Australia: The High Court and Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell

Religions for Peace Australia has not taken one side nor the other about the legal processes Cardinal George Pell has been involved. Visitors to this website will be aware that we took a multifaith approach to the Royal Commission and covered the progress and investigations of the Royal Commission into all religions. We have 105 articles on the Royal Commission from a multifaith perspective on this website.

The Chair of Religions for Peace Australia, Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill presented evidence on the impact of clerical culture to the Royal Commission itself and as part of World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2018, gave an appraisal on Clerical Culture, Religious Organisations and the Royal Commission Report.

Prof. Cahill also presented “And What Would God Think, Rebuilding Pastoral Health and Integrity after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse” to the Health and Integrity Conference conducted by the major religious orders and clerical groups in Melbourne. At present Prof. Cahill is working on a book on the Theology of the Child. We take no side on the decision of the High Court of Australia regarding Cardinal Pell. In this article, we share the observations of the ABC’s Religious Affairs reporter, Noel Debien.

“I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.”

Cardinal Pell’s words on Tuesday, from his press statement. Words touching upon a world of pain reaching across generations of Australians. Conscious of lives forever changed. Aware of lives damaged. Knowing lives had been destroyed by clerical sexual abuse and cover-up. But also, aware the Highest court in the land has quashed his conviction.

The Pell matter has had a visceral quality about it. Whatever the High Court had decided, someone would be anxious and hurt. What of the prisoner? What of the alleged victim who told his story?

We know there is a genuine need to listen to victims and to hear their stories. But the Pell case has also become a focus for the suffering of so many people who identify their own personal experiences and feelings with the Cardinal and his public role.

The High Court quashed the verdict, though it had a number of ways it could have responded.

It did not decide to instruct the Appeal Court judges to reconsider the evidence. It did not decide to order a retrial. It quashed the verdict. And that is a very clear result.

A public lightning rod

Parts of social media have exploded with outrage at the verdict, but this is the highest court in the land. It is a unanimous verdict. After 405 days in custody.

In psychology, there is a thing called “transference”. It is a process where a person redirects some of their feelings or desires for another person to an entirely different person. It’s not intentional, it’s just a thing that happens sometimes.

There are elements of transference in the public discussion around Cardinal Pell and this case. Whatever you may think of him, he has become a lightning rod for the deep hurt and anger surrounding clerical sexual abuse.

Yes, he is the cardinal. Yes, he was Australia’s most powerful Catholic cleric. Yes, he had responsibility for dealing with sexual abuse. And yes, the Court says he is innocent of these charges.

Back when the Cardinal was sent to jail, there was shock and anguish among those who believed in his innocence. Tears were shed. Such people were accused of being unable to admit the facts. They went quiet for the most part — telling me they were afraid of the public mood.

Public mood is a complex beast. But it is also one of the keys to putting this whole matter in some perspective.

I saw anger about the Vatican not “defrocking” the Cardinal. People were angry he had not been laicised. The Vatican said it would wait until the legal processes had concluded before it would consider its next move.

Even as a prisoner, George Pell remained a Cardinal elector, who has the right to elect the next pope. That continues until his 80th birthday on June 8, 2021. Should a papal election be needed before his birthday, he will have the right to vote.

He may also be invited to take on other roles within the church of Rome, or elsewhere. Repairing the reputational damage he has suffered will be hard, but he has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
A warning for us all

I reckon one of the hardest things of all in this process has been any attempt to remain impartial, and to listen simply to evidence.

Media reporting of his two trials had been suppressed. But since his (now quashed) conviction, significant parts of the media appeared to be prosecuting a case against the Cardinal. Other parts of media stridently defended his innocence, but they were minority voices. The debate over innocent or guilty was dismissed as an extension of the culture wars. Turns out it wasn’t.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. Among many Christians, it is remembered as the day when Christ entered Jerusalem and was acclaimed as a king by the crowds. These same crowds would turn on him later in the week and call for his death.

That Palm Sunday story cautions Christians about how behaviour in groups of people can change — suddenly and threateningly. It is taken as a warning about how we ourselves can behave. It is a warning about impartiality. And justice

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Cardinal Pell in a media throng as he enters court, Melbourne
Cardinal Pell in a media throng as he enters court, Melbourne


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