost four entire newspaper pages — meticulously describing the findings of a six-month investigation by reporters for the Chronicle and the Express-News.

The sobering details:

It's not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

So, to repeat the original question: Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Not according to Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who wrote this in response to the newspaper report:

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Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

It’s a compelling story; an Oregon woman who was gang-raped by Oregon State football players 20 years ago and has made it her life mission to stop sexual violence, especially by members of sports teams.

Ever since the Oregonian first reported Brenda Tracy’s story four years ago, she’s founded a non-profit: Set the Expectation, conducted a crusade for victim protection laws and worked to extend statutes of limitations for rape.

How is she managing to do this? Where is she getting the strength to carry on? And, yes, is there a religion angle here? Let’s look.

The Los Angeles Times caught up with her recently as she spoke at Sacramento State University and ran a Column One story about her on Thursday. It says in part:

Tracy has no memorized speech, no notes or litany of statistics about sexual violence in America. She hits her audience with something different: sheer honesty, a graphic and unflinching description of that night.

“The next time I came into consciousness, one of the men was cradling me in his arm and he was pouring a bottle of hard alcohol down my throat and I was choking and gagging on it,” she says. “And I passed out again.” …

Tracy estimates she was conscious for only a small fraction of an ordeal that lasted six hours. Her fragmented memories include pleading with the men at some point, telling them she felt nauseated.

“So one of them picked me up kind of like a rag doll and carried me to the bathroom,” she says. “He laid me over the counter and he shoved my head into the bathroom sink and, as I was vomiting on myself in the sink, he was raping me from behind.”

The next morning, she woke on the floor, still naked, with food crumbs and bits of potato chips pressed into her skin. Gum was stuck in her hair.

“I mostly just remember, in that moment, feeling like a piece of trash. I was a piece of trash they had forgotten on the living-room floor,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like a human.”

Later, there is this:

Oregon State conducted a separate investigation, but when the next season came around, the two football players inside the apartment received suspensions of only one game each.

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Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Once again, the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal dominates the headlines.

From the Washington Post to the New York Times to Commonwealth, the story that won't go away keeps making mainstream news.

And yes, various angles show up in this week's Friday Five.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reported Thursday that despite past denials, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl knew of sexual misconduct allegations against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and reported them to the Vatican.

Catholic News Agency, which broke the news, includes a name that is crucial to the wider story: Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Look for more GetReligion analysis of this important development in the coming days.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Yet another Washington Post story on a major angle in the scandal was the focus of our No. 1 most-clicked commentary of the week.

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What happens when Washington Post goes behind scenes of parish ensnared in sexual abuse scandal?

What happens when Washington Post goes behind scenes of parish ensnared in sexual abuse scandal?

It’s a massive story — the ongoing tremors from the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals. It’s an impossible subject — for most mere mortal reporters — to tackle in a single shot.

Which is why I was impressed with a recent feature by a Washington Post writer who traveled to Rapid City, S.D. Terrence McCoy, who covers social issues in rural and urban America, produced an exceptional piece of journalism by going small.

Not small as in the length of the piece. No, this was a long feature. But small in terms of focus? Exactly.

McCoy shines a tight spotlight (not to be confused with that other “Spotlight”) on a priest dealing with the fallout from a fellow clergyman’s arrest on a child sex abuse charge. The result: an in-depth news-feature that is full of revealing and relevant details.

The Post story sets the scene this way:

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Brian Christensen is on his way to jail again. Clerical collar around his thin neck, rosary dangling from the rearview mirror, the priest sets out on the same trip he has taken almost every day that week. First was Monday afternoon, when he followed the detectives down this road, then up to the third floor of the police department, where he waited outside the interrogation room. On Wednesday, he went to the preliminary hearing, where the felony charges were announced: two counts of sexual contact with a 13-year-old. On Thursday, and on Friday, he returned to arrange a visitation with the Rev. John Praveen, 38, whom he last saw being cuffed and led into a police car, and who is now being held on a $100,000 cash bond and facing 30 years in prison.

Now, Monday again, Christensen pulls out of the parking lot at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where as lead pastor he oversaw Praveen’s clerical duties. He makes the five-minute drive to the Pennington County jail, where he plans to speak with the incarcerated priest for the first time since his arrest.

“Aren’t you tired of all this?” his mother asked him on the phone that morning, and he could only sigh and say, yes, “I am tired of this.”

This: a string of child sex abuse scandals that — spanning decades, continents and thousands of victims — has fundamentally altered how the world views the Catholic Church and priests like him, in particular. With every crisis, Christensen had allowed himself to hope that now, perhaps, it would be over, only to see another year like this one, when every day seems to bring news of sex crimes and cover-ups in the church. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of abusing about 1,000 children, spurring federal authorities to investigate. Two U.S. cardinals have been disgraced. And approval ratings for Pope Francis, who once was the world’s most popular leader, have plummeted among Americans.

Besides the tight focus, the writer’s obvious understanding of the subject matter — including the subtle intricacies of Catholicism — make this a gripping piece to read.

What could be better? In a few cases, the story drifts into (seeming) editorialization, such as here:

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