Is Cardinal Pell Guilty? Some Believe That How a Catholic Answers Signals Virtue or Vice

By Terry Mattingly
Get Religion blog
August 26, 2019

If you say “yes,” is that answer a form of virtue signaling during the ongoing hell of the multi-decade Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis?

If you answer “no,” does that mean that you aren’t taking the crisis seriously and that you want bishops and priests to be able to escape justice?

If you answer “yes,” are you a loving pro-Pope Francis progressive?

If you answer “no,” does that mean that you are a hateful traditionalist who is on the wrong side of history on this issue and many others?

What if you say that you are worried about the quality of the evidence and that you are worried that public officials in Austrailia have listened to an anti-clerical mob and rushed to judgement? If you are hard questions about the evidence — like a good skeptic or journalist would — does that mean you are a hater and don’t care about the victims?

It’s somewhat unusual to run a think piece on Monday, but I really think that readers — especially journalists — will want to read the short Crux essay that ran the other day with this headline: “Ruling cements Pell’s profile as the Dreyfus or Hiss of the Catholic abuse crisis.” The author, of course, is John L. Allen, Jr.

Allen uses a genuinely scary metaphor — if you know your European history — to describe this case. Here is the key, thesis passage, after Pell’s recent appeal was rejected:

Though Pell’s judicial odyssey may not be over, [the] ruling likely does represent the final word on another aspect of the case: George Pell is now officially the Alfred Dreyfus of the Catholic abuse crisis, meaning that opinions about his guilt or innocence are at least as much a reflection of one’s ideological convictions as about the actual evidence in the case.

Dreyfus, of course, was the French artillery officer of Jewish descent charged with treason in 1894 for allegedly passing military secrets to the Germans, spending five years on Devil’s Island. Dreyfus was eventually acquitted and reinstated to his army position, but for more than a decade, opinions about his guilt or innocence functioned as a bellwether for broader political and cultural tensions, pitting Catholic and traditionalist “anti-Dreyfusards” against pro-Republican and anti-clerical liberals.

One could, by the way, just as easily compare Pell to Alger Hiss, the urbane American diplomat accused in 1948 of being a Soviet spy. Like Pell, Hiss was tried twice, with the first ending in a hung jury and the second resulting in a conviction. In that case, too, opinions for a long time were far more about the clash between hawks and doves during the Cold War than the facts.

Similarly, opinions about Pell today often reveal far more about the prejudices of the observer than about the actual reality of what happened.

As I stated, many assume that Pell is guilty because he is a powerful Catholic leader and powerful Catholic leaders have been getting away with unspeakable crimes for several decades now. They believe it’s time for Pope Francis to kick Pell out of the College of Cardinals and even the priesthood.

What about the people who defend him? These are the people who, as a rule, want to talk about the evidence in the case.

This group believes that the evidence in Pell’s case is basically incredible. They find the idea that an archbishop during a high Sunday Mass in his own cathedral could break away alone from a procession, enter a highly trafficked sacristy and abuse two young choir members without being seen by anyone and despite wearing liturgical vestments that would render the physical acts involved almost impossible, then reemerge and greet worshippers outside as if nothing had happened, so unbelievable as to be almost surreal.

For that group, the fact that Pell was ever charged, let alone tried and convicted, speaks far more to a lynch-mob attitude in Australia than it does about the credibility of the accusation.

Want to talk about gossip in the shadows?

Check out this stunning final passage, which is soaked in Vatican acid:

… Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni repeated the Holy See’s respect for the Australian justice system while adding that Pell “has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”

What the statement didn’t say, but is very much part of the subtext, is that there are important people on the pope’s team who may have little use for George Pell politically or personally, but they don’t believe he’s guilty of these charges either.

Read it all. Ruling cements Pell’s profile as the Dreyfus or Hiss of the Catholic abuse crisisAnd think about the implications.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.