A Tale of Two Cardinals — One Past, One Present

By Father Raymond J. De Souza
National Catholic Register
January 1, 2020

Cardinal George Pell (l) and Theodore McCarrick (r)
Photo by Alexey Gotovskiy

COMMENTARY: The twin cases raise questions about the course of justice, both civil and canonical, and how the two coincide, or come into conflict.

At year-end, two cardinals were confined to quarters, unable to celebrate Holy Mass. The stories of Cardinal George Pell and now Mr. Theodore McCarrick are the dominant Catholic news stories of 2019, at least in the English-speaking world, but with universal implications.

Cardinal Pell is incarcerated in a Melbourne jail, having been sentenced in March to a six-year term after being convicted of sexual assaults in the Melbourne cathedral in 1996. His appeal at Australia’s highest court will be heard in March 2020.

Cardinal McCarrick was laicized in February after being found guilty in a Church trial of sexual abuse of minors, abuse of power and solicitation in the sacrament of confession. He lives in seclusion in a Kansas friary with no public contact. No longer a cleric, McCarrick cannot celebrate Mass or exercise any priestly ministry.

Both situations are astonishing, both in their own ways unprecedented. And both raise questions about the course of justice, both civil and canonical, and how the two coincide, or come into conflict.

Cardinal Pell is widely believed to be innocent but was convicted on charges brought by a police department that launched a “get Pell” operation long before there were any complaints about him. That the cardinal sits in jail, not in China, not in Venezuela, but in Australia, demonstrates a chilling new reality: Sexual-abuse allegations, even those totally uncorroborated and fantastic, can be weaponized to persecute Catholic figures who run afoul of a new intolerant secularist extremism.

The failings of justice in the Australian state of Victoria during Cardinal Pell’s prosecution have been well documented. At year’s end, a royal commission into massive corruption within the Victoria police has shown that the police used the Cardinal Pell case to distract from their own scandals. This police corruption in Victoria means that an innocent man is in jail.

Despite the circumstances, Cardinal Pell remains there awaiting a decision of his final appeal. Meanwhile, the Australian bishops and the Vatican express their respect for the Australian justice system. Those boilerplate statements will be tested in 2020.

Regardless of what the Australian high court rules, a canonical investigation will have to be conducted. After all, conviction by a court, upheld on appeal, would qualify for the “credible accusation” standard that requires abuse allegations to be investigated by a canonical procedure. For bishops and cardinals, that means by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).


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