More concretely, priests and bishops, especially those from countries with disreputable justice systems or well-known anti-Catholicism, could find themselves asking what kind of justice they can expect from the Vatican if they should ever be accused of sexual abuse.
In the aftermath of the 2002 sexual abuse crisis in the U.S., many priests expressed concern that their right of due process was being routinely trumped by the desire of American bishops to demonstrate seriousness about all sexual misconduct allegations. If Pell is perceived to have been denied a fair canonical trial at the CDF, the same kind of crisis of confidence could emerge on a global scale, among both bishops and priests.
On the other hand, if Pell is found ‘not guilty’ by a Vatican court that considers the same evidence presented in Victoria, the consequences could be just as dramatic.
If a Vatican court finds in Pell’s favor, some might accept the decision as a just verdict founded on the evidence, or lack thereof. Others might also welcome it as a stand in favor of due process and the autonomy of the Church.
But the outcry from victims and their advocates would be considerable. Catholics are already asking impatient questions about whether the Vatican takes seriously allegations of abuse: a CDF decision that runs counter to an Australian criminal conviction - however controversial - could set back Roman efforts to show how seriously the Church takes the issue of abuse.
If the Australian government faces a domestic uproar, or sees a ‘not guilty’ decision as an implied condemnation of its justice system, it might join with other countries that have begun asking if the Holy See ought to have sovereign status in international law, or even threaten to sever its diplomatic ties. That is no small thing.
Under the seal of the pontifical secret, canon lawyers and Church officials know that priests have been canonically convicted of child sexual abuse on evidence no more compelling than that facing Pell. Still greater is the number of priests who have found themselves made permanently “unassignable” after a single, unsupported accusation.
But Pell’s case, unlike those, will unfold with a global audience, and amid the great series of crises over sexual abuse the Vatican has faced in recent years. The decision in Pell’s canonical trial, no matter what it is, could steer the direction of the crisis-- no verdict will be without consequence.
Canonical judges are exhorted to judge only the facts of the case- but in this case, no matter the outcome, that will be no easy request.