AUGUST 22, 2019
Cardinal Pell is innocent. Those who persecute him are not
The boiling frog never marks that first millisecond, when the water in his pot becomes just a half-degree warmer. And so, Catholics living in America circa 2019 couldn’t possibly appreciate the magnitude of what happened this week in Australia. Yet I have no doubt my grandsons will.
Here are the facts. In December of 2018, Cardinal George Pell, the former Archbishop of Melbourne and Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, was found guilty of sexually abusing two choir boys in the 1990s. He appealed his conviction; on August 21st, a panel of judges voted 2 to 1 to uphold the sentence.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt, His Eminence is innocent. I mean, it is literally impossible that Cardinal Pell is guilty of the crime he’s accused of committing. The acts of abuse described by the prosecution are not only ridiculous, they’re physically impossible for any man to perform. There were no third-party witnesses to the assault, and not a shred of forensic evidence to prove his guilt. Every priest, altar boy, and chorister at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne testified that Pell was celebrating Mass at the time of the alleged attack.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the court documents. Read contemporary news reports. Hell, read any of the hundreds of anti-Pell screeds published over the last few years. Start with Louise Milligan’s book-length hitjob Cardinal. Notice how quickly you realize that things you’re reading just don’t seem to add up. You’ll find yourself going over the same paragraphs twice, three times. Your brain will start to itch. “I’m missing something,” you’ll say to yourself; “This doesn’t make any sense.”
In fact, you’re not missing anything. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s because Cardinal Pell is innocent. The allegations are bogus. Yet the Australian justice system, the Australian press, and most of the Australian public refuse to admit it. An innocent man—a holy, gentle, honest, compassionate man—will spend the next six years in prison. Then, he’ll spend the rest of his days on earth known as a violent pedophile.
Every fair-minded American, whatever their creed, should be outraged at the gross injustice that transpired in our sister-nation across the Pacific.
How is it that so many institutions—all of them designed specifically to safeguard individual rights and ensure due process—could fail simultaneously, and so disastrously? The answer is anti-clericalism, plain and simple.
The corrupt, the decadent, and the depraved have always hated Christ’s holy priesthood. That was true in the case of St. Telemachus, the fifth-century hermit who threw himself between two gladiators—and was promptly stoned to death by the crowd. It’s still true today in the case of Cardinal Pell, the most outspoken defender of the unborn in Australia, who has long suffered ridicule for his efforts to protect families by repealing Australia’s no-fault divorce laws.
Anti-clericalism has become more widespread, however, since the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation of the early 2000s. Countries with large Catholic minorities (like the United States and Australia) have grown weary of men in Roman collars. In our culture, Catholic priests are held to be guilty unless proven innocent. This was quite literally the case with Cardinal Pell, since there was no evidence to condemn him—only the implausible accusations of a troubled young man. He was condemned because he couldn’t provide real evidence that he didn’t molest those boys 20-odd years ago. Unless he’d installed CCTV in the cathedral’s sacristy back in the Nineties, there was really no chance that court would have allowed His Eminence to walk.
Besides, even if the two judges who upheld the conviction aren’t themselves anti-clericalists, what choice did they have? Cardinal Pell was convicted in the court of public opinion long ago. His life is already ruined. Why should they go down in history as the guys who let a child-molesting bishop off scot-free? Because it’s just? That’s a quaint notion, though not one you’ll find has much truck with the modern legal class.
Were such malicious stereotypes aimed at any other religion, they would, of course, be decried by all right-thinking people as shamelessly bigoted. For instance, back in April, The New York Times ran a grotesque cartoon in its international edition showing a dog with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu leading a blind Donald Trump. The dog is wearing a Star of David on his collar; his owner sports a yarmulke. The Times was castigated and was forced to apologize—quite rightly, too.
Yet I doubt there will be any backlash against The Australian, the country’s leading center-right newspaper, for the equally vile cartoon it published on the day Cardinal Pell’s appeal was rejected. It shows a priest with horns and a goatee hiding in a confessional, which is covered with a massive zipper, as on a pair of men’s trousers. It’s true: anti-Catholicism really is the last acceptable prejudice.
Why is that? Because, in places like Boston and Melbourne, the nominally Catholic population is largely that: nominal. Leftists who pay lip service to the Faith will nonetheless argue that the Church needs to “get with the times” on gay marriage, women’s ordination, and the like. These pseudo-Catholics give their comrades on the Left permission to criticize “their” religion in a way that would otherwise be dismissed as Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, etc.
These token Catholics always recall a sainted grandmother whose memory still gives them a kind of nostalgic affection for the Church. Invariably, she’s some illiterate Polish peasant woman, forever clutching her rosary and pleading with St. Joseph to get her good-for-nothing brother off the bottle. Because they don’t hate Babcia (even though she was a superstitious, homophobic tool of the international patriarchy) they feel they can hate Catholic dogma, Catholic ritual, the Catholic clergy, and virtually all practicing Catholics—all without thinking of themselves as anti-Catholic bigots. Besides, they like Joe Biden. He’s a Catholic, isn’t he?
Louise Milligan, Cardinal Pell’s principal tormentor in the Aussie media, fits this “Catholic anti-Catholic” bill like a glove. Take these excerpts from an April interviewwith the Financial Times:
She comes from an Irish family so Catholic that her grandmother refused to attend the wedding of one of her 11 children because it wasn’t held in a church. When Milligan meets women her own age who were assaulted by nuns or priests, she thinks “that could have been me”…
Milligan doesn’t pretend to be dispassionate. She carries the anger of the church’s victims like a war wound. “I was brought up a really strict Catholic and I did communion at the same time as [abuse victim] Julie Stewart,” she says. “Her first communion photograph looked like my first communion photograph. There but for the grace of a deity that I no longer follow any more go I.”
Nothing to see here, folks. Just a perfectly normal Catholic schoolgirl.
A certain portion of the blame must also fall on us: faithful Catholics in the media. Too often, in our rush to identify wicked priests, we forget our duty to defend the good ones. This became obvious as lists of “credibly accused priests” came to be accepted as incontrovertible proof of guilt. Today, many well-meaning and devout Catholic reporters contribute to the culture of mistrust that’s causing serious harm to the priesthood. Even if we reject the pedophile-priest stereotype, we don’t do enough to refute it.
Yet we have as much a duty to protect the George Pells as we do to condemn the Theodore McCarricks. The former may even take on a special significance, precisely because no secular outlet will risk their own hides demanding a fair trial for an elderly Catholic priest who stands wrongly accused of heinous crimes against children. Going forward, Catholic journalists must do much more to protect our reverend fathers from these malign stereotypes. We must ensure that due process is observed and their innocence presumed. We owe them that much.
We also owe it to our own friends and families, whose own faith in the holy priesthood itself may be corrupted by anti-clericalist rhetoric. We owe it to our sons—some of whom will become priests themselves, and who will suffer grievously at the hands of the priest-hunters. We owe it to all the young men who refuse to accept their vocation to the priesthood, fearing legal and systemic persecution—not wrongly, either.
Last but not least, we must do it for ourselves. Australia is using the Pell scandal to force our clergy to violate the Seal of the Confessional if, while hearing the confession of a fellow priest, the priest confessing admits to assaulting children. Remember that Catholics in California barely dodged a similar piece of legislation just last June.
They’ve come for the bishops, and now they’re coming for the priests. Who comes after the priests? Why, the laity, of course—me. You.
Editor’s note: the dates in this article have been corrected.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis magazine and host of The Crisis Point podcast.