But assuming that a canonical court could receive all the evidence and access it needs, Pell’s supporters and legal scholars may have as many concerns about the justice of a canonical process as they do about the criminal proceeding in Victoria.
In the ordinary mechanism, Pell’s trial – like that of any bishop - would be handled by a panel of three or five judges, usually cardinals or archbishops, specially selected by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, under the authorization of the pope.
These judges are normally chosen for their legal expertise and judicial experience and the trial is conducted independent from the ordinary business of the CDF. But, whatever conclusion the deliberations of such a panel might reach in Pell’s case, it would unlikely be the final word.
Pope Francis has in the past exercised his prerogative to judge high-profile cases himself, and, given Pell’s stature and the significance of any possible outcome, he may find it impossible to delegate a final decision in the matter.
If the case arrives on the papal desk, Francis would likely find himself receiving advice that is as much diplomatic as legal.
While the CDF’s legal process can be set up to resist outside pressures, many in the Secretariat of State view Pell’s situation as a potential diplomatic crisis to be resolved.
If a Vatican court were to acquit Pell of the charges on which he was convicted, it would be perceived by many as an indictment of the Australian justice system and a tacit acknowledgment of charges that Pell is imprisoned by anti-Catholic sentiment.
The resulting diplomatic fallout could well fuel calls by international leaders to end the Holy See’s sovereign status under international law.
On the other hand, if Pell were canonically convicted, those in the Church who believe the cardinal’s Australian trial was fundamentally unjust might conclude that the Church no longer really has an independent legal system, and that bishops and priests the world over should not look to Rome for a fair hearing.
That outcome could lead to dissension among an already embattled global episcopate.
Diplomatic considerations to one side, Pell, in particular, may already have reasons for concern.
(Story continues below)
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As prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell was openly loathed by many of the other curial leaders.
The Australian cardinal’s efforts to deliver financial transparency and accountability to the curia in the first years of the Francis pontificate met with internal Curial resistance – in one famous incident, the Secretariat of State maneuvered without Pell’s knowledge to cancel an announced independent audit. Since his return to Australia, Pell’s reforms have largely been reversed by those who would take the closest interest in his case in Rome.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s increasingly omnipotent Secretary of State, has been known for years to “check in” on CDF cases which he considers to be of wider importance to the Holy See. Canonists charged with handling the administration of justice have long complained about “pressure” being applied from across St. Peter’s square.
One high-ranking Churchman in Rome familiar with several Vatican trials told CNA that Parolin’s attempts to involve himself in cases have been extensive.
“When [the CDF] was told to basically stop talking to State, [Parolin] started calling nuncios to monitor correspondence between the Congregation and places where cases were in progress. It was a serious problem.”
As the pope’s chief advisor on nearly all aspects of Church governance, Parolin’s advice could prove decisive in any decision the pope makes on Pell.