My personal thoughts on Cardinal Pell’s conviction
From what I can tell, this is the crime for which George Cardinal Pell was convicted: in the mid-1990s, two choir boys (nicknamed ‘the Choirboy’ and ‘the Kid’ by the media) somehow broke into the Cardinal’s locked sacristy immediately after a Sunday Mass, looking for a tipple of Communion wine. They found some, which is itself extraordinary, given that the unconsecrated wine was stored in a safe in a separate room. Pell, foregoing his usual habit of greeting the faithful outside the Cathedral, came back to unvest and found the boys. His sacristan, altar servers and concelebrating priests were all mysteriously absent. None of those present can recall the boys’ absence – or, indeed, anything to suggest that Pell is an abuser.
Immediately seizing the opportunity, and with reckless indifference to the altar party’s imminent return, he lifted up his alb (a floor-length tunic) and chasuble (a floor-length poncho) and undid his belt and zipper. With his pants around his ankles, Pell then waddled over to one of the boys, grabbed him by the head, and forced him to perform oral sex. The Cardinal then repeats this feat with the other boy. Remember, he’s meant to be doing it all with one hand, since he has to keep his alb and chasuble out of the way. At one point, Pell is supposed to have held up the vestments, masturbated himself, and fondled one of the boys simultaneously.
The boys then allegedly ‘rejoined the procession’. That would seem to explain why the altar party was absent: the liturgy hadn’t concluded. In fact, it makes the Kid’s story even more convoluted. At the conclusion of the Mass, the officiant – in this case, Pell – gives the final blessing. Then he and the altar party immediately process to the exit. That means (A) nobody noticed Cardinal Pell abruptly break off from the line and disappear into the back of the Cathedral, and (B) the entire ‘attack’ took place in less time than is needed to walk the length of St Patrick’s.
As evidence of the deep psychological trauma, the Choirboy’s mother recalls that he lost interest in choir and became disruptive in school around the time the assault was supposed to have occurred: when he was about 14. But what if he was simply in the full throes of puberty and didn’t want to spend four nights a week in church? Likewise, she says the Kid got tired of singing after his voice broke. Yet most boy sopranos’ careers end when ‘that time in every man’s life’ comes. They can’t hit those clear, high notes; their voices become fragile and ungainly. That’s evidence of nothing except nature taking its course.
The Choirboy died of an overdose in 2014 after denying that he was abused. His mother says the Kid is also ‘struggling’, possibly with drugs. That could be due to the abuse they allegedly suffered; it could also be because Australia has long been plagued by a hard drug epidemic. The Choirboy’s sister says his supposed abuse ‘helps to explain a lot of incidents in his life,’ which is certainly what I would prefer to believe if he were my brother.
Australians, I believe, must ask themselves: would Pell have been convicted on this testimony if he wasn’t a Catholic priest? If a leading imam’s lawyer so badly, in my opinion, bungled his defence – advising him against taking the stand and later brushing off the allegations in court as ‘plain vanilla’ rape of a minor – would the public not show more sympathy, or even demand a retrial? I understand that the jury may have heard evidence to which the public isn’t privy. But if the highest-ranking rabbi in the country was found guilty of such a heinous crime, and all we had to go on were the initial (specious) allegations, would we not demand to know why he was condemned? If there is some hard proof – a witness, a semen-stained cassock, CCTV footage – why would the court keep it a secret? Whatever you believe about the Church, and whatever your misgivings about Pell himself, does it sound to you like justice has been served?
From the day the McCarrick scandal broke, I’ve been reporting on the sex abuse crisis. For months on end I did little else – 16 hours a day, seven days a week. You might suspect that the corruption in the Vatican runs deep; I know for a fact that it does. Like you, I want to drag every single abuser and enabler out of the shadows and force them to face their crimes. But if we’re to have serious reform, we can’t treat mere accusations as proof of guilt, if that is what occurred here. Surely due process must be observed, and innocence presumed? Anything less is a witch-hunt – or, should I say, a priest-hunt.
Pell’s cause is an unpopular one, to say the least. Our taste-makers decided to destroy this man long ago. But, if his conviction goes uncontested, who will be next? Who else will be condemned in the eyes of law without forensic evidence or corroborating witnesses? Who else will be imprisoned because he fails to conform to fashionable opinion? Me, perhaps. Or you. Mark my words: if the third-most senior prelate in the Roman Catholic Church isn’t safe, we don’t stand a chance. This, in my opinion, is a fight for Australians’ basic civil liberties. I personally believe that, if Cardinal Pell’s conviction isn’t overturned, we’ve already lost.
Michael Warren Davis is an Associate Editor at the Catholic Herald.