Yesterday in Australia, a court convicted Cardinal George Pell of sexual abuse. Bizarrely, the story cannot be reported on in Australia because of a court gag on the media. Here’s a link to the report in Crux. More:
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.”
This past May, after a four-week committal hearing, an Australian magistrate struck down some of the more serious charges against Pell but ruled he stand trial on five charges related to sexual abuse of minors. The allegations, however, are from two separate periods, the 1970s and the 1990s, hence Judge Sue Pullen’s decision in May to mandate two different trials.
I have not commented on this because honestly, I don’t know what to say. As both a Catholic and an ex-Catholic, I have admired Cardinal Pell as a voice of orthodoxy, so this conviction is a punch in the gut. The fact that I admire him does not make him innocent of the charges, of course. However, the reporting ban on the trial proceedings makes it impossible to know how testimony went down there. Was the trial fair? As far as I’ve been able to tell — someone correct me if I’m wrong — we don’t know the specifics of the charges, because it is not permitted under Australian law to report them.
One thing that bothers me is that Pope Francis had appointed Cardinal Pell to run the Vatican’s finances, and to clean up the Vatican bank. Read this Crux interview from July with Libero Malone, the prominent accountant that Francis had hired to help Pell. Excerpts:
Milone was named to the post in 2015, at the peak of Pope Francis’s early financial reform efforts. His experience at the international auditing and tax services firm Deloitte seemed to make him the perfect man for the job, but even more, he says, the Vatican was looking for someone with tact, capable of reconciling modern financial techniques within a millennia-old and relationship-based institution.
Barely two years in, Milone – whose mandate gave him the power to summon financial statements from all Vatican departments – left his position in disgrace, although a face-saving Vatican press release claimed they were parting on “amicable terms.”
After a three-month silence, Milone spoke to the press later in 2017. He claimed he had been intimidated by the gendarmerie, the Vatican’s police force, and forced to accept resignation under the threat of being sent to jail.
At the time, Milone claimed an “old guard” was attempting to stop the avalanche of reforms promoted by Francis and his predecessor.
And then, things abruptly changed:
Milone’s lawyers were summoned to the Vatican tribunal in May and presented with a letter stating that there are no criminal procedures against him. It was signed by the Vatican’s top magistrate, the same man who had signed a document listing charges against Milone a year ago along with the President of the Vatican tribunal.
Eventually Milone was no longer allowed to meet with the pope and was told by Becciu that their relationship had “cracked.”
The auditor suspects he was being spied upon. Just one month after taking the job his computer was hacked, and the paranoia of being bugged followed him until the end. He hired a private investigation company to check his office, and he eventually moved into different quarters.
Milone said that at the time, he and Australian Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and who is now back home fighting off criminal charges of “historical sexual abuse,” were trying to access information on APSA, traditionally among the most obscure of the Vatican’s various financial players.
Milone asked investigators to retrieve information on certain property holdings and public registers, which, according to him, was fully in line with his mandate.
Shortly afterwards, in June, Milone said he found himself sitting before Giani facing accusations of lying, spying and embezzlement. He claims his signature had been falsified to suggest he had used funds improperly. Three days later, Pell was summoned to Australia to answer historic charges of abuse against minors.
Just like that, he said, two spearheads of the pope’s financial reform were out of the picture.
“In all the entities of the Vatican, there was a small core of people who didn’t want the reforms. By getting rid of me and Pell, maybe they solved their issue,” Milone said.
“But maybe those people are no longer there…” he added.
The former auditor has interpreted recent developments as a sign that Francis is willing to reboot the reform, which he’s confident “can still resume its course.”
Milone recalls a conversation with Pell before his departure to Australia, asking why he had not taken advantage of the immunity granted by the Vatican.
“Libero, you should know that my honor comes before everything else,” he said the cardinal answered.
Pell could have refused to return to Australia, citing diplomatic immunity. He did not. Does a guilty man do that?
All of this is why I am not willing to believe at this point that George Pell received a fair trial, or is truly guilty. Don’t get me wrong: he might have received a fair trial, and he might actually be guilty. But I am not yet prepared to believe that, without more evidence. It’s just mighty convenient that all of this happened as Cardinal Pell was getting to the bottom of financial corruption in the Vatican — which, as we know from the modern history of the Vatican finances, can involve hundreds of millions of dollars and various international institutions, including the Mafia.
UPDATE: Really interesting tweet by prominent liberal English Catholic and Francis biographer:
I know many Australian Catholics who really dislike Pell. None of them think this is a fair trial. All of them think he has been scapegoated. But Vatican has no choice but to respect its verdict. https://t.co/JbeAY2lWpJ
— Austen Ivereigh (@austeni) December 13, 2018
UPDATE.2: You’ve got to read Ed Condon’s report on the Pell situation. Excerpt:
The allegations are understood to concern Pell assaulting the two choristers in the sacristy of Melbourne cathedral on several occasions immediately following Sunday Mass.
The defense presented a range of witnesses who testified that the cardinal was never alone in the sacristy with altar servers or members of the choir, and that in all the circumstances under which the allegations are alleged to have taken place, several people would have been present in the room.
The sacristy in Melbourne’s Cathedral has large open-plan rooms, each with open arches and halls, and multiple entrances and exits, the defense noted.
Defense attorneys also produced a range of witnesses who testified that Pell was constantly surrounded by priests, other clergy, and guests following Sunday Masses in the cathedral, and that choristers had a room entirely separate from the sacristy in which they changed as a group, before and after Mass.
The concern I’m hearing is that Pell is being scapegoated for the Australian Catholic Church’s indefensible record of facilitating and covering up for clerical sex abuse. Pell may not have abused anyone himself (despite the verdict), but the sense is that they want to nail him for something, anything.