Christian persecution takes many forms. Sometimes it is a knife on a Libyan beach, taking the head of a believer who refuses to repudiate Christ even when threatened with death. Often it is done under the guise of ‘justice’, where those Muslim countries that operate Sharia law allow non-Muslims to be treated as second-class citizens. Increasingly in the West it wears the mask of ‘tolerance’, where those who refuse to comply with secular liberal values are treated as haters and bigots – we see examples of that in Ireland where already the right to free expression and assembly of those with traditional values wishing to protest the evils of abortion are threatened with exclusion zones.
And then there is the treatment of Cardinal George Pell in Australia. There are many strange things about this story – does it all add up to persecution? Let us consider some of the elements of this story which has been the cause of grave misgivings among commentators around the world.
How it all began.
Until recently the media was under court orders not to discuss his trial and conviction for child abuse. This means the details of this long and tangled story are likely forgotten by many – if they ever heard them reported at all. It began in the most bizarre fashion. Most such cases have their origins in a complaint to the authorities by some who alleges they were a victim of the person who ends up on trial. Not in this case. The accusation against Pell was not as a result of someone coming forward, not as the result of a police investigation that uncovered wrong-doing, but as the result of an advertising campaign. A campaign run by the police, inviting anyone who had an accusation to make to come forward.
This might make some sense in the case of a notorious abuser with many previous convictions. But this is a man who had never been convicted of anything. There had once, based on an incident from decades previously, been a single allegation made against him; but it had been found to be baseless. And his behaviour in that instance had been exemplary: not only had he voluntarily stepped aside from ministry and co-operated fully with the investigation; he had refused to sue his accuser thereafter although many thought he had grounds to do so and urged him to do so.
It is a strange kind of investigation that begins with an advertising campaign seeking complaints. And it was run not for a few days or weeks but months – twelve months in total. The strange investigation was coupled with a strange persistence – a determination, it would seem, to find something with which to charge this man.
The Office of Public Prosecutions.
Twelve months, one will note, is a very long time. In all that time there were indeed a small number who came forward to make a complaint against the cardinal. All were rejected by the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) as being unworthy of taking to trial. All including the accusation on the basis of which the cardinal was ultimately convicted. In this we come to the second of our deeply troubling elements of this case.
In Ireland the Gardaí investigate and send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The DPP having examined the evidence presented to them decides whether a prosecution should be mounted, generally on the basis as whether they consider it likely that a conviction could be secured on the evidence contained within the file. In Australia the OPP can recommend a prosecution, in which case a trial will take place; or it can recommend that no prosecution take place in which case the matter is generally left as it is; or they can return the file to the police with no recommendation and it is then essentially up to the police to decide as to whether the matter should be prosecuted.
In this case the file was initially returned to the police by the OPP with a recommendation that it should not be prosecuted. Normally that would have been that. However in this case there was shortly thereafter a leak to the media that the OPP had declined to recommend prosecution. Cardinal Pell had long been unpopular with this branch of the liberal elites – hardly surprising given his firm stance on issues such as LGBT ideology and abortion. A media fire-storm ensued, expressing outrage at the OPP’s stance. Soon after the police sent the file to the OPP again – a strange thing to do given they had not collected, as far as I am aware, any fresh evidence since the previous occasion. This time the OPP returned the file with no recommendation; and the police decided to proceed with a prosecution.
The first trial.
Many may not be aware that the trial which resulted in the cardinal’s conviction was in fact a re-trial. A re-trial was required because at the first trial the jury failed to convict. It has been described as ending in a hung-jury, because the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. And the jury indeed could not agree – but the split was far from even. They had, in fact, voted ten to two to acquit the cardinal.
One might wonder why the judge decided not to accept a majority verdict in this case. We often read of cases where, when the jury cannot agree, the judge decides that unanimity is not required. Commonly one hears of judges directing juries that he will accept a verdict based on a ten to two majority; and in one case reported recently in the Irish media the judge told the jury he would accept a nine-three decision. It seems surprising on the surface, then, that in this case a majority verdict was deemed not to be acceptable.
The judges declaration of a hung-jury, of course, paved the way for the possibility of a re-trial. Which is, as we know, what happened. But one could forgiven for wondering why it was decided to prosecute this trial a second time. After all, based on the evidence presented the OPP had first recommended no prosecution take place; and then when asked again refused to recommend a prosecution; and then, when the case went to trial the jury wished to acquit by ten votes to two. Given that it did indeed go to trial again, it is hard not to wonder if there was some determination that this matter continue until the desired outcome was achieved.
The Second Trial.
The second trial took place under the cover of a media blackout, imposed by the court. No new evidence was brought forward. And yet this time the jury voted to convict unanimously. At this point it is time to consider what exactly what was the evidence that the OPP did not find sufficient to prosecute in the first place, and that one jury found far from compelling, but another thought enough to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a man of previously unblemished reputation was in fact a monster.
It was alleged by a single individual that Cardinal Pell sexually assaulted him and another boy in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in some twenty years earlier. The other alleged victim is now dead, so there was no one to corroborate the allegation. However, it is to be noted that this other boy had prior to his death confirmed to his mother that he had never been abused by anyone, let alone the cardinal.
The claim from this unnamed accuser is that he and the other boy, both choristers in the cathedral, slipped away from the recessional procession one Sunday after Mass and sneaked into the sacristy and started drinking altar wine. Minutes later the then Archbishop Pell appeared, fully vested, and sexually assaulted both of them. Neither of them every mentioned any of this to anyone until, of course, after the police advertising campaign.
It is accepted by a great many commentators that many elements of the accuser’s claims seem unlikely to say the least. First, anyone with any experience of cathedral choirs knows that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for two boys to slip away from a procession unnoticed. It is equally improbable that the cardinal, whose common practice was to process to the cathedral doors after Mass and remain there, could have slipped away. It is alleged the two boys were drinking red altar wine in the sacristy when Pell entered; yet the cathedral only used white wine at the time, and the wine was kept under lock and key in another room. The claim was that the cardinal parted his robes in order to perpetrate the assault; something manifestly impossible when one is vested in a seamless alb secured by a tightly-bound cincture beneath a heavy chasuble. All of this supposedly taking place in a room with the doors open and many people coming and going past. And more than 40 people testified that they saw nothing or that the accuser’s account was not possible.
Many other elements of the accusation fail to stand up to even cursory scrutiny. It is little wonder that the OPP declined to recommend prosecution – twice. And yet it was evidence such as this that George Pell was convicted of a most heinous crime and now languishes in a prison cell awaiting sentence.
Is this justice or persecution?
Why was he convicted? Was the second jury sincerely convinced of his guilt? Or is he being held accountable for the failings of others? A case of any priest will do, however flimsy the evidence, when it comes to punishing the Church for the failings of the hierarchy in this issue. And why was an accusation sought and a prosecution rammed through in the first place? Did someone suspect something? Or did someone just want to bring down someone who had been a thorn in the side of liberal progressives for so long?
Under the circumstance of the known facts it is hard not to suspect that this is not justice but persecution. It is greatly to be hoped that the appeal will do something to correct matters. Until that day, please pray for the cardinal. Guilty or innocent at this time he surely needs them more than ever.