Australian bishops respond to Pell verdict

Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court on Feb 27 2019 Credit Michael DodgeGetty Images  Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court on Feb. 27, 2019. | Michael Dodge/Getty Images.

Following news of Cardinal George Pell's conviction of sexual abuse of minors, several bishops in Australia have have said they are committed to truth and justice, while declining to comment on Pell's appeal until it has concluded.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney warned Catholics against being "too quick to judge" the situation, in a homily at Sydney's St. Mary's Basilica on March 3.

The archbishop said that Catholics across the country have been shaken, upset and demoralized by news of Pell's conviction.

While stressing the damage that abuse can cause to victims and the Church's credibility, Fisher said he would not discuss the substance of the charges or verdict.

"The legal process regarding the cardinal is not yet complete, and so I will not comment on it," he said.

"I urge people not to draw any final conclusions until the appeal judges have had their chance to review this matter. Amidst the heated emotions of the present, I also pray for public calm and civility."

Fisher noted that "some have raised serious questions for the appellate court to examine," adding, "If we are too quick to judge, we can end up joining the demonisers or the apologists, those baying for blood or those in denial. Our readings remind us that things are not always what they seem; that we must look beneath the surface and allow truth and justice to unfold in God's good time."

The archbishop reiterated his sorrow for all who have suffered abuse by clergy, as well as his commitment to pursuing the truth in abuse claims and preventing abuse moving forward.

Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a Melbourne court on five charges of sexual abuse of minors, stemming from charges that he sexually assaulted two former members of the Melbourne cathedral choir. A media gag imposed by the court ahead of that trial was lifted Feb. 26.

The cardinal is appealing his conviction. He faces of maximum sentence of 50 years in prison.

A number of bishops have voiced surprise at the verdict, which came at the end of a five-week retrial, after a jury in an earlier trial failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

In a March 2 pastoral letter, Archbishop Costelloe of Perth also said that he did not want to comment on Pell's conviction or appeal until the legal process was complete.

"I have come to the firm conviction that in order not to inflame the situation and be seen as trying to prejudice the outcome of the appeal process I should not make any comments on Cardinal Pell's situation until the legal processes are completed," he said.

Rather than granting media interviews at this time, the archbishop said he believes it is more appropriate for him to support the people of his archdiocese. He called on Catholics to keep Christ at the center of their response to any reports of sexual abuse.

"Our first response to the present awful situation must therefore be, without pre-empting the outcome of the appeal against this criminal conviction which Cardinal Pell's lawyers have lodged on his behalf, to stand by all the victims and survivors of sexual abuse by representatives of the Church."

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, also issued a statement, saying news of the conviction "has shocked many across Australia and around the world."

"The Bishops agree that everyone should be equal under the law, and we respect the Australian legal system," he said. "The same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the Cardinal's legal team has lodged. Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served."

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Archbishop Coleridge said the nation's bishops will continue to "pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable."

Other figures have been more outspoken in criticism of the guilty verdict.

Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, suggested that the justice process was tainted by media and police forces that had worked "to blacken the name" of Pell "before he went to trial."

"This is not a story about whether a jury got it right or wrong, or about whether justice is seen to prevail," Craven said in a Feb. 27 article in The Australian. "It's a story about whether a jury was ever given a fair chance to make a decision, and whether our justice system can be heard above a media mob."

George Weigel, John Paul II biographer and Catholic author, denounced what he called a "tawdry" legal process driven by "public hysteria, political vendetta, and media aggression."

In a Feb. 27 column in First Things, Weigel defended Pell, with whom he has been friends for more than 50 years, saying that "Something is very, very wrong" in how the cardinal's case has been handled.

He reiterated criticism he raised in an earlier piece in the National Review, in which he blasted the case against Pell as being highly implausible. He said that the Victoria police had begun an investigation against Pell a year before complaints had been filed, asking for allegations against him without having any reports of misconduct, and he noted reports that a jury voted 10-2 to acquit Pell before it deadlocked and a second trial began.

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The case against Pell, Weigel said, was based on several improbable claims, including the unexplained absence of a master of ceremonies, altar servers, concelebrating priests and sacristan from the sacristy after Mass when the abuse was alleged to have occurred.

"Before the trial, one of the complainants died, having told his mother that he had never been assaulted," he said in the National Review. "During the trial, there was no corroboration of the surviving complainant's charges."

In his First Things piece, Weigel noted that as a Vatican diplomat and citizen, Pell had the option to remain "in the extraterritorial safety of the Vatican enclave, untouchable by the Australian authorities." The cardinal chose to return home in order to defend both his honor and "his decades of work rebuilding the Catholic Church in Australia," he said.

"No one doubts that the Catholic Church in Australia was terribly negligent in dealing with clerical sexual abuse for decades," Weigel said, pointing to Pell as "the man who turned that pattern of denial and cover-up around."

"If Pell is made the scapegoat for the very failures he worked hard to correct, the gravest question must be raised about Australian public opinion's capacity for reason and elementary fairness," Weigel said, "and about the blood lust of an aggressively secular media, determined to settle political and ecclesiastical scores with one of the country's most internationally prominent citizens, who dared to challenge 'progressive' shibboleths on everything ranging from the interpretation of Vatican II to abortion, climate change, and the war against jihadism."

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